Seven Secrets of Happy Commuter Couples

When I was growing up, I always pictured myself in the “storybook” marriage with my spouse and me coming home from a long day’s work to share stories around the dinner table and relax on the couch. But, like many other American families, our reality turned out very different from this fantasy when I was asked to accept a job promotion which would take me 1,500 miles from my husband.

In 1999, I was working for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., as the Executive Director of one of their subsidiary corporations, MMSI (Mayo Management Services, Inc.). I was happy in my role, but had aspired to serve in a more senior position long-term. When I was asked to consider a role in Mayo’s Phoenix, Arizona, location, I was thrilled professionally, but not certain if or how I could take on the new position since my husband was a professor at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota and would not be able to re-locate to Arizona with me.

I went home and discussed the opportunity with my hubby. We talked about the positive aspects of me taking on this new position-how it was a huge step forward for me professionally, how it would position me for bigger and better things and how it would be great to have a place to stay in Phoenix, since it was our ultimate goal to live there in the future. At the same time, neither of us was excited about the prospect of not being together on a daily basis. Uprooting my husband from his career was just not an option. So, we decided we needed to find a way for me to accept the promotion while my husband remained in the job he loved.

Little did we know at the time that this dilemma would be replayed several more times in our married lives as we began our journey as a “commuter couple” – a couple living apart for long periods of time.

After much discussion and soul searching, I did accept the position in Arizona and ended up commuting 1,500 miles in each direction between there and Minnesota for seven years. Plus, we were a commuter couple for two more years when my husband retired to Arizona from his job in Minnesota. This occurred when I could not join him in Arizona because by then, I was the Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer of the entire Mayo Clinic system-which was a Minnesota based position.

I decided the best way to address the commuter-couple challenge was to use and apply the leadership and management skills I had acquired as a healthcare executive to the situation, creating a list of “Seven Secrets of Happy Commuter Couples” that I learned along the way:

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – Talk with your spouse, your children, other members of the family, friends, your employer, colleagues and employees. It is vital that you share your goals, strategies and challenges for home and work. From the beginning to the end of our commuter-couple odyssey, I had to negotiate with my family and employer about how best to meet all their needs without totally losing my sanity. Open communications about what was working-as well as what was not working-allowed me to make adjustments along the way.

2. Prioritize – Be clear about what is most important to you personally, to your spouse and other loved ones and to your employer. Understand which events are “command performances” (those that cannot be missed) versus “nice to do”. If my employer needed me to stay in Arizona for a weekend event, it was up to me to juggle my calendar and to find ways to adjust my personal obligations. For instance, when my grandchildren were to receive their First Communions, I considered those to be a command performance and did what was necessary to be sure I could attend. I was generally able to work things out, but did have to negotiate a compromise from time to time.

3. Plan – For the best circumstances, the worst circumstances and everything in between and have a backup plan in place. When things were going smoothly, I was able to work in Arizona Monday through Friday and still be home with my husband in Minnesota for the weekend; however, I had backup plans and people I could call upon when unforeseen events occurred. For instance, I was back in Minnesota for a long weekend when a huge blizzard hit the Midwest. I had left our two dogs with the dog sitter at our house in Arizona, but she could not stay with them for the additional days it would take for the snowstorm to end and me to fly back. I needed to implement Plan B, resulting in the dog sitter taking the dogs to a kennel, and me picking them up after work several days later. Not ideal-but it worked. Another time, I had to ask a friend to deal with repairmen when there was a water leak in the Arizona laundry room and I had to be in Minnesota for meetings.

4. Manage Time – I had always been the keeper of our family calendar. Juggling the family, social and work obligations was a challenge when my husband and I were in the same town, but became much more difficult as I was spending big blocks of time flying across the country. I quickly learned that I had to be even more diligent in how I managed and prioritized my own time and the precious time I had with my husband and family. I developed a rolling twelve-month master calendar, on which I penciled in the top priority family and work events months in advance. As soon as I became aware of a meeting or special occasion, it went on the calendar, to only be removed if a higher priority obligation replaced it.

On a daily basis, I tightly controlled my calendar of work and outside activities so that I could maximize my time in the office and on airplanes, while handling other normal daily activities. I had to compress and accomplish five days’ work in four days, and two days of typical weekend activities in one day, in order to make my journey from Minnesota to Arizona productive.

5. Get Help! – After a few months of commuting to Arizona, it was clear that I could not keep doing all the things I had done in the past. So, I looked around at home and at work with a critical eye to see which things only I could do versus what tasks I could delegate or share with others. This led us to hire someone to clean the house and to handle some of our yard work in Minnesota. It also forced me to delegate more work duties to others. I had always thought I was good at delegation, but I quickly learned how to be crystal clear on what only I could do.

6. Don’t Feel Guilty – Because I am a perfectionist, I had to learn to not feel guilty about almost everything. It bothered me that my house in Arizona or apartment in Minnesota was not spotless; that I wasn’t able to attend a friend’s party; and that I wasn’t always absolutely prepared for every meeting and discussion at work. Invariably, there would be an issue or minor crisis at home when I was in Arizona and at work when I was back in Minnesota. I was driving myself crazy until I finally came to terms with the fact that I did not have to singlehandedly resolve every problem. In fact, by not trying to rescue everyone and everything, it allowed others to grow and learn.

7. Re-evaluate From Time to Time – I was working in Arizona on the fateful Tuesday in September 2001 when the World Trade Center was destroyed. Normal airline service and other forms of transportation were halted. It was clear that I would not be going back to Minnesota for the foreseeable future. This caused my husband and me tremendous anxiety and forced us to take stock of our decision for me to commute. It also led us to be even clearer about our commitment to each other first and foremost, to our famil, and to understand that work is important, but not the only consideration.

I am happy to report that our marriage survived and my husband and I are finally living together. I retired from Mayo Clinic at the end of 2013 and joined my husband in Arizona. The sudden, unexpected deaths of my father and a close friend caused us to re-evaluate our situation once again and to decide that it was time to be together on a full-time basis. We did not want to wake up one day and realize that we had lost precious “together” time, now that we were both in our sixties. What was important to us when we were in our forties and fifties had changed now that we were older.

As I reflect on my commuter-couple experience, I think of some of the positive aspects; such as the ability to clearly focus on work when I was away from home, to enjoy some of the perks of frequent air travel and the satisfaction of being able to accept a promotion that positioned me for my ultimate career goals. I found that my time with my husband, family and friends was even more meaningful and appreciated. Absence did “make the heart grow fonder”.

At the same time, I must admit that there were times when I was very lonely and wished I had a “normal” life. It was difficult to return to an empty house each night with my “to go” order of food from the neighborhood chain restaurant. Even though my husband and I talked several times each day, the phone calls did not begin to replace the free flowing banter that we would enjoy when we were together. We missed the spontaneous hugs and glances across the room that reinforced our love for each other.

I have talked with many other men and women who are living the commuter couple lifestyle. Some are dual career professionals such as myself; others are traveling to pursue job opportunities away from home due to the poor economy; and some have spouses in the military. In all cases, they are working out strategies and solutions to fit their circumstances. It requires a constant “give and take” to find the right balance for all affected by the commute. It is particularly challenging when children are involved.