The New American Couple

In the age of commuter marriages and BlackBerry wars, what really makes it work? We asked five real couples how they bulletproof their relationship.

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Sara Blakely, 40, founder of Spanx, and Jesse Itzler, 42, cofounder of Marquis Jet and principal investor in Zico Water

Recently, while dining with his wife and some friends, Jesse Itzler, cofounder of Marquis Jet, a firm that rents private planes to celebs and execs, was puzzled when one of his friends asked him about the La Jolla, California, home he'd put on the market. "Oh, I forgot to tell you, I decided to sell the house," his wife, Sara Blakely, founder of the ultrasuccessful Spanx body-shaper empire, said nonchalantly. Itzler was unfazed. It was hardly the first time his wife had made an executive decision about their finances without him green-lighting it. Only a year earlier he'd pulled into the driveway of their Connecticut home to find a new Lexus she'd bought. "I trust her to do whatever she wants," says Itzler.

Such is the laid-back, you-do-your-thing-I'll-do-mine approach Itzler and Blakely bring to their marriage. Both made their fortunes before marrying in 2008. They preside over their businesses from different cities: Blakely runs Spanx from Atlanta (their 21-month-old son, Lazer, typically travels with her); Itzler is based in Manhattan. The deal: Both must be home in time for dinner every night. "Home" is defined loosely — they own three residences and have just rented another for a monthlong getaway in San Diego. They rarely talk shop in their off-hours. "We're both past the PowerPoint stage of our businesses. We're older now and have other things we're interested in," explains Blakely, who routinely travels the country giving motivational speeches.

Not surprisingly, to make their warp-speed, frequent-flying lifestyle work, they rely on a team of minders: personal assistants, drivers, chefs, a 24-hour nanny on call, and "house managers" who ensure that, at any given time, there's Diet Coke in the fridge, gas in the tanks, and clean sheets on the bed. "It's really a full-time job to manage our lives," says Blakely. "We don't have the luxury of time. We spend more because of how we live, but it's important to be with our family and friends."

Freed from the financial worries that have undone many marriages, the pair argue over small issues: He eats standing up, which drives her batty. (She recently warned him that if he does it again, she'll exile him to the nearest hotel. "The Four Seasons?" he quipped.) While Itzler is an involved parent, their nanny, while always on call, isn't full-time, and Blakely, like many working moms, is in charge. "Sara's assistant put Lazer's doctors' contact info" — he has pediatricians in two states — "in my phone, but it would take me a while to find it," Itzler confesses.

On weekends, she'll watch Lazer, while Itzler, a marathoner, goes for a run. Every morning, she must get Starbucks (Grande Soy Chai Tea Misto, no foam, splash of water), no exceptions. Tiffs over where to order dinner or what movie to rent are settled with a rock-paper-scissors shootout. Full-blown arguments, while rare, typically erupt about Itzler's BlackBerry use. These disputes are resolved when he extends his hand and the pair slow dance. Seriously. "It's really helpful," Blakely chirps. "We respect that each of us moves at a fast pace. That might bother some, but we get it."

— Lea Goldman

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Michelle Rhee, 41, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools System and founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, an advocacy group for children in public education, and Kevin Johnson, 45, former NBA player and current mayor of Sacramento, California

How did you initially get together?

Kevin: Michelle and I met in Washington, D.C. at a Teach for America event. Ironically, we both ended up in public service, which we never imagined.

Michelle: We had a business relationship for three years. I was on the board of the charter school he founded, St. HOPE Academy, in Sacramento. When Kevin asked me out — after I became chancellor of D.C. schools and quit the board — I said, "That's crazy. We disagree a lot." He said, "That's just work. It doesn't have to be that way." We were in Denver for the 2008 Democratic Convention and had dinner on the rooftop of a Mexican restaurant. He was very different from what I thought he would be.

What was the attraction?

Kevin: Our passion for education.

Michelle: Definitely the work ethic. He had e-mailed, asking me to get involved with his school. I e-mailed back and said I couldn't do it. It was 2 a.m. when I sent the e-mail, and just a few seconds later, I heard the ding! on my computer. He'd e-mailed back one word: "Nope." I was impressed that he was working so late. And I loved the fact that he wouldn't take no for an answer.

What were your first, false impressions of each other?

Kevin: Michelle can answer that.

Michelle: I knew that he was a former basketball player, and I assumed he was just this NBA figurehead who didn't do any actual work and wasn't really engaged. It was astonishing to learn that he was running this organization — he was passionate about education reform and a very hard worker.

How compatible are you?

Kevin: Very. She'd probably say I'm neater and better organized than she is. Also, that I'm more health-conscious. Michelle has an incredible metabolism. She's tiny, yet eats whatever she wants. I'm proud to say we work out together.

