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How Expats Can Survive the Long-Distance Relationship

Apr 7, 2016 4:00 am ET

It can involve Skype, visas and lots of hamburgers.

Wall Street Journal.

Keeping in touch, using technology, is easier than ever before.

For most of their 14-year relationship, Jessica Powell and Luke Miner have been able to live in the same place as each other—from New York to Paris to Tokyo to London to Moscow, and back to California. But in 2010, while living in London, as Mr. Miner pursued a Ph.D in economics, Ms. Powell was offered a job transfer to Tokyo, running Google’s communications in Asia.

“I was really done with living in cold places,” she said. They agreed that she would spend no more than two years in Tokyo, and since Mr. Miner had reached the stage of writing his dissertation, he could live there part of the time while finishing it. In the end, they spent 18 months living apart, but visiting each other regularly.

The couple had to spend time apart again in 2012, when they moved to Moscow for Mr. Miner’s new professorship, but then Ms. Powell took up a job in California. “The deal was that, if he loved Russia, I would move back to Russia,” she said. After finishing the academic year, however, Mr. Miner had a fellowship offer at Stanford and joined her in California instead.

For couples who value growing both their careers and their relationships, staying together while advancing professionally can mean living in different countries—or even on different continents—for months at a time. Between work or study commitments, and visa requirements, the phases of long-distance can become open-ended, leaving couples uncertain as to when they will be reunited.

Jenny Castelino, the Singapore-based director of intercultural and language solutions for the relocation consultancy Cartus, said a recent growth in dual-income couples and families has led to an increase in “split family” situations.
“Historically we have this horrible term, the trailing spouse, which was usually the female who was happy to go on assignment, potentially had not been working previously, and accompanied their husband,” she said. “Now, spousal income contributes significantly to overall family income, and the spousal or partner career is of great importance to that individual.”

The human resources consultancy Mercer, which polled more than 800 multinational companies in its 2015 Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices, found that dual careers and family-related issues are the most common obstacle to employee mobility.

As a result, companies are introducing more flexible employee-mobility policies to accommodate different family situations, said Kate Fitzpatrick, a London-based senior global mobility consultant at Mercer. She and Ms. Castelino have seen a rise in short-term and commuting assignments, rotational assignments (where employees alternate between periods working away from home and periods living back home), reverse home leave (where families visit the employee on assignment), and more frequent home visits for employees on long-term assignments. “It’s about trying to introduce some structured flexibility that meets the needs of the individual without creating undue cost or administrative difficulties for companies to provide that support,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said. “And what that support looks like might be different for different people or different scenarios.” Another challenge that dual-income couples can face are restrictive immigration laws, Ms. Castelino said. Only 30 countries allow accompanying spouses—and sometimes, unmarried partners—to work freely.
Last year, Liv Nilssen and her husband Luke Miller had to spend several months living apart because of immigration policies. They decided to move to Europe to live closer to Ms. Nilssen’s relatives in Norway. Though both are U.S. citizens, Ms. Nilssen also holds British and Norwegian nationalities—so when they chose London as their new home, Mr. Miller had to stay in California while his spousal-visa application was reviewed.

The process took almost three months, in addition to the time it took to prepare his application. “I got a little anxious there for awhile, because you didn’t know,” Ms. Nilssen said. “I started to think, what if they never respond?”
“If I had thought that it would have been five and half months’ separation, I would have told you you were crazy: I would never do that,” she added. “It was not intentional.”

Ms. Castelino advised that couples who are considering living apart first take time to discuss their expectations and strategies for managing the situation. “To me, hope is not a strategy. ‘Hopefully it’ll all be OK’ doesn’t tend to work,” she said. “It’s actually saying, what are we going to do about this? How do we keep our relationship going? How often will you come home; how often will I come out and see you? When you’re back here, what is our plan? How often do you talk to the kids? Can you Skype with them every day, at this particular time—and make it a half-hour thing versus a five-minute thing? Can you send photographs, can you send postcards?”

She also cautioned against living abroad for more than 18 months to two years at a time, especially for couples with young children. “I think you really need to look at the demographics of your own family unit,” she said.
Couples who do manage living apart can also experience benefits to the distance, enjoying elements of singledom alongside the emotional support of a long-term partner.

“I cook a ton of vegetarian hippie mush,” said Ms. Powell, “and Luke will eat it, but I’m sure he would love to have a hamburger now and then. When we were apart, that man got his hamburger.”
And once Ms. Nilssen and Mr. Miller—who have been together for seven years—reunited in December, after Mr. Miller’s visa was approved, things immediately returned to normal.
“We knew exactly what was going on with each other the whole time,” she said of their time apart. “It wasn’t like we wrote these long, tearful love letters that had to be sent on a ship, and who knows if they got there.”
Though Ms. Powell and Mr. Miner now live closer to their families, after two years back in California, she misses elements of living abroad. “I definitely miss the experience of being in a new place, a foreign place, having to navigate it, figure it out, having to try and tackle the language or the day-to-day challenges that come from living in place that’s unfamiliar,” she said. Now that they have a child, they are unlikely to live apart for longer periods, even if they move abroad again.

For them, spending a decade as expats with periods living apart proved to be a valuable way to support each other’s careers and independence. “I think both of us always wanted to be very supportive of what the other person was doing, and not impose,” Ms. Powell said. “I certainly view Luke as more important to me than my career, so I never wanted his interests to be hindered by my circumstances. And I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he probably would feel the same way.”