Long-Distance Marriage: Meet the Couples

This is the first installment of our series on financially navigating a long-distance marriage.  Please return on subsequent Wednesdays for the second, third, and fourth installments.


Kyle and I are anticipating living apart next year for a year or so – he’ll start a postdoc in another city and I’ll finish up my PhD here in Durham.  (For more details as to why, see my response to Lucas’s comment from last week.)  Because I love thinking about and planning for (and sometimes worrying about) the future, I decided to try to gather more information about the experiences of married couples that live apart.  It seems that nearly every dual-PhD married couple we know has had to live apart for a few months and that grad school/postdocs often prevent couples from living together continuously!


couple thumbs upI sent out a survey to a bunch of couples we know that have lived apart at some point during their marriages, asking them about how the long-distance aspect of that period affected their financial management.  I received eight wonderful, detailed responses back.  I had originally planned to sum up the material I received in one post, but it’s clear now that I will need a series of posts to cover it all, even in summary!  I am so appreciative to these couples for opening up their marriages to me and I hope that their candor will help other couples that are in or facing a long-distance marriage.


Before I get into the patterns in the responses around specific subjects in subsequent posts, I though it would be useful to orient you in this post to the experiences these couples had/are having.


Two of the couples have lived apart on multiple occasions during their marriage, so I classified them by their longer-distance experience.  Three of the couples are currently living apart and five of them have moved back together.



five on opposite US coasts

one on the same US coast (driving)

two on the same US coast (flying)


Time apart (estimated, if ongoing)

two for months

four for 1-2 years

two for 3 years


Employment (spouse that moved + spouse that stayed)

two are master’s program + real job

one is real job + PhD student

three are PhD student + PhD student

two are postdoc + real job


Here are the questions I asked them to either respond to directly or use as a starting point for talking about their experiences:

1) How did your money management system change as you went from living together to apart and/or apart to together?

2) How would you ideally like to manage your money as a couple – totally joint, joint with “allowances,” partly joint and partly separate, or totally separate – and were you able to do that while you lived apart?

3) Did living apart cause any major money conflicts?

4) How much of your communication time was spent on money, and how did that compare to when you were living together?

5) Were there any tools you used to improve your communication?

6) If you have different money personalities/styles, did they emerge more strongly when you were apart?

7) How much money did you spend traveling to see one another and how often were you able to?

8) How did you split your possessions when you moved apart?

9) Is there anything else you would like to share?  What advice do you have for a married couple that will be living apart?


I’ll discuss the answers to the questions that produced the most post-worthy responses in three upcoming posts on subsequent Wednesdays:

Money Management

Communication and Personalities

Travel and Advice


Since I got interesting responses to question 8 and it doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else thematically, I’ll tell you the pattern I observed regarding that question here.


All but one of these couples had the staying spouse keep nearly all of their shared possessions like furniture and the moving spouse bought the bare necessities at his/her new location.  (One couple was the reverse because the staying spouse planned to join his spouse after one year.)  There was even an air mattress cited!  Two of the couples mentioned how Spartan the moving spouse’s apartment/room was – I’m sure not coincidentally, that spouse had moved to a very high cost of living area and expected to return to the staying spouse after a limited period of time.


“I took everything. [He] slept on an air mattress at first, then found a furnished apartment.”


“I kept everything 🙂 Except his clothes, MacBook, and his bike.”


“[He] only moved what would fit in his little Honda Civic.”


“The only thing I took with me was my down comforter.”


“Anytime we’ve been separated, the person away from ‘home’ has made do with extra items we have or items provided by employers.”


One respondent went into more detail about why their households had become so asymmetric with regard to their possessions.  “He just rents a small room, while this is our home. We have a great apartment, a comfortable bed, and everything else.”


Another explained why the moving spouse didn’t take more things even though the staying spouse planned to join the moving spouse. “Probably half of the furniture we have [in the original residence] is what we would consider ‘starter’ furniture (tables and bookshelves acquired from relatives, coffee tables and end tables from Target, things like that) so we decided for [the moving spouse] to slowly acquire new furniture out there that would replace what we have here. When [the staying spouse] move[s] out there, we’ll pass along our furniture to younger siblings and then not have to pay to move as many large items.”


