A few years ago, two of our married friends in the same Ph.D. program graduated and found themselves in a predicament. As specialists in the same narrow field, they found themselves competing for the same handful of jobs in the area, with no success. After a while, they decided to change their tactic. They would each apply for jobs all over the country and take whatever jobs they could find. If they ended up in different states, they would travel back and forth. “It stinks,” they said, “but you gotta do what you gotta do.”
This solution is becoming increasingly popular for some couples pursuing dual careers. When my husband accepted a year-long position in another state, I heard several responses along the lines of, “A year huh? That's a pretty long time to have to be apart. Are you planning to quit your job?” I was surprised. Of course, I would quit my job! It would never occur to me that any job would be good enough to be worth sacrificing a year of married life with James.
But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 3.5 million couples in the United States live separately for reasons other than an impending divorce. Many of these are "commuter marriages." This number has more than doubled since 1990.
Some couples are obviously separated by uncontrollable issues, such as deployment or immigration issues, and there are others who may simply enjoy the time apart, but the majority of couples in commuter marriages are probably like our friends in graduate school. These are couples who are happy in their relationships, enjoy each other's company and genuinely want to be close to each other, but make the decision to live apart at least three days a week1, sometimes for years—sometimes to avoid disrupting children's education, but usually to accommodate one spouse's job.
One reason for the increase may be what marriage specialist Andrew Cherlin calls the “deinstitutionalization” of marriage, or the weakening of social norms that define family behavior. As family structure and roles become increasingly vague and subjective, we are more likely to prioritize norms that are universally agreed upon—such as pursuing individual goals, talents, and opportunities for growth.
There is evidence for this assumption. While most Americans want true love and marriage, we increasingly make decisions that pull us away from those goals. We date less, cohabit more, marry later, have children outside of marriage, and generally make ourselves less available for relationships. These practices seem to signal our desire for independence, but they can also conflict with our desire for a happy, interdependent marriage.
Additionally, probably stemming from a strong diet in old-fashioned American individualism, interview data from an older study on commuter marriages suggests that we increasingly believe two independent spouses pursuing individual life goals are actually a signal of a good marriage, and that spending time apart in order to fulfill our individual needs can be a way of proving how strong one’s marriage is.
While many couples live apart without major consequences, most commuting couples agree that either one spouse's career or the relationship usually ends up suffering. Common challenges include increased tension in the marriage and family, decreased satisfaction with sexual intimacy, and missed important family moments. According to a study in Sweden, long-distance commuter couples experienced about a 40 percent higher rate of separating.
These statistics should not be a surprise. Few couples choose to live apart because it sounds like fun. In one qualitative study in the Netherlands, researchers interviewing 30 commuter couples found that most did not see a long distance relationship as an ideal solution, but rather the only solution, given their circumstances. They felt trapped. However, most of the couples also said they didn’t really think about the potential consequences to their relationship—in other words, losing a significant amount of physical togetherness didn’t seem like that big of a deal.
Living apart, especially temporarily, may be the right option for some couples. But when the importance of marital togetherness is underestimated or overlooked in the decision-making process, couples may unwittingly sign up for a lifestyle that has far more negative than positive outcomes. While more current research is needed on this topic, it is clear that "indulging" in togetherness and romance leads to happier marriages, and people who are happily married tend to be physically and mentally healthier, wealthier, less subject to crime and violence, more active in their communities, and overall happier. Their kids enjoy better outcomes in virtually every way. These are not the products of indulgence—these are the fruits and vegetables of a good life. That should be worth some sacrifice.
1. Gerstel, Naomi and Harriet Gross, Commuter Marriage: A Study of Work and Family (New York: Guilford Press, 1984).