Commuter Marriages

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Commuter Marriages

Commuter marriage is a voluntary arrangement where dual-career couples maintain two residences in different geographic locations and are separated at least three nights per week for a minimum of three months (Gerstel and Gross 1982; Orton and Crossman 1983). Dual-career families (Rapoport and Rapoport 1976) are those where both heads of the household pursue careers, and their work requires a high degree of commitment and special training, with a continuous developmental character involving increasing degrees of responsibility.

Although researchers (Kirschner and Walum 1978) have acknowledged that living apart is not unusual for some occupations such as politicians, entertainers, or salespeople, as well as certain circumstances (e.g., war, immigration, imprisonment, and seasonal work), historically it is the male who has left the family for a period of time. In contrast, commuter marriages came about because both spouses have career goals that cannot be met in the same geographic location. Hence, increasingly we observe women's mobility from the family for work-related reasons. A commuter marriage is a work solution compromise allowing both spouses to pursue their careers, while maintaining their marriage relationship. Often the commuter arrangement is considered temporary until the couple achieves career goals that enable them to relocate together (Farris 1978).

The primary factors contributing to the occurrence of commuter marriages are: the number of women in the workforce, the number of dual-career couples, and the number of women seeking careers requiring specialized training, all of which are increasing (Anderson 1992). Further, it has been suggested that tighter job markets that force people to relocate, greater equality within marriage that places more attention on wives' careers, and society's increasing emphasis on individualism also add to the increased incidence of commuter marriages.

Demographics of Commuter Marriages

Demographers have speculated that annually 700,000 to one million American couples have adopted a commuting lifestyle ( Johnson 1987). By 1995, according to labor statistics, both partners in 61 percent of married couples worked, in contrast to 53.5 percent in 1990, 46.3 percent in 1980, and only 38.1 percent in 1970 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1996). Additionally, in 1998 the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that 2.4 million Americans said they were married, but that their spouses did not live at home, a 21 percent reported increase over the previous four years. Further, these people did not consider themselves separated, implying a troubled marriage. Although the above figures include military couples that may spend long periods of time apart, these data suggest that the number of commuter marriages in the United States continues to increase (Kiefer 2000). Although no known research has been reported on commuter marriages in other countries, one could surmise that other industrialized countries with married dual-career couples may also be experiencing this lifestyle arrangement.

The handful of U.S. studies conducted on commuter marriages suggest the following profile: (1) a large majority of these spouses are well-educated— over 90 percent have completed at least some graduate work; (2) almost all are professionals or executives with a high proportion in academics; (3) their median family income is between $30,000 and $40,000; (4) the mean age of the individuals is midto-late thirties with a range of 25 to 55 years; (5) 40 to 50 percent have children; and (6) more than half have been married for nine years or longer (Anderson and Spruill 1993; Bunker et al. 1992).

In regard to couples' commuting characteristics, there is much more variation. The period of time couples have maintained separate residences ranges from three months to fourteen years. Spouses travel from a range of forty to twenty-seven hundred miles and reunite as often as every weekend to as seldom as a few days a month (Gerstel and Gross 1984). One home is usually considered the primary residence and the other a sort of satellite home. Typically the place the couple reunites is considered the primary residence.

According to Elaine Anderson (1992), 47 percent of men and 29 percent of women did all the commuting, or traveled more frequently, whereas 25 percent report splitting the travel equally. Factors affecting the decision of who does most of the commuting in descending order of frequency are: flexibility of time, one home considered the home base, friend network, children at home, and community commitment. Further, Karen Patterson-Stewart, Anita Jackson, and Ronald Brown (2000) reported from a sample of African-American commuter marriages that loss of community, which limits one's ability to engage in nonwork-related activities, clearly was salient to these couples. Typically, 49 percent of the couples (Anderson 1992) report the wife suggested the idea of commuting, 24 percent said the husband instigated the idea, 19 percent replied both equally, and 8 percent said an employer offered commuting as an option. Likewise, data suggest women are more comfortable with the commuting relationship than men.

There is some disagreement in the literature concerning the effect of commuting on the division of household labor. Initially, researchers found that each newly commuting spouse develops competence in domestic tasks their spouse had previously performed. More recently, Elaine Anderson and Jane Spruill (1993) found that couples report a traditional gendered division of their household labor regardless of having more than one residence.

Commuter couples have been described as determined, capable, independent, resourceful, and self-reliant people who have confidence in their own judgment and who are not concerned with contradicting societal norms of marriage. Couples often face employers' doubts about whether or not the commuter would be "giving his/her best performance when living out of a separate household . . . [and/or] thought a commuter marriage would result in either a divorce or a decision to leave the company" (Taylor and Lounsbury 1988, p. 418). However, Anderson and Spruill (1993) report only 9 percent of commuter marriages terminated in divorce. Further, John Orton and Sharyn Crossman (1983) found extramarital affairs and the contemplation of divorce were relevant for only a minority of those in commuter marriages, and for those for whom these were issues, the commuting lifestyle had not jeopardized the marriage relationship.

