I joke with my friends that I am a “part-time wife” because, for about half the year, I live with my husband and two cats in Boise, Idaho. The other half, I spend in Kalamazoo, Michigan working on my Ph.D. in English.
While in Boise, my husband and I live in one half of a small-but-charming duplex in a neighborhood scattered with trees. I snuggle with my cats, walk around in my underwear, play ’90s video games until the wee hours of the morning — you know, the usual 20-something geek girl fare.
While in Kalamazoo, I live in a one-room grad student dorm. I share a bathroom and a kitchen with a floor of other women. We’re not allowed to have overnight guests, quiet hours are enforced, and most horrifyingly of all, individual coffee pots are strictly forbidden (fire hazard, I guess). The dorm gets stuffy, lonely, and claustrophobic. But it’s what makes the most sense right now, given our budget and the duration of my program.
This is a temporary situation, but it does raise a few eyebrows, and like any non-traditional living arrangement, it presents its own challenges.
While our parents and close friends have been supportive, our decision has elicited shock from other people. My students, in particular, often blanch when I tell them I am 28 years old, I live in a dorm, and my husband lives on the other side of the country. To some extent, I can understand why. Long-distance relationships are hard. It’s unusual to live in a dorm at my age. How can I live without my own bathroom? And so on.
I have to say, though, it’s not as hard they might think. My “monastic” living situation in Michigan lets me focus intensely on my work. The time spent apart helps us appreciate each other all the more when we’re together. We have become much more effective communicators. And perhaps most significantly, this non-standard marriage makes us more vividly aware of the importance, beauty, and depth of the other relationships in our lives. We love each other deeply, but we will never fall into the trap of consuming each other’s personalities or losing ourselves in each other.
After spending one semester in the dorm, my notions about friendship, in particular, were blown wide open. I went into that semester expecting to pine away for my husband. What I found instead was that in the company of my good friends and colleagues, and given plenty of intellectual stimulation, I was actually quite happy. I missed my husband, of course. I love him in a way that is distinct from other loves. But, corny as it sounds, I also learned that friendship is not something we should diminish or belittle the way we frequently do (I’m lookin’ at you, “We’re just friends”).
“Just” friends? No. I’ve stopped using that phrase. I will say someone is my friend, but I won’t diminish the relationship by saying we are “just” friends, as if it’s something poorer than romantic or erotic love. In my opinion, it is only different, and nothing but extended time away from the person I love romantically could have fully taught me that.
Romantic love is wonderful. Marriage, for me, is wonderful. My husband and I like living together and in the long-run, we want to live together every day. But we don’t let that desire keep us from living separately for a while so that I can finish a program of study that brings me immense joy.
Despite the weird complications now and then — negotiating time differences, the sadness of missing out on fun times the other person is having, etc. — I believe our decision to color outside the lines of the traditional expectations of marriage has made us stronger, happier, more articulate about our needs, and more grateful for the people we love in nonromantic ways.
In truth, I’m not a part-time wife. I am a full-time wife. And living a few states away for a while won’t change that.