The 1,000 Mile Marriage (Part 1 of 3)

July 25, 2010

This is a the first part of a feature article I wrote last fall for a UBC journalism class taught by The Tyee editor David Beers and music writer Chris Smith. In all the thesis-completion stress (and successive internships), I never ended up shopping it around.   ****GUILT****  It’s a little too late now, hence it’s here. Fer nothin’. Hope you like it. (Part 2 here, Part 3 here)

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Alison Wilson hunts for patterns in her stippled-ceiling condominium. She can’t sleep. Her next door neighbour’s ill-mannered medical equipment isn’t helping. The signal rattles past paint, drywall and eardrum before swimming through her cochlea and pounding her brain.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Photo by Marina Avila (Flickr cc)

It’s life in a suburban-Toronto old folk’s home. But unlike her neighbours, Wilson’s no senior. She doesn’t even deem her Oakville home home. At 29, Wilson is decades from honing shuffleboard skills or jazzercise techniques. You’re more likely to find her on Skype or cranking out a final email at the end of an already-too-long workday.

Wilson is one of a legion 20- to 30-somethings living in a commuter marriage, relationships where dual career advancement trumps the expense and pain of having to maintain two homes, often hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles apart.

According to the latest census figures, 556,000 married Canadians don’t live with their partners. But that statistic is unwieldy and blunt. The assumption that couples live together is so firmly entrenched, statisticians simply lump commuter couples with unravelling or strained marriages. Nobody knows how many are out there.

Yet a number of signs point to the increasing importance of commuting marriage as a strategy for balancing the demands of work and home. Relationships are changing: first comes life, then comes marriage (maybe), then comes an average of one-point-six baby carriages. Careers too. Job security and company loyalty is decreasing, flexibility is an asset, and more women are primary breadwinners with advanced degrees. Pieced together, it points to an increasing likelihood that tying the knot doesn’t mean either partner will give up on the career ladder.

While commuter marriage may appear robust, it may soon be headed for life support. In addition to persistent questions about social and psychological costs, the sustainability problem refuses to go away.

Photo by epsos.de (Flickr cc)

It all boils down to quality of life. Debating a commute? You’ll probably factor in money, career benefits, and opportunities. Living it? One thing stands out: the chasm between the worlds of work and home.

Wilson’s life epitomizes the brutal split. Nearly every Friday afternoon, the elderly Ontarian ambles onto a plane, wearily heading 3,200 km west to a south Edmonton duplex. Three days later, she returns a vibrant twenty-something Albertan, whipping out laptop and iPod for a 3 hour, 36 minute “bus ride.”

Double life came via marriage. Alison met her partner, Travis, during a 2002 engineering co-op semester in Lloydminster. Travis eventually followed her back to Edmonton. She caught on at a general contracting firm, while he landed in Refinery Row. They married in 2007.

When Wilson decided to pursue project management, she needed experience as a “project coordinator” to get there. Back-to-back projects in Edmonton were cancelled, but a charmed third chance appeared last fall in the intial stages of economic collapse. The only snag? A one-year move to Toronto, plus two more at a bitumen mine on the outskirts of Fort McMurray. Alison and Travis bit the bullet.

“Do I want the experience or do I want to turn it down?” Wilson deadpans the dilemma over the phone. Having just returned to Edmonton, her voice crackles from jet-lag and a common cold.

“Maybe I don’t get anything and I don’t have that opportunity to further my career..”

Life took an “adult living” twist when a bright-eyed realtor walked Wilson through a fully-furnished complex close to work. Things took a strange turn at the basement rec facilities.

“The realtor said, ‘Look! There’s a putting green and full-on shuffleboard layout, and oh! Do you like swimming?’”

Confused, Wilson pressed on and bobbed her head neutrally.

“She shows me this pool. You can lower your wheelchair into the pool. Really, really shallow. Then she takes me into the workout room and it’s these two-pound and one-pound weights. And I’m like, ‘Something’s not right here.’”

Everything became clear when Wilson entered the “fully-catered” dining room and saw a sea of trifocals and grey hair.

“I’m thinking, ‘Holy shit, this is a retirement home!’ I had no idea.”

Since Wilson is over 18, no legal impediments prevent her from renting the condo. And since Wilson wasn’t in Oakville for the wheelchair-accessibility, her agent bagged a commission.

It may suit her needs, but Wilson refuses to let her condo become home. She has no plants. She even leaves her makeup in an airport-ready ziploc bag as a way of signalling to herself that this is not permanent.

“Travis is like, ‘Why don’t you put stuff away, why don’t you make this place homier?’” says Wilson. “I wouldn’t ever try to make it feel like my home.”


One comment

  1. […] The Marriage of Technology … and Marriage Brent Wittmeier, a UBC journalism student, wrote a three-part article for a class taught by The Tyee editor David Beers and music writer Chris Smith- but he didn’t shop it around.  Too bad – it’s a well-crafted piece on the interplay of technology of long-distance marriage.  Since he was good enough to inteview me for it, here’s an excerpt.  (You can find the whole thing here.) […]

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