Being together, living apart

Most people don’t want to live apart from the person to whom they are happily married. But sometimes it has to happen, and it doesn’t have to be all bad. Here’s a firsthand account of the experience, a few tips on navigating the hard stuff, and a healthy dose of hope for the good that can come of it.

Living apart from my husband, Patrick, for three months was never how I imagined we’d spend the holidays last year. It was rough, it sucked…and it was good for us, even though it was the last thing we wanted.

Over a weekend involving a family funeral and an IUI, I took a job offer in Roanoke. What better way to top things off than by making a huge, life-changing decision, right? Given the job market, it was either take it, or risk increased financial wobbliness when my grad student loans came due. Three weeks later, the IUI having proven unsuccessful, I was shoving boxes into my tiny hatchback and moving into a one-bedroom apartment in a city hours away from my husband. We’d been together since 2006, married since 2010, and yet there I was, moving out of the house we owned to live in an apartment alone for the first time, feeling like a scared college freshman.1 It felt like my life had moved back 10 steps.

At first, I was miserable. I would come home each night to stare at the computer screen for hours until I fell asleep, letting the dog stay with me on the bed all night and simply not caring. I started cutting out those Spongebob trading cards that come on the back of the blue-box mac-n-cheese just to make sure I didn’t end up with a horrifying stack, because they were becoming a part of my diet in an alarming way. My husband had, after all, done most of the cooking back home. By the end of the first week, the state of my fridge was so sad and bleak that I vowed to at least cook myself decent meals.

I never intended for one of our dogs to move with me, thinking the difficulty of finding a place to rent that would allow a dog would be too great on such short notice. But when the opportunity arose to bring one after all, I took it. Doing so gave me security and companionship, but I was also able to establish a routine of sorts, walking around the neighborhoods with purpose rather than dejected aimless loneliness. Going to the dog park also afforded me an automatic social event that has a very low participatory bar, i.e. you bring a dog and you’re good. The downside was that I was the only one around to take care of him; there was no second person to get home early to let him out, etc. All in all, it was a choice that worked for me, but it did take a lot more work to be a single dog-owner than I had thought. If you can bring a pet and have the time to care for it properly alone, do it.

During all of this, I should mention that I did not envy Patrick’s lot in this situation. He went home to a house that we owned but were sharing with another couple to make ends meet2–a couple who were expecting a baby, thus he was going home to a home that wasn’t going to be home much longer to live with people3 living the life we wanted to live. That he also had to try to rent it out and pack up our remaining belongings was not a task I coveted. Consequently, we both had a sincere need to see each other and vent about the suckiness of what we were going through. Roanoke and Richmond are three hours apart no matter which way you drive it, and we decided that Staunton was a pretty good middle place to meet up for tacos every other weekend. By establishing a routine, we were at least able to anticipate when we’d see each other next. It felt like long-distance swimming sometimes, like taking a deep breath of air before diving under again into the deep, but it was manageable.

The decent meals, the dog, the scheduled dinner meet-ups–these were all things that made the three months bearable. But the most important thing throughout all of this that I want to share with you is this:

Sometimes the thing you don’t think you can do is, in fact, something you can do.

My husband and I never thought we’d be living apart after being married for a relatively short period of time, considering neither of us had picked professions that require it and have support systems in place for it (like the military). By not being able to walk through the door at the end of the workday and hug each other, he and I were forced to do even more concrete communicating. Writing emails, calling each other on the phone…we communicated before, but now, this was our only way of staying connected, so we had to make it count. We had to be available, to be willing to listen to the other person on the phone for an hour or two. We had to tell the other plainly if we were annoyed, sad, or actually feeling OK that day. By making communication a vital part of our day-to-day interactions, we let our communication skills–and thus, marriage–improve, rather than crumble.

Living apart didn’t just strengthen our marriage, though; I feel like it also strengthened me as an individual. I’d never lived entirely on my own before, and it was kind of an experience I’m glad to have had, if only for three months. It forced me to be more social than I was before when I was letting my husband be the social butterfly for us both. It made me a little less lazy: if something had to be done, I was going to have to do it (dishes, dog-care, cooking, cleaning, laundry, bills, watching Glee because Patrick wasn’t around to protest). I feel more confident having had the experience. Like, “Oh, I can actually be a single functioning adult! I can do this!” Being in a partnership is wonderful, but we’d been together since college and have done a lot of growing up together. Getting out there and really knowing that I’m a fully-capable single adult is also a nice thing to truly know, not just abstractly assume.4

But one of the biggest takeaways I have from the experience is that once you tackle one Really Big Mountain, or at least accept that you’re climbing the thing, climbing a lot of smaller mountains that inevitably come up becomes remarkably easier. In tackling the idea of what a future family would look like we discovered that making other hard decisions became easier. Living out those changes is still hard, but accepting them and rolling with them was easier. I think I never would have said yes to all of this in 2011. I would’ve said, “No, that’s too hard, we’ll just wait for something better to happen to us.” But sometimes you have to be proactive and wonder if maybe this isn’t the better thing happening, even if it looks like the worst.

In a way, accepting that we might never get the family we want made moving away easier, because in comparison it felt much easier to just go with the suck at that point. For you, maybe the decision to move apart for a career is the Really Big Mountain that you need to accept and work through to make subsequent things easier. Or it could be something else entirely. Whatever it is, it’s Big to you. Think of the Really Big Mountain not just as a huge pain in the ass or an incredibly painful thing (though it may be that), but also as something that’s paving the road of your relationship. I know that sounds kind of greeting-card-y, but it’s very true that had my husband and I gotten all the things we thought would be easy, we wouldn’t have these hard things under our belt. The bad things we’re dealing with highlight the good and strengthen us. The saying “no pain, no gain” is perhaps both the most over-used phrase ever…and also pretty apt. Our relationship has become extremely strong throughout all of this; the pain of living apart during such hardship strengthened it.

Your Big Mountain is doing that for you too–or it can if you let it.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. Or at least, what I think that would feel like, since I went from living at home to living in a goth-industrial band-house my junior year of college; I’ve never lived in a dorm with or without a roommate. 
  2. Why I needed to take the new job! 
  3. Perfectly nice, innocent people undeserving of our unmasked sadness and jealousy! I’m sorry! 
  4. Tip: have a joint, online bank account! 

Photo by: BlueRidgeKitties

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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Not tearing up here at work or anything. Nope. Nothing to see here. Just got something in my eye…

  2. Rvabebe on said:

    I’m so glad it worked for y’all. My marriage and relationship mirrors the timeline of yours; and I thought we could handle living apart also. I came here to Richmond for grad school, he stayed home to manage the house. Even though I came home about every other weekend, the communication wasn’t there like I wanted to believe it was. I discovered over the summer that he had developed a heroin addiction and was injecting when I wasn’t around. I know it’s not my fault, but it makes me feel like a failure that my marriage couldn’t survive the long distance thing. So not to be a Debbie downer at all, (well, not trying) but communication is REALLY the essential element. So thank you for emphasizing that.

  3. hayley! i love this! i’m from the Star City originally and am the only person from my family living in Richmond. i actually don’t have a significant other or any dependents (except for a bamboo plant that i tend to forget to water). i’m pretty used to the “do everything because no one else is here to do it” lifestyle, and it is weird when you’re first learning how to function that way! of course, it’ll be really interesting if i someday have to learn how to function in partnership with someone else, and i love that you and Patrick were able to make your relationship stronger through the experience of living apart even though it wasn’t what you’d pictured for yourselves. bravo for looking at the brighter side!!! :)

  4. IUI, that’s a bit too much information.

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