Benefits for Commuter Marriage Couples

Clearly, the commuter lifestyle can bring some benefits to the marriage relationship. Trust and commitment tend to be rated as high for couples that successfully negotiate a commuter marriage (Maines 1993). In addition, cooperation and enhanced communication skills, along with "flexibility, common interests, interdependence, and a desire for self-actualization" are also reported (Winfield 1985, p. 174). Couples in later stages of family development who have achieved financial stability and who perceive well-being in their marriage have also been associated with more satisfactory commuting.

The individuals in the commuter marriage also may benefit from this lifestyle. Research suggests this lifestyle brings increased autonomy, achievement, and feelings of satisfaction for the individual as well as enhanced self-esteem and confidence (Chang and Browder-Wood 1996; Groves and Horm-Wingerd 1991). There is a greater ability to pursue one's career without some of the everyday family constraints, as well as an opportunity for developing one's self-identity and self-gratification.

Further, the commuting lifestyle affords individuals the possibility of greater concentration and more time at work by separating work and family responsibilities (Bunker and Vanderslice 1982). Catherine Chang and Amy Browder-Wood (1996) reported that female commuters experienced less psychological and physical difficulties if they could successfully resolve role conflicts, whereas males reported improved relationships with their children and feeling more effective in the parenting role. Finally, Patterson-Stewart and colleagues (2000) reported that commuters from racial minorities indicated that this lifestyle allowed them to counter employment limitations, prior assumptions that people might have about their abilities, and negative racial stereotypes and oppression. However, in spite of the myriad benefits, commuter marriages still face numerous obstacles.

Challenges Faced by Commuter Marriage Couples

Harriett Gross (1980) suggested there are two types of couples in commuter marriages, adjusting and established. Adjusting couples tend to be younger in age, are confronting separation earlier in their marriage, and have few, if any, children. In contrast, established couples are older and further along in their marriages, and their children are typically older and often have moved out of the house. Thus, the established couples tend to find the commuter marriage less stressful in comparison to adjusting couples. Trust seems to be a bigger issue for the younger adjusting couple, whereas maintaining excitement in the relationship may be an issue for the established couple.

Clearly, the financial costs of a commuter marriage can be significant. In addition to increased phone bills and travel costs, there is the burden of maintaining two households. The necessity of attending to all work or home activities in a relatively short period of time can become a source of strain. Finally, couples report the emotional costs of separation and the lack of emotional support and companionship, as well as feelings of loneliness, isolation, tension, frustration, and even depression (Chang and Browder-Wood 1996). In particular, younger adjusting couples report fearing they will grow apart and jeopardize their marriage. Commuting couples can lose their "intimacy of routine" or daily intimacy that "helps produce the ordered world typically entailed in a marital relationship" (Gerstel and Gross 1982, p. 81). Commuting couples have less time together; thus they feel more pressure when together to make all reunions special. Such unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment. Commuting couples also experience a reduction in sexual intercourse, perhaps due to fatigue, pressure, and readjustment.

In commuter relationships where the children are in college, the children report they were not affected by their parents' commuting (Patterson-Stewart, Jackson, and Brown 2000). In contrast, where children are still living at home, the children report more concern that the commuter parent seems uninvolved in their lives. Friends of commuter marriage couples report they admire the trust in their friends' relationship, but worry about the strain that commuting can bring to a relationship. They also report missing their friends' companionship.

There appear to be four factors that add stress and strain to the commuter marriage and lead to dissatisfaction with the arrangement. First, Anderson (1992) suggests stress from the commute can be exacerbated if the spouses do not enjoy spending time alone. Second, having particularly young children seems more problematic regarding the logistics of managing the household tasks and child care (Anderson and Spruill 1993). Third, those typically younger couples, with fewer years of marriage, and without the stability or security necessarily of either a long-term relationship or career may feel more strain (Orton and Crossman 1983). Finally, not only do couples that are separated by longer distances incur more monetary costs and energy outlay to reunite; they undoubtedly have less frequent, less regular, and shorter reunions. Therefore, suggestions for helping these couples cope with this lifestyle are warranted.

Coping Strategies for Commuter Marriage Couples

In order to maximize a couple's capacity to cope with the commuting lifestyle, intervention should begin at the decision-making stage, with a discussion of how to integrate work and family. Issues to consider for a commuter marriage are: (1) how financially stable the family is (i.e., will the commute produce undue financial burden?); (2) what stage of the family life cycle the family is at; (3) how much time individuals have spent by themselves, and how they react to alone time; (4) how systematic the couple is in making decisions; and (5) what kind of time frame for reassessing whether or not the lifestyle is working has been developed?

Coping with commuter marriage is significantly supported if the couple can more easily afford the increased financial costs of the lifestyle (Farris 1978; Gerstel and Gross 1982; Anderson 1992). Additionally, if spouses have no children at home, are older, have been married longer, and have at least one established career, commuting seems to be easier. Those spouses who can tolerate periods of separation and enjoy spending time alone also seem to adjust to and cope with the lifestyle most easily. Finally, using a more systematic or planned decision style helps many couples to express higher satisfaction with their decision to commute and their adapting to the commuting lifestyle. However, it is important to recognize that entering into a commuter marriage is a decision that couples make. Reevaluating the implemented decision to assess its effectiveness also is critical for enhancing family well-being.

See also:Communication: Couple Relationships; Home; Relationship Maintenance; Trust; Work and Family


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