Michelle: I love food! Kevin doesn't love food the way I do. I say, I live to eat and Kevin eats to live! He was a professional athlete, so he's generally more aware of what he eats; I love junk food.

Your relationship is bicoastal, and you spend lots of time apart. What do you text each other?

Kevin: We text and e-mail "lovey-doveys" throughout the day.

Michelle: [laughs] Nothing R-rated. But we are loving and affectionate with each other. Also, we're news junkies, so we text each other current events.

What's the first thing you do when you get off the plane?

Kevin: We text to let the other know we've landed and ask, "Are you here yet?" And when we see each other, we hug and smooch!

Michelle: I usually fly in late, so we have a late dinner — usually at Mikuni's, a sushi place. Then we go to sleep.

What's date night like?

Kevin: We're homebodies.

Michelle: We go out with his mom! That doesn't sound romantic, but I really love her. We'll go see a movie or stroll around looking at sidewalk art sales. We're obsessed with Mad Men, and on Sunday nights we'll watch it before I get on a red-eye back to D.C.

Who wins the arguments?

Kevin: One person is always right. If we disagree, I say, "Yes, dear."

Michelle: Well, I like to think that I'm always right, but all those pre-dating years of arguments taught us how to fight fair.

How do you protect your bond against public scrutiny? For example, in a Time magazine story, Michelle was called "just plain mean," while critics have labeled Kevin "power hungry."

Kevin: We have thick skin. It's harder for me when people criticize Michelle unfairly. I've had to restrain myself from firing off an e-mail or making a phone call. Michelle fights hard for kids, which is why she's characterized as "mean." But she's a big softie!

Michelle: I don't care when it happens to me, but I'm very defensive when Kevin is criticized. He's not power hungry. He has very little power to change things. His predecessors never fought for the power it takes to make real changes. But if the criticism is valid, we're honest with each other.

Why did you call off your wedding last September?

Kevin: We wanted to get married in Sacramento — the publicity would have been good for city business — but it quickly became a media circus.

Michelle: The local paper got a hold of our invitation and printed it. There were security issues.

You both always look so polished. Who chooses your outfits?

Kevin: That's Michelle's department.

Michelle: I like clothes and make an effort to ensure we both look nice. Before leaving Sacramento, I lay out Kevin's out fits for the week, and he often calls me right before an event, asking, "Which tie should I wear? Which shoes?" But I also ask his opinion on what to wear, and he's always right. He has very good taste.

— Andrea Todd

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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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Louanne Brickhouse (left), 40, VP of production at The Walt Disney Company, and Ilene Chaiken, 53, cocreator, writer, and executive producer of the TV series The L Word

How did you two meet?

LouAnne: I'm a former club girl, and a friend asked if I would take Ilene to the gay venues and show her the nightlife, so my friends and I picked her up in a limo and took her out. At the time, I was dating someone and always trying to set up Ilene on dates and get her into trouble. Years later, when I was single, I realized I wanted to date her. On our first date, I was so nervous that I had to bring a friend along! I also brought a dictionary on the date. Ilene has the most amazing vocabulary and always uses words that I don't know. I wanted to make sure I fully understood every word she said!

Ilene: A mutual friend said I had to meet LouAnne, describing her as attractive, smart, and stylish — and that she knew all the good clubs and parties. One night I was out with the great film director Garry Marshall, and he asked about my love life. I told him there was nobody rocking my world. He said, "If she were available, LouAnne would be perfect for you."

What's your morning routine?

LouAnne: We typically wake up at 5 a.m. If I don't have to read a book or script, we go to the gym. By 6:30 a.m., we're home, and I make protein smoothies. Then we feed the dogs and talk about our days ahead. Often, it's the only time we get to talk the entire day!

Ilene: When we're in production on The Real L Word, I read story reports from our field producers about what they shot the night before. Then I talk with LouAnne while she's dressing, and our new puppy climbs all over me and makes us laugh.

Which one of you spends more on clothes?

LouAnne: Ilene loves to shop, and she has very exclusive tastes! I'm a country girl and spend my money on cars. I love American muscle cars and have two customized trucks. Before Ilene knew me, she had never been to Target, driven a Ford-150 pickup truck, or had a Chick-fil-A sandwich. All of that has changed.

Ilene: Me, I've done my best to corrupt LouAnne, and she's acquired a taste for some things that I cherish. I love clothes and shopping, and I am definitely the one with the habit. I once had an entire room lined with shelves to contain all of my shoes. I've since pared down, but I still have a considerable collection. As Pam Grier once said, "Shoes are my crack."

How do you handle finances?

LouAnne: We share a lot.

Ilene: There are many things that we share and some that we keep separate — I have teenage daughters in private school and the associated responsibilities. I've never been good at finances. LouAnne is helping me to become better at it. She's more organized than me. She's helped me to plan. I feel less compulsive with her in my life and don't really need the things that I once believed essential.

