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Going the distance for love and marriage

With fewer job opportunities, some couples are forced to live separately and see each other only on weekends.

March 09, 2009|Kristen Kridel

CHICAGO — Jon Dodson planned to join his wife and four sons in their new home in southwestern Michigan as soon as he could find a job there. But seven months later, he spends his weeknights in a Chicago apartment while, any day now, Meagan Dodson expects to give birth to their first daughter.

The employment prospects for her husband, a computer technician in Evanston, Ill., fizzled after companies that might have hired him started laying people off, Meagan Dodson said. So for now he is hanging onto what he has and making the 200-mile round-trip drive to St. Joseph, Mich., on weekends.

"The lifestyle is really different," she said of their long-distance marriage. "The biggest challenge is the kids want him around. . . . They don't understand why he doesn't come home every night. The little guys have a really hard time."

As the economy continues to stumble and jobs become harder to find, it's likely that more couples will find themselves in so-called commuter marriages, or at least considering the possibility as a financial lifeline, experts say.

Reginald Richardson, a vice president of the Family Institute at Northwestern University, said he had seen the number of married couples struggling to maintain two households increase by about 30% over the last few years. The reasons vary, he said, but now include limited job openings.

"People are much more open to sending their resumes out of state," said Richardson, a marriage counselor. "In this sort of job market, people are going to take care of their families. This may be what they're forced to do."

Precise figures on how many couples are commuting during the recession are difficult to find. The Census Bureau hasn't released 2008 statistics on the number of married Americans living apart, and previous reports on the subject predate the downturn.

But academic and counseling experts say the next round of data could well show an upward trend in long-distance marriages.

"It wouldn't surprise me," said Eva Ponder, a licensed clinical social worker at Cornerstone Counseling Center of Chicago, who added that it might take a little more time for the stresses and problems associated with long-distance marriages to surface.

Caroline Tiger, author of "The Long-Distance Relationship Guide," said she used to hear mainly from unmarried college students and adults in their early 20s, but in recent months inquiries have come chiefly from married couples.

"One spouse had to move for a job because they couldn't pass it up, and people are taking anything," Tiger said. "Now it seems like the demographics of long-distance couples are shifting to more established couples."

Among this group are Mark and Kristen DeBlock, who thought they would be back under the same roof two months ago. Now they will consider themselves lucky if both are living in their North Aurora, Ill., home when their first baby is born in five months.

"We weren't expecting it to be this long," Kristen DeBlock said. "We don't know how much longer it will be."

Mark DeBlock, a surgical sales specialist, accepted a job that requires heavy traveling, thinking it would be a springboard to a better position in the Chicago area in nine to 12 months.

If the company were still expanding its sales force -- the way it had annually for years -- such a position almost certainly would have opened up, he said. But this year the medical device company reduced positions, leaving DeBlock stuck.

"There are only a certain amount of jobs, and with the economy the way it is, there are a lot of people looking," he said. "If there were a lot of other opportunities out there, I probably would be in Chicago working for somebody else."

Brian and Autumn Schwartze joined the ranks of commuter spouses when the 2009 season was canceled for the Chicago Rush arena football team. Brian Schwartze's services as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator were no longer needed.

Owing more on his South Elgin, Ill., home than he could probably get for it in this market, the father of three thought he might have to give up football altogether, his wife said.

Luckily, he was offered a position as director of football operations, though there was a catch: The job was at Iowa State University in Ames.

That left Autumn Schwartze to care for their children and search for potential renters for most of the last two months.

She expects to move out and make way for renters by mid-March, but she still isn't sure whether she will be reunited with her husband any time soon. And as her move-out date approached, Schwartze hadn't even started packing.

"I don't know how," she said. "I don't know if all our stuff is going to be going into storage, if some of it is going to stay with me, or are we going to have a place where we know we are going to live?"

One possibility to try to save money is staying with her parents, who live about 90 minutes from the university, Schwartze said.

For Kassie Patton and David Porreca, there is no indication their long-distance relationship will get closer even after they get married this summer, Patton said.

Porreca has taught journalism for 14 years at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana. Patton, a middle school principal in Elmwood Park, Ill., lives in Oak Park, about 150 miles away.

The hiring freeze would make it nearly impossible for her fiance to transfer to the University of Illinois at Chicago college campus. So for the time being, the commute continues.

"The plan would be that he would move here, but there's no telling when that will happen," she said. "Oak Park will be his home base, but he'll have a satellite in central Illinois."

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kkridel@tribune.com

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