Monday, 21 February 2011

How to keep it together when the marriage goes long-distance

By John F. Kelly

The Washington Post

February 20, 2011

It's been almost two months since My Lovely Wife did what so many of our forebears did: Chasing employment, she picked up and moved. Of course, she did it in reverse, moving from the New Country to the Old Country.

That's made us a bi-continental couple, with her living in The Hague and me living in The Silver Spring. As I suspected when I wrote about this last month, we're not alone.

I heard from dozens of Washington area couples who, because of work, school or the military, live separately now or once did. They had plenty of advice on How to Make It Work (plus plenty of recipes so that I, a suddenly single father, can keep a teenage daughter from starving).

For 30 years, Henriette Lund and her late husband, Jorgen Mejer, kept separate households, she in Washington, he in Copenhagen. They were both college professors, and though Jorgen, a classical philologist, worked like crazy to find a job at a U.S. university, he wasn't able to.

"How did we keep together?" Henriette said. "You really have to be willing, and you have got to get in touch constantly."

They racked up $400 phone bills in those pre-VoIP days. They recorded cassettes to send to each other. Jorgen came to Washington twice a year for extended visits.

"In the first years, it was like I didn't even know him," she said. "What is he doing here? What I discovered was, little by little, you have to make your own little world."

Then there was the odd way he seemed to age. When you see someone every day, you miss the subtle changes. Since she saw him only twice a year, Jorgen seemed to age more dramatically - and Henriette must have, too.

Jorgen oversaw an effort to translate all of Plato into Danish. The day he died last year - of complications from diabetes - he had just received the first installment in the series.

Dutchman Rob van den Berg has the mirror image to our situation. He wrote: "I came over to Washington six years ago from The Hague, and my husband has been back and forth but has for the last three years followed his career in The Hague. In our case this is less disastrous (or healthy?) for our waist, because as a happily married gay couple, we both know how to cook, so we can take care of ourselves."

A reader named Elizabeth insisted that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. She and her husband find that they want to spend more time together when they get together. "For instance, my partner hates shopping. However, because I need to do it when he is here, he goes with me because he wants to be with me. That is love!"

She added: "There appears to be more zing in the relationship, too!"

More "zing"? Whatever could THAT mean?

Shirley Connuck of Falls Church has been separated from her husband three times over the course of their marriage. Phone calls were important, but costly. She has vivid memories of her then-5-year-old son going into great detail about some of the fauna he had just read about in one of his books. She wrote: "All I could think was, 'It's costing $4 per minute for my husband to hear repeatedly about poison dart frogs.' "

Phil Kelly wondered - tongue in cheek, I think - why I couldn't move to The Hague and keep writing my column. "As others at The Post pound into us almost daily, there's virtually no job that can't be done adequately from in front of a computer screen in your bathrobe and slippers. . . . You should be able to keep up with all the local ins and outs from across the ocean via the Web. No need to actually meet flesh-and-blood people or even talk to them. Just exchange e-mail, texts, tweets and YouTube videos, and you're covered."

Finally, a cautionary tale from a reader in Virginia. "Thirty years ago, I told my late husband I would go to Germany for a better job," she wrote. "He said I could go, but he was not sure he would still be there waiting for my return. I gave up on the move. I wanted to save our marriage. Life was never predictable. We were close, but we went through a divorce. I remarried happily."

Her survival advice? Lots of takeout. "The rest: Leave it to the wind."

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