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COLUMN

Remembering What Is Truly Important

Veena Thomas

“We’re happily married -- we just don’t live together.”

So said Glen Justice, a Newsweek guest columnist. He’s a thirtyish newspaper reporter living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His wife lives in New Orleans. For the past year, they have seen each other four days a month, when he flies in to see her. Yet the couple claims they are “happily married”?

What drove the couple to a life hundreds of miles apart, to a so-called “commuter marriage?” They had been living together in New Orleans, working for newspapers, when Justice was offered a far better job at another newspaper. “Glen the Reporter was turning 30 this year and I wanted to take the job,” he said. “Petula, meanwhile, was at the top of her game at a newspaper in New Orleans and didn’t feel ready to leave,” he continued. “Our professional situations were as different as Cajun and Amish.”

Instead of staying with the woman he loves, the woman to whom he’s married, he moved hundreds of miles away in order to earn more money. Doubtless the extra money came in handy when he was forced to spend $800 on a one-way plane ticket because his $189 flight was canceled, a situation which could have been avoided had he stayed with his wife.

Justice claims such living arrangements, a husband and wife kept apart by their separate career quests, are not as uncommon as they may seem. He said that among his thirtysomething friends, nearly every couple has been separated for some amount of time due to their careers.

We’re not talking about a couple with one breadwinner forced to live apart in order to earn money to support a family. These are cases of yuppies, young successful couples with their own, separate budding careers. These people choose to place their careers over their married life. They would rather advance their careers and live far apart than sacrifice a little and continue to live together. What is the meaning of marriage? What happened to “for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse:?” Why are couples straining their marriage vows for the sake of a better job? If it were a case of earning money to survive, it would be understandable. But far too often couples simply want more money to spend on creature comforts, a new BMW, a larger house. In their search for professional success, and their greed for a larger income, they leave behind the people they care about, and attempt to maintain some semblance of a marriage.

Justice tries to maintain his marriage by flying home four days a month. Of course, by only seeing his wife for four days, it’s hard to pretend it’s life as usual those four days. They try to do mundane, everyday activities, like playing with the dogs, but when it’s time for him to leave again, everything hits. They try other ways to keep in touch. Says Justice, “Strangest of all are the cyberdates: watching the same thing on TV and commenting in real time over an open, expensive phone line.”

Call me old-fashioned, but aimless talk about a TV sitcom over the phone does not a marriage make. Perhaps Justice and his wife are beginning to realize this too. They’ve run into financial trouble, between the phone bill, a cellular phone, and endless plane tickets. Ironically, Justice complained, “The cost of living doubled.” He was the one who chose to take a higher-paying job so far away, after all. He and his wife are each seeing psychologists, and they argue over who to blame for the living arrangement.

They’re both to blame. A happy, successful marriage is the work of both people. The husband and wife need to examine and straighten out their priorities. Are they married because they love each other and they want to spend the rest of their lives together, or are they married because of some sort of financial arrangement?

I’m afraid that some morning Justice will wake up and see himself for what he is: a very ambitious professional in a remote city, lonely, straining his relationship with the woman to which he pledged to spend the rest of his life. What if, by that point, it’s too late? What if the damage is irreparable, and he loses her?

A family should come before a career. Yet too often, people place their professional success above all else. Some, like Justice, leave loved ones to find a better job, while still pledging their commitment to their family. Others return to work only a few months after giving birth, abandoning their children to day-care centers or sitters. If you bring someone into the world, you have a certain responsibility to raise them to the best of your ability. A husband and wife together should agree on an appropriate way to raise their children in the best environment possible. If a couple would rather focus on their careers, they shouldn’t have children. If one of the partners in a relationship would rather place their job above their spouse, they shouldn’t get married and pledge total commitment to one another.

We all know how easy it is to become totally consumed by studies and work. But we shouldn’t neglect our personal relationships in the course of striving for success. Keep in touch with your friends. Forget about work and just have fun sometimes. Spend quality time with those you love, even if it means passing up a higher-paying job a hundred miles away.

We are all guilty of ignoring those close to us sometimes in favor of studies or a career. We should do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen more often than is necessary, and not for the wrong reasons. I can only hope Glen Justice realizes this before it is too late.