It makes a lot of sense to me that if the city the couple originally lived in is the one that the moving spouse will return to, that residence will be maintained as their ‘normal’ home in terms of size and possessions, and the other residence will be sparse.  It also makes sense that the spouse living in the higher cost of living area will have a smaller residence with less stuff.  I anticipate that we will balance both of these factors when Kyle moves since it will likely be to a higher cost of living area.  While I do plan to join him wherever he is once I graduate, it will likely be more cost effective to keep the stuff we want to hold on to here until I’m ready to move. Plus, like in the last answer, a lot of our furniture isn’t worth moving out of Durham, so I’ll use it here until I move.


Do you think that you could handle living apart while married and what would motivate you to do it?  If you and your spouse moved apart, how would you split your possessions?  What questions would you have added to my list?


photo from Free Digital Photos


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43 Responses to "Long-Distance Marriage: Meet the Couples"

  1. Welcome to the world of being a highly educated couple with highly specialized careers. Just so you know, it gets worse when you start looking for real jobs.

    A lot of people where I work have these types of living arrangements. One member of the couple rents a place near the office then goes back home to another state for the weekend. They also do a day or two of work at home so that they can spend more time together.

    There’s even one lady here whose husband works on the other coast. They don’t see each other that often.

    It doesn’t seem to phase them very much because they spend a lot of time at work and pull in huge salaries. But people aren’t exactly going to discuss whether they have marital problems or are getting some action on the side to fill the void.
    My Financial Independence Journey recently posted..Caterpillar (CAT) Dividend Stock Analysis

    1. Emily says:

      Well that was depressing! What kind of work do you do? I wouldn’t classify these couples as highly paid, at least not both halves, because grad students and postdocs are still “in training” and therefore not paid what they could be. I’ve only known one person who is in a long-distance marriage for the indefinite long-term (like decades, I think) – a professor at my undergrad, though there certainly may be others that I don’t know about.

      I think that this is the only time in our life that we would consider living apart and that’s only because we are so invested in finishing up these PhDs. We have also chosen our “lifetime city” on the likelihood that we can both find jobs there as it is a biotechnology hub.

      I wonder what the overall statistics are on married couples living apart and how it correlates with income. I would think that if one half of the couple is able to pull in a really mega income the other one wouldn’t have to work and therefore live somewhere else.

      1. I work in the sciences. I can go toe-to-toe with you guys in terms of advanced degrees. I finished a post-doc last year and moved to a non-academic job recently.

        Unfortunately, when you get to your level of education you don’t get a lot of choice in where to live. You go where the jobs are.

        Judging by your bios, I’d assume that if you aren’t trying to land academic careers that you’ll both be headed to the biotech/pharma world. The main job hubs are in NJ and CA. There are also some smaller hubs in Chicago, Indianapolis, and RTP.

        Realistically, over the course of a 30 year career you’ll move around a bit. Either your department will get downsized or your startup biotech will implode. It’s not so much an “if” as a “when”. That’s how a lot of the people in my previous comment wound up with long distance living arrangements. You could luck out and get a job in the same city, or not. Kind of depends if the rest of the industry/economy is shedding jobs at the same time.

        I don’t mean to sound depressing, but that’s the reality of the industry.
        My Financial Independence Journey recently posted..Grow Your Career to Achieve Financial Independence Faster: Part 1

        1. Emily says:

          Thanks for the additional detail! We are aiming to live in San Diego – where do you live? I probably won’t continue doing benchwork but Kyle wants to keep researching directly as long as some will let him – he doesn’t care if that’s at a university or in the private or public sector. We’re certainly open to changing jobs, but want to hold on to being in the same location even if that means periods of unemployment (except for now, I guess). But we’ll see how it goes, of course! Do you have a two-body problem as well?

        2. renee says:

          “Welcome to the world of being a highly educated couple with highly specialized careers. Just so you know, it gets worse when you start looking for real jobs.”

          While this may be “depressing”, Emily, I think it’s true. When it’s not true, it probably means one side of the relationship is making a sacrifice…. or it just so happened to work out really well for them.

          J and I are nowhere near as highly educated or specialized as you guys, and we are already faced with this difficulty! In June, things will become more stable. He is looking at a job that involves a 45 minute commute. (25 minutes without traffic…. yay LA!) BUT these corporations are so volatile. Either of us could be transferred at any time, and then what? We did a long-distance marriage for the sake of our degrees… but in the future, it just won’t be an option — especially if kids are involved and especially if the time period is indefinite.

          Also, we don’t want to live in LA for forever, but any of the option #2 cities would be second tier for one of us. (i.e., J could do well in silicon valley, but that would certainly not be the best place for me unless I got creative with applying my skills.)

