Friday, June 12, 2015

The Two-Body Problem: What I Learned

A few weekends ago I came home from commencement, hung up my silly robe for another year, cleaned my fridge, packed my car, and left town for the city where I live with my spouse. I won't be back until later in the summer. I've been making that five-hundred-mile round trip nearly every weekend for three of the last four years, with breaks for summers or sabbaticals. But this was the last time. Next time I drive to Cleveland it will be with a moving van and my spouse.  We have been lucky enough to solve the infamous two-body problem, the long-term, long-distance relationships that bedevil so many academic couples.

There was no fanfare. There was no parade. And there are plenty of logistical hassles left, such selling a house and moving our main household. But that phase of my life came to a quiet end. I will simply not do that commute anymore, and gradually I will lose the habit of doing it and the habits that came with it. But, before the perspective of the last few years fades from memory, I'd like to jot down what the experience taught me.

Some things should be obvious. A long-distance domestic partnership or marriage makes demands on your time, your energy, your organizational skills, your finances, and your relationship itself. Some of those things can be traded for one another to a limited degree; spending more money might mean shorter commutes, or ease organizational challenges by allowing you to duplicate, rather than endlessly pack and unpack, more possessions. Or your superior organizing may streamline things enough to buy you a couple extra hours of weekly rest. But the trade-offs only go so far.

The rise of internet and cell phones have made some aspects easier to cope with; there are no more massive long-distance phone bills. And some things are idiosyncratic to each situation. I had an enormously difficult time trying to manage two separate kitchens and keep both properly stocked. Not everyone will have that problem, just as not everyone has the same travel patterns or domestic pressures. And yes, there are first-world problems. But they're widely shared problems in my profession.

1. You will be tired and can't afford to be.

The first part of this is obvious. Travel takes time. Travel takes energy. But just because it's obvious doesn't mean that it won't affect you nearly every day. And it doesn't mean that you will expect how tired you will be. A commuter marriage taxes the time and energy of both partners, even if one doesn't usually do the traveling. My 4+ hour drive was manageable; I always had the energy to do it. But doing it twice a week for weeks on end wore me down more than I was willing to admit to myself. And at a certain point, not admitting to yourself that you're tired is the biggest problem.

But you can't afford to relax and save your energy, which would be my usual advice. Your careers run on that time and energy, and you can only get two jobs in one place by making yourself as employable, and thus working as hard, as you possibly can. The two-body problem takes away exactly the time and energy you need to invest in solving the two-body problem. And you also need to leave some time and energy for, you know, the relationship itself.

My weekly travel was much easier than many people's. I could drive, rather than fly. And it only demanded between eight and nine travel hours on a typical week. But eight or nine hours is most of a workday taken out of your week somewhere. And those are hours when you're awake and alert; below a certain limit of fatigue, you're not safe to drive. If you're trying to set aside one workday a week for your writing, as many people do, that day can get gobbled up by travel time and by tasks that travel pushes into other days.

(If you're flying or taking the train, you might be able to sleep or work as you travel. But you're still not going to use that time efficiently; it's going to be broken up and full of distractions.)

I found that I could drive to Job City from Marriage City at the beginning of the week and jump right into the week's tasks, although I wasn't going to get much done Sunday night after the drive. But one way or another, the drive back to Marriage City extracted a productivity toll. If I drove on Friday, most of that day got burned. If I kept Friday clear of courses and meetings and drove home after my night class on Thursdays, I would typically arrive home sometime between 1 and 3 AM. Then, mysteriously, I would have trouble getting much done the next day. Either way, my Friday-as-writing-day was cooked.

What I began to learn, but never fully mastered, was the art of using partially-fatigued time for tasks that required less concentration. If I tried to write part of an article on Friday, most of that time was going to get wasted. But I could use that time to prepare the next week's classes, rereading the assigned texts and writing classroom handouts. I couldn't write elaborate feedback on student papers just after I got home from teaching my night class, but I could proofread those papers and mark mechanical errors. And then those tasks would not end up taking up hours when my mind was sharper and I could do more complicated things.

