Dear Mentor: Commuter Marriage?

Dear Mentor,

I have been offered a teaching position at a college in a small town that would involve commuting a plane ride away. If I take the position, I think it would be for at least the next couple of years as my husband is in the middle of his PhD and is not able to transfer his work. I'm wondering if any of your mentors have had experience with a commuter marriage and what advice they would have.

from an anonymous guest mentor in the humanities:

I was in a similar situation: offered a position before my husband (then fiancé) was finished with his PhD and able to move, we prayed and discussed and finally went for it, living apart for two years (one year engaged, one year married). Neither of us regrets the decision. I can’t speak universally, of course, but I do have some advice: 
  1. Be picky about with whom you discuss the situation. The personal/professional dilemma is a landmine, especially for women, and many people have made a big emotional investment in one side or another. This means that often a discussion about what’s “best” — even with a sincere Christian — can easily become tense and unproductive if it becomes clear to your stay-at-home-mom friend that you’re considering long-distance so you can pursue your career or vice versa. In my own experience, I found that the best discussion partners were over 70 years old. I think this is because older people have the benefit of decades of perspective to keep them from demonizing one option or the other, and because they are often past the phase in their own lives when they’re confronted with these dilemmas.
  2. Know yourself. Like many academics, my husband and I are highly independent and relatively introverted. We each enjoy being on our own for long stretches of time and find a lot of satisfaction in our work. We also married during the long distance phase, in our late 20s and early 30s. In our case, the two years apart turned out not only to be bearable; we both feel we were able to “ease in” to married life, learning more about each other at a distance and moving forward at a pace that may even have been better than diving right in, without either of us feeling that our careers had been wrenched away. What’s your personality? Are you happy sitting by yourself with a book in the evenings, or would you be miserable?  
  3. Order your loves. More abstractly, as a Christian I found it helpful to revisit my heart and make sure that my loves didn’t become disordered as life seemed to force me to decide between my husband and my career. I reminded myself that my first love should not be either my career or my husband, but God. Was I considering first how to honor God, no matter what my colleagues or girlfriends said? Next, I knew that my husband was more important than my career, even though it might still be right to live away from him for a while. The question was, was I willing to place my marriage above my desire for academic prestige? Would I be willing to take a less prestigious job down the line if I needed to do that for our marriage?  
In the end, after two years apart, I did take a less prestigious job so that we could be together...and I don’t regret that, either.  Possibly, if I’d taken this turn two years earlier I’d just be telling a different, equally joyful, story.  I think that often in these situations God isn’t waiting to see if you make the “right” decision and planning to abandon you if you make the “wrong” one; He’ll follow you down either road.  

from an anonymous guest mentor in the humanities and business:

“I’m a horrible wife!” I cried, my sobs interrupted by coughing fits and energetic interludes of nose-blowing. Viewing the scene helplessly from the other side of FaceTime, my husband did his best to reassure me that I was not, in fact, a horrible wife, that we had made this career decision prayerfully and together, and that it was all going to be okay.

I was three days into my new position, working in an unfamiliar city, staying in a hotel, navigating a complex role and organization while far away from home, and I was sick. It was not a promising start.

As I lay in bed later that night, I was painfully aware that I was not managing this transition as well as I had hoped that I would. But the sun came up the next day, the antibiotics kicked in, and my husband and I, with a large dose of God’s grace, embarked on the commuter phase of our marriage. Here are some tips that we found helpful:

  1. Communicate early and often. Before you decide whether to take the position, devote significant time to evaluating how (and how well) you and your husband communicate. Think and pray about this topic alone and discuss it together — at length — before making your decision. Physical absence will magnify any communication issues that you currently experience as a couple, so if you have significant challenges now, I would encourage you to think and pray very carefully about whether a position far from home is a wise choice for your marriage. Even if you have great communication dynamics right now, remember that each of you will have to put forth extra effort and time to stay well connected to each other while on the road.

    For us, this played out very practically in daily video chats, or even just having FaceTime on in the background so that we could chat as we went about our respective evenings — me in my hotel room and my husband in our living room, much as we did when we were both at home. We also both used the same devotional guide during our time away. It was interesting to see how the Lord spoke to each of us in very specific ways though the same readings and reflections.
  2. Plan time together. When will you see each other? How often? Where? As the one who was doing the leaving, having clear plans as to when we would spend time together upon my return helped ease my anxieties and gave me something to look forward to. We were fortunate in that I was only commuting during the week, and so our times apart were not that long. We also found it helpful for my husband to come visit me on occasion in the city in which I worked. This helped him visualize what my day-to-day looked like when was out of town, and helped with an overall sense of connection. If you will have extended periods away, planning times together in advance will become all the more important.
  3. Develop community in the city where you work. This is something that I did not do while I was commuting, and in retrospect, I wish that I had. Seek out a good church in the city where you will be working. Join a small group or find a mid-week service to attend, and ask the Lord to provide folks who can pray for you and your husband, and opportunities for fellowship and service. Encourage your husband to seek the same type of spiritual support from a small group in your home church.
  4. Have a trump card. Long before I went on the road, my husband and I had made an agreement when it came to our marriage and our respective careers. We are both driven people and know that this tendency could spell trouble for our marriage if not actively monitored. The trump card is this: if, at any point, one of us feels that our marriage is suffering due to the career of the other person, then that person is under an obligation to bring it to the spouse’s attention and to raise the question of whether it’s time for a new role.

    This may sound a bit heavy-handed, but in reality it is quite the opposite: our marriage is a covenant that we made before God, and we must deal with threats to our marriage covenant very seriously. Each of us has had to play this card with the other at various times in our respective careers (though, ironically, not for the position that took me on the road), and God has faithfully opened up new doors for us professionally whenever we have sought to honor our marriage covenant by dialing back on our careers.

It would be many months, years even, before we both came to realize just how critically important my time on the road had proven to be — in our spiritual lives, in our marriage, and in our careers. For us, it was the wise choice for a particular season of our lives, but it is certainly not the wise choice for everyone. May God bless you and your husband as you seek God’s will regarding your decision.

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