          While careers are extremely important to us, our decisions will ultimately be subject to: 1) How can we best foster closeness between each other and with our kids? (How do we weight time vs money vs personal fulfillment w.r.t. this?) and 2) How can we best live out Jesus’ commands to repair the world’s brokenness? (time volunteering and being involved in the community? money for donations?) I’ll say this: a permanent job that requires a “long” commute is disqualified as an option, based on these two criteria. (Now we have to define “long”.)

          In the words of Marissa Mayer(/Vince Lombardi?): “God, family, and Yahoo – in that order”…errr…”God, family, and building a super cool commercial space craft that will take me to the moon. In that order.” 🙂

          1. Emily says:

            Oh, that wasn’t the part of the comment I found depressing – it was the infidelity part!

            Thanks for sharing your experience so far. I kept thinking “two income trap” all the way through your comment (not that it applies to you particularly, but to two-career couples generally, and probably especially in high COLAs). Have you read that book? I should re-read it now that we’re closer to graduation. Maybe I will write a review.

            Honestly, I want to reject being highly specialized. This whole PhD thing was an experiment that didn’t work out quite how I expected it would – it’s confirmed for me that I want to be broad. I’m open to a lot of career options at this point; Kyle wants to stay in his niche so I’ll be the trailing spouse. What else is there to do? This is who we are.

            I feel you on the long commute thing, but it is hard to define. ‘Long’ in L.A. is not the same as ‘long’ in other places!

            Best of luck to J on nailing down a job!

  2. Alex says:

    As my husband has just moved for a new job, I’m really looking forward to this series.

    Thank you, Emily!
    Alex recently posted..Happy Birthday, Mom! ( + an update on goals)

    1. Emily says:

      How far apart are you guys living and for how long? I look forward to reading your insights in the comments on subsequent posts!

  3. Lucas says:

    Well you know I don’t envy your situation 😉 But good luck with everything. My brother and his wife are potentially facing a similar situation next year. He is Doctor in Airforce and is up for rotation, while his wife has another year of residency left in Neurology. They honestly don’t get to see much of eachother at the moment anyway as they are both working between 64-80 hours a week as residents (Something is seriuosly wrong with that setup).

    I have also studied/worked with a bunch of international grad students (from China/India/Japan) who were all in the US for their grad programs while their families (most of the time they had kids too) stayed behind in their home countries.

    Only comment about the furnature/possesions is that if you plan on having kids in the near term I would definitly hang on to some of the starter/used furnature as it is a lot less to worry about and kids do a number on all your stuff. “Storing” stuff on Craigslist while we didn’t need it and then buying used stuff again where when we did has definitly helped us save money and not be so overwhelmed with trying to keep everything around as well.

    1. Emily says:

      Yeah, it looks like your brother and his wife don’t have much choice. :/ I agree, residents work way too much! There are lots of international students in my program but I can’t think of any who are married and only a few have long-term SOs. But Kyle’s first roommate was from China and was married and ended up having a child during his second year of business school. That’s a whole other level than the interviews I’ve done here!

      Our plan is to sell the furniture we originally got from craiglist back to craigslist and maybe all of it anyway. I kind of only want to leave Durham with what fits in our sedan! But we might buy more craigslist furniture next time around, too. I don’t think kids are in the immediate future but we tend to keep furniture for a long time…

  4. I have really mixed feelings on the matter. My sister’s (now ex) husband traveled for work for the last 5 years of their marriage. He would be gone for a month or two, then back for a week or two. And they grew so they didn’t want to live together anymore. They’re still friends. It was really amicable, but their lifestyles and habits and needs just grew further and further apart.
    But Mr. PoP and I have talked about the idea of some independent travel (as well as some together travel) after we reach FI, and it’s a really exciting idea. But the plan would be for a couple of months at a time every few years at most, so the ratio of apart:together would be significantly higher than my sister.
    Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies recently posted..PoP Income Statement – April 2013

    1. Emily says:

      I think travel for work is a bit different from permanently living in two places; I’m not sure which would be harder! Well, the hardest thing would be not knowing for how long the situation would last and that could happen in either scenario.

      Would you actually want to travel by yourselves or would you go with other friends/family without one another? I don’t think I would want to travel completely by myself! Do you just have interests in visiting different places?

      1. Probably by ourselves due to interests. Mr PoP has no desire to participate in a multiple month long yoga retreat in India, for example.
        Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies recently posted..PoP Income Statement – April 2013

        1. Emily says:

          Ah, OK. Yeah I can see that! Would you travel to different places at the same time or would one of you be at home? I would think the former would be easier regarding missing each other but communication might be difficult.