You can't always devote your best working hours to the most demanding tasks. Sometimes a pile of meetings eat up some of your most productive time, and compressing the time you spend in the office - which you have to do to commute - means that lots of those meetings get stacked up in the middle of the week. But you can try to husband the less-productive time carefully to get through less-demanding tasks, and salvage as much of your high-productivity time as you can. Even more importantly, you have to learn when even low-level work is counterproductive, and make yourself rest when you can't work. If it's midnight, or even 10:30, and you've just driven two or three hundred miles, you should go right to bed.

2. You cannot divide the challenges evenly, but you can be fair.

Any couple with the two-body problem is concerned with equity; that's why one partner doesn't just sacrifice his or her career for the other. But there is almost no practical way for most couples to divide all of the different kinds of work that two-location marriage or domestic partnership requires equally. It doesn't even make sense to do it that way.

Even if you each do half the traveling during the semester, which is almost never efficient or practical, you aren't going to split summer break or winter holidays evenly between both locations. You probably can't afford to buy permanent homes in both places, but you might have good financial reasons to buy a home in one place. If you have children, they have to go to school somewhere. Inevitably, one location will become home base, and the partner who works in the other location will do more of the traveling.

What this means is that, one way or another, the practical challenges of the two-body relationship get distributed asymmetrically. This doesn't have to be unfair. But you can't split every task down the middle. You can share the hardships, but you're each going to cope with a different set of hardships.

Even when you think that you're taking on the tougher job, you are inevitably leaving other difficulties to your partner. I chose to be the primary commuter (although my spouse gave me a break once or twice a semester by coming to Job City for a weekend), thinking that I was taking a major burden from my spouse's shoulders. And to some degree, I was. But I was also, without realizing it, sticking my spouse with the responsibility for upkeep and repair of our 90-year-old house. After all, she was there, and I couldn't be around on most weekdays. Trying to relieve her of one burden, I saddled her with another. But that's how long-distance partnerships work; each partner ends up taking on different roles.

(The one part of the main household I did oversee was the kitchen, because I'm the primary family cook and therefore the primary grocery shopper. Before I left for the week, I would stock up the home-front kitchen with low-maintenance meals that I knew my spouse enjoyed. That particular division of labor was idiosyncratic, driven by our particular skill sets. Every long-distance partnership will have odd details like that.)

The thing you need to remember, for your relationship's sake, is that both of you have taken on the harder half of the job. Each one of you wrestles with problems the other doesn't have to deal with, and both can legitimately say they have it tougher than the other. Always remember in moments of stress that your spouse or partner is dealing with many challenges that s/he has taken on alone.

3. You must really live in both places.

One of your two locations will inevitably end up being primary, but you can't psychologically disconnect from the second place. It may be secondary in practical terms, because you can only handle one mortgage and because you leave during summer break. But you can't treat it as simply a place where you show up, do your job, and leave. You can't treat your home in the secondary location as a motel. One of you is going to spend the lion's share of every work week in that place; if it doesn't feel like home at all, you're going to be miserable.

The dumbest smart thing I ever did in the commuter phase of my marriage was to downsize my apartment in Work City to a smaller, fairly anonymous bachelor pad close to my office. On paper, it was a perfectly sensible idea; it was cheaper and more efficient. But over time it wore on me terribly, and I eventually came to hate being there, not because the place itself was so bad but because I had never managed to make it feel like home. Worse, I thought of it as Not-Home, as an extension of my workplace. And that meant that psychologically I never came home from the office at all unless I got in a car and crossed two state lines.

The only time that apartment felt like home was when my spouse visited for the weekend. Those weekends often became extended date nights, as we got to enjoy Job City's amenities. (If you spend your time in two places, you will discover unique pleasures in each place. Try to enjoy both when you can.) And when she visited, even my grimly convenient apartment became a place where I found comfort. Later, when my spouse moved to Job City for a sabbatical year, we found a more home-like apartment in my old residential neighborhood, and I began to reconnect more fully with the city around me.

You can't afford to be alienated from a place where you spend at least twenty days a month. And you can't let your social life wither in either place, no matter how easy that is to do. You need to bond with both places. You need friends in both places. And you need to keep working on those things.

