Ian Derrer and Daniel James were married in August 2019 in the garden room of a restaurant in Santa Fe, N.M., with each of their 19 guests reading aloud lyrics to the couple’s favorite Stephen Sondheim love songs. After staying in Santa Fe for a weeklong honeymoon, during which they hiked at Bandelier National Monument and enjoyed the opera “La Bohème,” the couple drove to Dallas, where Mr. Derrer, 45, lives. The next day, Mr. James, 33, left for Houston, where he lives.
Through four years of dating and seven months of marriage, the couple have never lived together. Most Fridays, one of them makes the 244-mile drive between the Texas cities. “It’s not a date night, it’s a date weekend,” said Mr. Derrer, or what he likes to call “concentrated bliss.” With their time together limited, Mr. James added, “it’s not worth it to get angry or annoyed by some little thing.” They live separately for their careers — both work in opera administration — and would be reluctant to ask the other to give up a job he loves.
Long-distance marriages are not uncommon. Couples are getting married while living hundreds or even thousands of miles from each other because of their careers. But for some, the coronavirus has thrown a wrench into their lives. Many are no longer willing to get on a plane, which for one couple means they are not sure when they will see each other again. For another pair, visits now involve a 13-hour car trip. Mr. Derrer and Mr. James are actually living in the same place for the first time, thanks to their jobs going remote during the crisis.
Some couples had always planned for their separation to be short-lived, so they are waiting out the time by increasing their hours on FaceTime. Others are finding the crisis has cast a shadow over an arrangement that they have maintained for a decade or more.
Danielle J. Lindemann, a sociologist and the author of “Commuter Spouses: New Families in a Changing World,” said that most of the 97 couples she interviewed for her 2019 book felt the arrangement was necessary to keep the momentum going in their careers. Those who study these couples, who are part of a group known as LATs (living apart together), agree that their numbers are on the rise, though figures are hard to come by, according to Ms. Lindemann.
Most of the couples Ms. Lindemann spoke with were highly educated. But their specialized training, she said, “shrank their universe of available job choices, as they saw it, rather than expanding it, as we might expect.”
When Jimson Mullakary, 31, and Dr. Roshini Mullakary, 29, were dating, they used to joke that they were in a long-distance relationship because he was in Manhattan, where he works as an accountant, and she was a medical resident on Long Island. They now live 1,137 miles apart. When Dr. Mullakary was applying for fellowships, she found there were only a handful of programs in the New York City area in her specialty, allergy and immunology. Mr. Mullakary encouraged her to apply anywhere that she thought would give her the best experience.
To bridge the distance between them, they send each other handwritten letters once a week and connect via FaceTime from their respective apartments while catching up on work, leaving it on for hours and talking intermittently. Every few weeks one flies in for a weekend visit. Living apart “has actually brought us closer together,” Mr. Mullakary said. His wife agreed: “It makes us not take each other for granted. And when we finally live together, we’ll appreciate it.”
With her fellowship ending in June, Dr. Mullakary is applying for jobs as an allergist in and around New York City. In March, Mr. Mullakary drove 20 hours to join his wife in Minnesota because he can work remotely during the current crisis.
Many couples see living apart as a short-term solution to accommodate their careers, but sometimes it becomes a long-term arrangement. Patrick Donnelly, 50, and Alexandra Mascolo-David, 58, lived together in Mount Pleasant, Mich., when they married in 2000, but he moved away a year later for graduate school and she stayed. In the 19 years since, Mr. Donnelly’s career in arts administration has taken him from Pittsburgh (a six-hour drive from his wife) to Kalamazoo, Mich., (a two-hour drive) to Newark, Del., (a two-hour flight) and finally to Kansas City, Mo., (a two-hour flight plus a two-and-a-half-hour drive), where he has been for a decade.
Ms. Mascolo-David loves her job as a professor of piano at Central Michigan University, where she has remained through Mr. Donnelly’s moves. They never had children. “The goal is to live together,” Mr. Donnelly said. But the time “was never right,” Ms. Mascolo-David added.
Their mettle was tested in 2010, when Ms. Mascolo-David suffered a brain aneurysm and underwent an eight-hour operation. Mr. Donnelly stayed with her for two weeks but then had to return to work. His parents came for a month to be with her. It was a difficult time. “I really craved being with him,” said Ms. Mascolo-David, who has fully recovered.
