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March 20, 2011

The New American Couple

the new american couple
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Lisa Ling, 37, host of Our America, and Dr. Paul Song, 45, president and chief medical officer of CytoTech

In February 2006, Paul Song, a radiation oncologist in Washington, D.C., got a phone call from television journalist Lisa Ling. A mutual friend had decided the two were destined for one another. He told Ling to get in touch, promising, "You're going to marry this guy!"

Song knew Ling was a journalist, but he was too busy to watch TV, and he'd never seen her bantering with Barbara Walters on The View, where she became a household name at age 25.

Ling, 32 at the time, wasn't looking for a boyfriend when the two met up in D.C. that night, but she and Song, 40, lingered over dinner for four hours. They talked about the upcoming presidential elections, bonded over their similar childhoods in tight-knit Asian families, and compared notes on their extreme careers. After leaving The View in 2002, Ling hosted a show on the National Geographic Channel, then became an investigative correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago. When Song moved there that spring for an academic appointment at the University of Chicago, Ling was often in town for work.

In December 2006, less than a year after they met, Song rented a private room at Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago and dropped to one knee, pulling out a plain platinum band and asking Ling to marry him in front of their families, whom he'd flown in. That May, they wed before 550 guests.

But the picture-perfect marriage soon cracked. "People always said, 'You're such an impressive couple professionally.' We'd look at each other and think, We really screwed up our personal life," Ling says. "We never made 'us' the priority." By November 2010, almost four years later, their marriage was seriously troubled.

The first issue? Ling was depressed in the cold Chicago winter. So in September 2007, they moved to California, settling into a 450-square-foot studio while designing an energy-efficient, modern dream home nearby in Santa Monica.

Song found a job, but he detested California's troubled health-care system. Worse, he felt like a "latchkey husband," thanks to Ling's constant traveling. Right after they arrived, he had a black-tie fundraiser for his new hospital. Ling had an Oprah shoot out of town and wasn't able to attend the fundraiser. "I couldn't believe it," he says.

Then came tragedies that would rock any relationship. In March 2009, Ling's sister, Laura, also a reporter, was captured in North Korea. Ling turned down work and holed up at her mother's in L.A. for months, writing letters and organizing vigils. "The only thing I cared about was getting Laura home," says Ling. "I was not a spouse." In August 2009, as former President Clinton escorted Laura back to the U.S., Song's father was diagnosed with cancer, and Song became heavily involved in overseeing his treatment. His father died in April; in June, Song's mother got injured in a car crash. And that month, Ling miscarried.

It was a defining moment, and Song's reaction made it worse. "As a physician, I know miscarriage is common," he says. "But I should have taken my doctor hat off and been there for her as a husband."

By now Song was president of a biotech company, and Ling was working for Our America, a show on Oprah's new network. For most of 2010, they spent, on average, one weekend a month together, eating out and talking about work. Scrolling down Song's Facebook page, "I wouldn't know the people he was hanging out with," says Ling. Though their salaries were about equal, they kept separate finances and traded off expenses. The ambition and independence that made them successful professionals were working against them.

By November, the new house was almost done, and they began moving their furniture in from storage facilities across the country. "We were moving into this four-bedroom house, just the two of us. It started to feel a little scary," says Ling. After dinner at their favorite Italian place that night, they sat down and agreed they'd been leading separate lives.

"I've always been very blasé about divorce if things didn't work out," says Ling, but she still deeply loved her husband. For Song, the frequent celebrity divorce news was wearing on him. "Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson were on the Huffington Post every day. We didn't want to be a Hollywood cliché." They agreed to try therapy.

Ling polled her friends with the strongest marriages for a male therapist so Song would feel comfortable opening up, and they see him once a week. Now when Ling travels, she and Song Skype or video chat so they can see each other's eyes (a therapist recommendation). Their new bedroom is filled with pictures of just the two of them, and they've pledged to get away together one weekend a month to see something new. Ling reconfigured her travel schedule to be home more. They're opting out of social engagements and ramping up the lazy time together, pigging out on Chex mix, talking politics, going for runs, or cooking gumbo or vegetarian lasagna together. They're merging their finances at Song's mother's suggestion, planning a trip to Bali, and talking about trying to have a baby again.

"We're both extremely independent people," says Ling. "We thought we could bring our lives together, but in order to have a successful marriage, you have to learn how to compromise. Work can't be more important than your relationship."

— Sophia Banay Moura

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