4. Mood. 

A commuter marriage is, by its nature, something you're not happy doing, and it fills your daily life with things that aren't especially happy-making. Most of us don't get married so we can wake up alone. You have to spend a lot of your time putting on your happy face and powering through. Everyone learns to do that getting through grad school, just like you learn to power through a lot of work when you're tired. But, just as pushing on with work after you're tired eventually becomes counter-productive, ignoring your mood will eventually burn you. You need to monitor your frame of mind just as you monitor your energy level, and plan around your own low points.

Most of my problems with mood were cumulative: things that weren't so difficult in themselves but, through repetition, slowly eroded my inner resources. I don't fall apart if I spend a day or two without my spouse. Waking up alone for a day or two is not a problem. But as the number of days spent apart from her stacked up, week after week, I eventually had to admit that I was finding it increasingly hard to stay positive, becoming frustrated more quickly, having a harder time shaking off minor problems. In my case this was complicated, and temporarily masked, by the fact that while I was adjusting to the weekly commute I was also taking on a number of new quasi-administrative responsibilities at work, so there were genuinely new workplace headaches. But it's harder to roll with the punches on the sixtieth or eightieth work day you wake up without your spouse. I eventually accepted that my mood declined over the course of each week, and that every week's low point got a little lower.

Driving at night was another cumulative problem. I find driving at night relaxing. But when you're driving 250 miles twice a week, almost always after dark,  you are basically spending eight or nine hours a week sitting alone in the darkness. That turns out to affect your mood. Driving through the night for four hours won't meaningfully affect you. Sitting in your darkened car, mile by mile, for more than 100 hours a semester will gradually start to darken your outlook. I eventually had to take active steps to ensure that I did at least some of each week's driving in the sunlight, and noticed an immediate improvement.

Mood is obviously related to energy level and fatigue, and the same problems with academic culture apply. We're all trained to suck it up and grind it out. That's how you get through orals, that's how you finish your diss, that's how you do all the end-of-term grading in four days, that's how you got through the gauntlet of the job market. It's the right thing to do, up to a point. But after that point, or when the thing your pushing past stretches beyond weeks and months and becomes indefinite, it becomes very much the wrong thing to do. It's like distance running: you need to run through some discomfort and fatigue. That's the normal state of things. But if you push it beyond a certain point, you will hurt yourself. Sometimes the pain is warning you that you will injure yourself if you keep running; the fatigue is telling you that you are dehydrated, and getting worse with every step. If you keep pushing after that point, you will put yourself far, far behind.

I learned, or began to learn, two basic strategies for coping with my declining mood. One, as with the drive-in-the-sunshine trick, was to look for small things to build into my schedule that improved the day: lunch at a favorite place instead of at my desk, coffee with a friend. The big things, like not seeing your spouse every day, are part of the problem, and big attempts at compensation are often dysfunctional, but you can get some decent mileage out of small things.

The second trick is to be aware of your moods and step back a little from what you're feeling in the moment. For the first year of weekly commuting, it seemed that every Thursday afternoon between 4 and 6 something outrageous and messed-up would happen at work, usually involving some quasi-administrative stuff. Then I would teach my night class, which put whatever it was out of my mind for two hours but left it waiting for me when I got out of class, and then I'd pack my car and drive four and a half  hours through the night, chewing over whatever that week's Thursday Afternoon Outrage was. That was a pretty ugly experience. Eventually I learned to adjust to that, partly because I learned which kinds of nonsense I should expect in my inbox, but mostly because I learned that I was at the absolute lowest trough of the week at 5:30 on Thursday afternoon, and that I should learn to hold all my Thursday-afternoon reactions at arm's length. I learned that things tended to look especially bleak or dysfunctional by that time (and of course, almost every Friday afternoon meeting seemed to be about something utterly insane) and that I should presume that any problems that came to my notice late on Thursday would seem less awful the next day. I couldn't make myself a resilient optimist by the last days of the week, but I could plan around my weekly lack of optimism or resilience and keep my temporarily lowered mood from affecting my actions.

Anyway, that's what is was like for me. Your mileage may vary.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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