Some of Fred Straub's male friends feel shock and awe when they learn about his marital arrangement. "They say, 'Betty lives in Louisville and you're in Cincinnati and you date on weekends? How did you arrange that?!'" recalls the 64-year-old real estate developer.
But for Fred and Betty, a couple married more than 30 years, the setup, in place since 2004, is definitely not cool. "If we were married to someone we didn't care about so much, maybe it would be a better option," says Fred, who rents a loft apartment in Cincinnati while Betty stays in their home two hours away. "We wouldn't have it this way if we didn't have to," echoes Betty, 60, research director for the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Louisville.
At her previous job, Betty thought she would be able to live with her husband in Cincinnati and work remotely and drive to Louisville to attend major meetings. But a large federal contract she had helped the organization get made this scenario impossible. "I was devastated," she says. "I felt like my ship had been sunk."
What has kept the relationship afloat is talking on the phone two or three times a day, being together most weekends, knowing there is an end in sight, and being grateful for two stimulating and well-paying jobs. Their salaries allow them to pay for their grandchildren's private school, clothing and travel to sports competitions as well as save for their own retirement.
"It would be a totally selfish act for Betty and me to live together seven nights a week," says Fred. "In order for that to happen, other people in the family would have to suffer some life-altering changes. We can make things happen with a few hundred dollars here and a few hundred dollars there. We look at it as smart investing in our grandkids' lives rather than the stock market. We're doing it because it will be important to them at some point even if we're not here."
More couples living separately but together
While separate households is old news to married academics, what has changed is the number of age 50-plus happily wedded couples in all fields who are finding themselves home alone Monday through Friday. The left-behind mates may decide to stay put because they believe they are going going to be uprooted from friends and family, or give up their meaningful job. Even if one spouse wants to move to be with the other, selling their house right now for a good price — or at all — may be impossible.
"Living apart is a phenomenon that is likely to increase for those over 50," says Susan Brown, codirector of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. "Two incomes have become integral to the financial health of marriage."
In this difficult financial period, getting a good job offer anywhere, especially if it includes health and other benefits, can be a feat. A recent Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College/Rutgers University study found that it took more than two-thirds of age 55-plus job hunters more than a year to land a position.