They have been seeing each other on weekends about once a month. She also stays with him longer over university breaks, when she makes the 13-hour drive, with a hotel stay along the road, so she can bring their dogs. They have given up flying for the time being and will only visit each other by car. But the coronavirus “has opened my eyes to the reality of our situation,” Ms. Mascolo-David said. “I am determined to find ways to share a roof with Patrick sooner rather than later.”
Military spouses often endure separations. Josh Dworkin and Meridith Wailes, both 30 and Navy lieutenants, are stationed 379 miles apart. He is an instructor at the Air Force Weapons School in Las Vegas, she is a judge advocate at the Naval Air Station in Lemoore, Calif. They bridge the gap by reading the same books and discussing them, but “it doesn’t really alleviate the loneliness of just not having her with me,” he said. One of them tries to makes the six-hour drive for a visit every couple of weeks, but the coronavirus has put an end to those trips for now. In mid-March, the Department of Defense issued a 60-day travel restriction that will keep them apart. They will be reunited this summer when both are transferred to Virginia.
Mr. Dworkin advised couples facing a separation “to talk openly and often” with each other. “Don’t let small things start to fester. It’s much harder to work them out if they do get bigger when you can’t do it in person.”
Many couples who are apart have a plan to live together, but not Lauren Class Schneider, 61, and Larry Moss, 64. They married in February, after having a long-distance relationship for 20 years, but each has stayed put — she in New York City and he in Chicago.
“I’m too happy with our romance to want to make a change,” Ms. Schneider said. “We’re grown-ups who each made choices in our lifestyles that we are happy with.”
Mr. Moss, a semiretired lawyer, was previously married and has grown children. He goes to bed early so he can be up at 4:40 a.m. to teach a boot-camp fitness class twice a week. She’s in the theater business and is often out late at shows (though not at the moment as Broadway has been shuttered).
Being together just a few days a month means they still act like newlyweds, sitting on the same side of the table at a restaurant so they can hold hands. They would fly to each other’s city for just one night if they can’t spend the whole weekend — a fly by, they call it. They light Shabbat candles together on FaceTime and hide notes in each other’s apartment.
Such arrangements are “a hall pass from constant companionship,” Ms. Lindemann, the sociologist, said. One participant in her study explained, “You get the independence of being single and the benefits of marriage.”
And there are no fights over “roommate” issues, Ms. Schneider said: “For three or four days, if I have to live with his open drawers and shoes in the middle of the floor, I say, ‘OK, it’s three or four days.’ I put the lid down on the toilet.” Friends have told Ms. Schneider they envy her arrangement.
Will the couple ever live together? “Possibly in the retirement home,” she said. He suggested they would have “adjoining apartments, like adjoining hotel rooms with a door. That might work for us.”
They are hearty travelers, but the coronavirus has put their commuting plans in flux. They don’t know when they will see each other again.
“I get so sad missing him, compounded with all the doubt about when we get to restore our easy travel to each other’s cities,” Ms. Schneider said. To keep connected, they exercise together via FaceTime and tune in to the same lectures, synagogue services and musical events via Zoom. “I put on lipstick, comb my hair and put on jewelry that Larry has given me,” Ms. Schneider said. When they spot each other, they say hello with the Carol Burnett “ear tug.” And, Mr. Moss added, “in the absence of physical intimacy, we are exploring modes of long-distance intimacy.”
Pamela Hinchman, 64, a voice and opera professor at Northwestern University, married Ted DeDee, 70, last year. Her outlook on marriage had always been that “you don’t have to be glued to someone’s hip,” she said. (She has been divorced twice, and he was a widower.)
When they got engaged in 2018, he was living a two-and-a-half-hour drive away in Madison, Wis., with no plans to move in with her in Evanston, Ill., though he was retired. When he told her that the La Jolla Music Society in California needed a new chief executive, she told him, “That’s perfect for you.” Six months before their wedding, he came out of retirement to take the job.
For nearly a year, they have flown more than four hours about twice a month to see each other.
But in January, Mr. DeDee decided he would leave his job in June to focus on a health issue. When the coronavirus threat ramped up, he said he moved up his departure to mid-March “so I can be with my wife, simple as that.”
The coronavirus has changed Ms. Hinchman’s outlook, too. “It’s surprising to both of us, but life together has been put into perspective,” she said.
In the face of so much uncertainty and fear, what she most wants is to be with her husband. “Now the biggest priority is being there for each other, in person.”