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work-life balance

Commuter marriages take one spouse away for work, but some say the financial tradeoffs are worth it.

When Maria Echevarria was considering a job offer as a publicist in midtown Manhattan – more than 1440 kilometres away from her family home in Orlando, Florida – she knew it would be a hard sell to her spouse.

Though they'd been happily married more than 20 years, they'd never lived apart. But like any PR professional, she says: "I pitched my story to him."

Three months turned into three years, with Ms. Echevarria, now 53, spending three weeks a month in New York, and telecommuting the remaining time from Florida. She's one of the many millions of people in a commuter marriage, where spouses live apart for reasons other than legal separation.

"There have always been commuter marriages, since sailors went away to sea," says Tina B. Tessina, a therapist in Long Beach, California and author of The Commuter Marriage: Keep Your Relationship Close While You're Far Apart. "But in my practice, I'm seeing more and more, prompted by people traveling to get jobs in a tight economy."

Last year, 3.5 million couples 18 and older were part of a commuter marriage, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's current population survey.

That's up about 17 per cent from 2001, when 3 million couples did it; the number stood at 2.7 million in 2000. What this means for the couples is spending more on travel and housing – as in thousands of dollars more – to come out financially ahead, in part because of the current economy and job market. The Great Recession has forced workers to broaden the geographic boundaries of their job hunt, while selling a home to relocate has become much harder since the real estate downturn.

In the typical commuter marriage, one spouse will rent an apartment in the city where they work, while the other holds down the home front, whether that is an owned or rented property. Airfare also figures in, between the commuting spouse flying back and forth, and the non-commuting spouse making special visits to the commuting city. Ms. Echeverria's husband, for example, comes to New York every few months on business, tweaking his schedule so he can see his wife more often.

Ms. Echevarria says that between her flights to Florida and her husband's trips to New York, they spend more than $500 a month extra. Does she come out ahead financially working in New York? "Absolutely," she says. "And the way I'm treated at work makes my life a lot easier."

"People are looking for creative solutions to live the lifestyles they want to live," says Julie Murphy Casserly, a Chicago-based wealth manager. But she warns that commuter couples also get financial tradeoffs: "the double utilities, the double rent, the double cars and the double everything else." Couples also have to pay state taxes twice, as non-residents in the state where a spouse works, and residents in the state they legally call home.

And, she adds, in some cases, it's a smokescreen that gives one spouse an excuse to live apart from another, using the pretense of work for the arrangement.

While there are no statistics that reflect an increased divorce rate among those in commuter marriages, the stresses are palpable and couples have to get resourceful. "Skyping is not a full substitute, but at least it's a substitute on some level," says Leigh Cummings, a partner at Warner, Bates & McGough, a family law firm based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Communication is essential to making commuter marriages work, she adds. Because time together becomes such a precious commodity, she recommends commuter couples use extra income to hire as much domestic help as possible, so that they have more time with each other (and less to snipe about regarding domestic duties when they get together).

There are also ways to minimize costs – sometimes with the help of family. Ms. Echevarria spends the week in a rent-controlled apartment in Upper Manhattan that originally belonged to her mother, paying just $286 a month to split it with her brother.

Then there's Adrienne McGarr, who stayed behind in Chicago, Illinois with two toddlers while her husband spent Sundays through Fridays in Boston, Massachusetts as a securities lender. For the two years of that arrangement, her spouse lived in his parents' home in Brookline, Massachusetts.

The couple spent more than $300 a week for flights to and from Boston, and had to get some extra help with childcare. But Ms. McGarr, 34, says they still came out ahead. They bided their time until their Chicago condominium in the city's Wicker Park neighborhood sold last summer. That enabled them to buy a house in the Boston suburbs last August. Ms. McGarr stresses that she and her spouse talked this plan through every step of the way, without much in the way of guesswork.

"It was still definitely difficult: Midwest to East Coast, city to suburbs, and on top of all that I was really pregnant" with a third child, Ms. McGarr says. "But there are 50 kids on our new street and within a few minutes, my kids had brand new best friends. And my husband grew up here; a lot of his best friends were still here. It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be."

For her own part, Ms. Echevarria says she doesn't worry about drifting apart from her partner, because he feels secure in his own skin and she works hard to maintain trust. They have gotten used to their new lifestyle, and approach commuter marriage with an important shared goal: to save towards their retirement goals at an accelerated pace. "Why fix what isn't broken?" she says.