Who usually works later?

LouAnne: I often have dinners, screenings, and events that keep me out until late. And although Ilene is usually home, she writes all night long.

Ilene: That's LouAnne — she has an executive life. When she doesn't have a screening or a dinner, she comes home between 7 and 8. I have a sporadic freelance life. When I'm writing, I usually start early in the morning, and normally I stop around 6 p.m. When I'm on a deadline and feeling inspired, I may get up in the middle of the night and go upstairs to write.

How do you prioritize your relationship with your demanding careers?

LouAnne: We both love what we do, but the workload is intense. I try to plan outings or date nights for us so we can exhale, hold hands, and enjoy the sunshine. This past weekend we hiked with our dogs, got massages, and had pizza at a café while people-watching.

Ilene: We don't distinguish between the two. We support each other's work — it's one of the most loving things we can do. We chose careers that are demanding, and although we miss one another when it's an intense work time, we accept that, and then make up for it.

Where are you weak where the other is strong?

LouAnne: I can be impatient and stubborn. Ilene is a great sounding board and always deals with a situation without ego or personal agenda.

Ilene: LouAnne has a deep and intrinsic moral rudder — moral in the true and pure sense — not a judgmental morality, but an intuitive ethical guidepost. I'm more inclined to equivocate, and LouAnne helps me when I'm uncertain. I trust her on issues of conscience.

What drives the other nuts?

LouAnne: My biggest complaint is that we don't get enough time to talk. By the time we get to bed, we both pass out.

Ilene: LouAnne has many quirks, but I love them all.

— Elise Nersesian-Solé

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Sima Baran, 30, and Paul Robertson, 47, sailors on their 41-foot yacht, Leander

It was a perfect day — crystal-clear water and sunny skies. But as we sailed through the Indian Ocean, Paul and I were stressed. We were entering a dangerous part of our voyage, "Pirate Alley," a stretch between Africa and the Middle East where armed fishermen hijack boats. If we were attacked, the plan was that one of us should stay behind. So for the month we navigated pirate territory, we made it look like I'd never lived on the boat.

We hid my clothes and jewelry, and back on deck, we searched for hiding spots where I could duck in and wait it out if pirates came aboard. We thought the sail cover might work, but when I climbed up the main sail and crammed myself into the canvas case, Paul could still see me. Next, I tried squeezing under our inflatable rubber dinghy, which was tied upside down on the deck. I wriggled under feet first, but it was too hot. Finally, we found it: the locker at the very tip of the boat where the anchor chain was stored. The opening was tiny; I just fit inside. We stocked it with water, food, a flashlight, hammer, and knife, and over the next few days, we made dry runs. These are safety precautions just in case, I thought as I closed the door behind me. The alternative was too scary to consider.

We first had the idea for this trip in the spring of 2005. I was exhausted from my strategy consulting job, and one day I was complaining to Paul on the phone.

"Wait," he interrupted. "If you could be anywhere right now, where would it be?"

"Sailing around the world." It just popped out. Neither of us had ever sailed, and the idea sounded expensive. "Well, let's think about this," Paul said.

We had started dating a year before, in April 2004, when I was a paralegal at the Boston law firm where Paul was an attorney. After that phone call, we began sailing every weekend, and in 2006, we looked for a boat to buy and planned a trip. We bought our boat in May 2007, for $150,000. It sounds like a lot, but the boat would be our home. Paul is older than I am, so he had savings. We set sail from Massachusetts on October 12, 2007.

The decision to leave civilization behind wasn't that hard. But I knew I would miss certain things: lunch at Sakurabana, my favorite sushi restaurant; yoga classes; and Dunkin' Donuts pumpkin muffins. And life on the boat, as much as I love it now, took some getting used to. At first, I didn't want Paul to see me get really seasick, but we've become more comfortable around each other. Now getting sick is like having a runny nose: It's no big deal.

But just because we've seen each other at our worst doesn't mean we aren't romantic. On Valentine's Day 2010, we were in Malaysia, and Paul surprised me with local pancakes from a street vendor and a bouquet. Our relationship has become more passionate. We don't have the "I'm too tired to fool around after work" dilemma. We have time on our hands, which is fun.

Sure, we've had torn sails, engine failure, and dead autopilots, but nothing we couldn't handle. We never did have any pirate trouble. And when we sail, our decision-making is fairly equal.

At first, we called the trip an extended honeymoon — we left soon after our wedding. We thought we'd only be gone a year. Now it's been three years. And in February 2010, I got pregnant. (We had my OB/GYN programmed into our satellite phone.) I had the baby, Alexander, in November, and we plan to finish the trip with him by spring of 2012 — I hope to go to business school. At that point we will have been sailing for five years. We've gotten so close, and I was crying the other day thinking about how it's almost over. Then I realized: We have another one and a half years to go!

— As told to Sophia Banay Moura