  5. I’ve never had to deal with that issue myself, but I knew many students when I was finishing optometry school who had to leave to do internships at other places around the US while their spouse stayed behind, usually for a job or if they had a family they didn’t want to uproot temporarily. It would be hard to have to pay two sets of rents and utilities, plus being hard due to the time apart. I’ll be looking forward to see how the couples responded.
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    1. Emily says:

      I remember reading on your blog that your internships were fairly short-term, right? That really hurts on the housing costs if you can’t/don’t want to find a subletter. We will have more of a long-term situation and Kyle won’t be returning to our home here, so we plan to have roommates and probably won’t experience a cost hike due to our living arrangements (just like we didn’t experience cost savings when we got married).

  6. Brian says:

    My in-laws just celebrated their 40th anniversary. They live in two different countries and pretty much have for the last 5 years. My father in-law is an older architect so it is hard for him to find work in the US, since firms here aren’t doing a lot and thus don’t want to pay people a lot (so they hire younger cheaper options). In the last five years he has working in Abu Dhabi (twice), Libya (right up until the uprising) and now Dubai. He likes what he does, but doesn’t like being away from his wife. She is a teacher and has kept her job mostly because his has been so unstable. She may or may not retire this year and move out there with them. It is nice to see that they are making it work (face time on their computers helps a lot) especially considering the time zone difference. They prove that if you are committed you can make it work and when you do get time together you make the most of it! I wish you nothing but good luck on this journey and remember this is only a means to an end!

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks for that story! It sounds like they’re making the best of a really hard situation. I think it would be really fun for them to live together in Dubai and I wonder if there would be lucrative opportunities for her as an expat teacher. I always hear about universities in that area recruiting heavily from people at least trained in the US; perhaps something similar is available at the level she teaches at.

  7. Well, we had a long-distance before we got married. I’m still a little confused about the structure of your cell phone plan, but make sure you have the minutes available for extra talking on the phone. Especially since you value quality time in a relationship, you are going to wind up spending a lot of time on the phone.
    What we would do is both record shows that we both watched and then watch them together over the phone.
    Edward Antrobus recently posted..Net Worth Update: April 2013

    1. Emily says:

      Kyle and I did long-distance dating too, and we used Skype. And yeah we spent a LOT of time on Skype! Watching a show together is a nice idea; we do that now with certain new TV shows so we should try to continue.

      Both our phones go over wireless so no minutes are used if we’re at home or school. 🙂

  8. Long distance relationship can work if both parties are willing to work for it. But you need to see each other if you can, like one travel to where the other is. And there are also Skype and Facetime so you can talk.;)
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    1. Emily says:

      Well these relationships have to work out because they are marriages!

  9. Wow! I think that a long distance marriage would be really tough. My husband and I were long distance while we were dating for a semester, and it was hard. However, what I can say is that is possible and we learned a lot about communication while we were apart. It made us relish the times we were together, and we were overall closer because of the experience. I pray you will find the same blessings and more while living apart. It looks like you have got a great start and are thinking through the process extremely thoroughly.

    1. Emily says:

      Kyle and I dated long-distance for over a year, including one four-month stretch when we didn’t see one another at all. We definitely developed our communication during that time as well! I think it was positive for our relationship. I don’t think that being long-distance now that we’re married will be as beneficial, though.

  10. This is just interesting. My wife and I live apart before we were married because I needed to do an internship. It all worked out in the end, but I wasn’t a fan of it. I don’t know if I would be able to do it now with my son in the picture. This just seems difficult no matter the way you slice it.
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    1. Emily says:

      I’m glad you find the series interesting! I definitely wouldn’t want to do long-distance after having a child – and none of the couples in this series have children – but the only long-term long-distance marriage I know of involves children.

  11. I had a professor at Michigan State who’s spouse lived in Chapel Hill. She was the foremost expert on Sylvia Plath and had a great job at UNC, while he had a similarly great job at MSU. I was always amazed by the logistics of this long distance relationship.

    I like your list of questions and can’t imagine any others. Curious to see more of the results!

    1. Emily says:

      That’s the classic “two-body problem” for academics. Sometimes that’s just how it works out. I think that if the situation is long-term that it’s clear they have prioritized their careers over their marriage, but of course that’s their choice. I’m sure they get a lot of intellectual satisfaction from their work. My professor was long-distance from his wife and kids because he didn’t want to raise his kids in the area of the country his job was in (southern CA) but I don’t know if his wife was also an academic.

