With the demands of modern life, it seems more and more couples are working to make their long-distance marriages succeed. In fact, U.S. Census data shows there are some 2.5 to 3 million long-distance marriages in the United States.

Most often, couples are separated by military, school, work or family obligations. While these separations can require more energy and create more stress and depression for many couples, others find themselves amazingly capable and creative in dealing with the distance.

The key is learning to dance a new dance. Couples who have lived together in one household prior to the geographic separation have learned to work, play and communicate with each other. They’ve learned how best to respond to and prompt one another emotionally, verbally and physically. Once separated, they must find new ways to maintain those connections and continue the interplay that makes a successful relationship.

For couples considering long-distance marriages, it’s critical for both partners to be involved in making the decision. That’s why separations can be so difficult for military families; they can be unpredictable and couples can be somewhat powerless in making those decisions for themselves.

Whatever the case, there are several steps couples can take to help their marriages continue to grow and deepen during times apart.

First, be flexible in determining what’s best for your relationship. Just as each person is unique, so is every relationship.

Second, be patient as you figure it out. Experiment with communicating in different ways. You may find e-mail works very well for sorting through household matters and phone time is best saved for talking about experiences and emotions. Some couples may find the opposite to be the case.

Third, don’t try to normalize the separation. It’s OK to recognize that your relationship is different. One partner may suddenly find himself handling the household checkbook or disciplining the children alone for the first time. It’s helpful to talk about these difference. Ask your partner what it’s like for him or her and then share what it’s like for you.

Fourth, use management skills over blame. Without doubt you’ll encounter unexpected, and sometimes negative, situations as you adjust to being apart. When that happens, don’t assign blame but instead put your energy into resolving the problem.

Fifth, don’t try to idealize time together. Long-distance couples frequently find themselves falling into the same patterns as divorced parents who only see their children a couple weekends a month: the parent then wants everything to be Disneyland perfect. That’s unrealistic for any healthy relationship, especially a marriage. When reunited, you’ll need time to adjust. Try to keep expectations at a minimum and allow for a variety of scenarios to unfold.

Sixth, expect the relationship to change. Geographic separation in marriage can lead to deepening the relationship and personal growth. Being realistic about your fears and facing the challenges can lead to a new level of self-mastery for you and your partner, making you both better spouses.

Obviously, marriages that are already healthy will have the best chance at adapting well. A couple that already has a strained relationship will likely find it difficult to manage the added stress. But if you’re committed to each other and open to learning new ways to interact, you may be surprised at how much you enjoy the new dance.

As published in the August 2005 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.