  12. Interesting series. This is exactly what happened to us when the hubs got into med school and right when we got married when I started grad school. I can say that it’s been really nice to be together for the whole past year. I hope that you two can work it out once you finish your schooling!

    1. Emily says:

      You’ve lived apart twice during your relationship? I hope you will comment on the subsequent posts to share your experience!

  13. This is all quite fascinating to me because I don’t think I could do the long distance thing (not because of cheating, etc–just because I would miss him so much). He travels every week for work now and I already look forward to the weekends when he is home–I can’t imagine not at least having that time! I give major kudos to those who make this work!
    The Happy Homeowner recently posted..The Inconsistent Side of Freelancing: $3K Less Income in April

    1. Emily says:

      It seems like you’re already pretty close to long-distance now! You’ll see later on in the post but some of the couples see one another every weekend or nearly so – they just have two residences to pay for instead of having work pay for their lodging as I assume your BF does. Please continue to comment and compare to your experience.

  14. […] Financial Independence Journey left a sobering comment on the two-body problem on my post announcing our series on long-distance marriage: “Unfortunately, when you get to your level of education you don’t get a lot of choice in […]

  15. Suba says:

    I agree with MyFiJourney. As depressing as it may sound, that is the downside of specializing.

    My husband and I did long distance for quite some time. We lived cross country for 4 yrs while we were dating and 2 married. Then I moved closer, 3 hrs away and did that for another 3 years. Even now that I have quit, my husband still travels quite a bit within US every month and 1 month every 3 months, he travels overseas. Oh well.

    If you are in a very similar field (like one person in Cell Bio and the other in Bio Chemistry) it can work out. But I am in science and my husband is in engineering. So we will have to do this forever I guess.
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    1. Emily says:

      I wish I had known/remembered that you guys were long distance while you were married – I would have asked you for an interview! Please let me know your responses as the series goes along! That is a lot of travel your husband is doing – does he enjoy it?

      Kyle and I are both in “biotechnology” broadly – I’m labeled engineering and he isn’t, but he is quite close to engineering and I do some clinical stuff. I’m hoping that’s close enough that we can both find work in San Diego.

  16. SarahN says:

    I know most of my ‘assumptions’ of what I would do come from what my parents have done. They refuse to live apart. Dad’s moved once to start a job, with a clear date for us (mum + kids) joining him. Likewise, mum once moved, but there was always a ‘deadline’ on the apart-ness. They HATE to be apart (and I see how that behaviour is influencing me and relationships too!)

    Anyhow, on a related tangent, I’m personally not at all interested in PhDs for the level of specialization (and the respective closing of doors/careers). I just don’t think PhDs lead to ‘easy to find’ jobs, or choice in the career mobility. Like you, too, I’m happy to be the ‘trailing’ person. I enjoy my work, but not enough that I wouldn’t move to do it elsewhere.

    Still the idea of living apart is something I feel is ‘too soon’ to discuss in my 7 month old r’ship, though it has inadvertently come up, and I think from the boil over, the BF is clear on some of my concerns.
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  17. […] installment of our series on financially navigating a long-distance marriage.  Check out the first installment and come back on subsequent Wednesdays for the third and […]

  18. E 2 says:

    Just want to say that when you write,

    “Honestly, I want to reject being highly specialized. This whole PhD thing was an experiment that didn’t work out quite how I expected it would – it’s confirmed for me that I want to be broad. I’m open to a lot of career options at this point; Kyle wants to stay in his niche so I’ll be the trailing spouse. What else is there to do? This is who we are.”

    I so, so hear you. I’m still not sure whether finishing a specialized degree will be helpful or harmful for broader career prospects, for me, but grad school has been a similar “experiment” to me.

    1. Emily says:

      It wasn’t a bad choice, really… I’ve loved how my life has progressed on the non-schooling front during this time. 🙂 I think a lot of people have a similar experience during the PhD, at least in realizing that they don’t want to be an academic like they thought going in.

  19. […] of our series on financially navigating a long-distance marriage.  Please read and comment on the first, second, and fourth installments as […]

  20. […] We are about to embark on our next big adventure, which includes a jump in income and likely a long-distance marriage for about a […]

  21. […] our first child, but I really can’t see it happening before we turn 30 because we will likely be living apart for a […]

  22. […] we didn’t actually need two cars, so we stopped driving it.  We didn’t want to sell it because we’re anticipating living apart for a while between our graduations and we’ll likely need two cars then.  While going down to one car […]

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