Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

Miles That Bind: Commuter Marriage and Family Strengths

Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

Miles That Bind: Commuter Marriage and Family Strengths

Article excerpt

Commuter marriages are characterized by one spouse being resident in the family home, often with work and child-care responsibilities, while the other spouse works and lives away from home for extended periods. This arrangement of family life poses unique challenges for families drawn to the potential benefits of commuting. Commuter marriage entails enormous sacrifices and emotional costs and is not for most families. Still, it may work for others.

Long distance commuter marriages are growing in number. Organizing marital and family life around the absence of a spouse is becoming a more familiar part of America's social landscape, making this an opportune time to familiarize readers with the literature in this area, while offering two examples of how commuting has worked for the authors' families. The literature on commuter marriage remains fairly thin, despite strong beginnings twenty years ago. Much relevant data draws from the area of Work and Families and from the corporate world.

There are differing motivations for commuting. Commuters having a short or limited time-line for commuting may accept it as part of their occupation, or feel that enduring the short term stress and disruption of commuting may bring long term benefits. These benefits include possible advancement, acquiring new skills, recognition as a loyal "team player", or even the attractiveness of a temporary change in routine or locale. Receiving emotional support and encouragement from friends, family or colleagues, with office work, child care, and home maintenance are also easier to come by when the need is of limited duration. This regimen of commuting is easier to explain to children and negotiate with one's spouse.

Long term commuters may be motivated by other factors. Wanting to stay in one's occupation or profession when work is not readily available is a strong motivator, particularly when work is unavailable locally or available employment involves a lower salary. Leveraging commuting into quality of life issue may be another motivator. For example, commuters working in New York or Boston during the week but live in Up-State New York, Western Massachusetts or rural New England, often stress quality of life issues for their families, noting that their purchasing power is increased by their residential choices. Family relationships surely suffer the emotional and logistical dislocations of long distance commuting yet the commuting spouse remains in a readily accessible regional orbit.

Longer distance open-ended commutes are most difficult. Visits home for the commuting spouse take longer, entail more expense, and are of shorter frequency and duration. These types of commuter marriages are hardest on the emotional bonds, routines and intimacy of couples. Such commutes are also hardest on children, pressing one parent into a "super parent role" while the other parent struggles to make their parenting real to their children. Commuters in this category, like regional commuters, tend to have a strong identification with their careers and derive a strong sense of satisfaction from them. The opportunity to work for extended periods on assignments or projects without the interruption of family life is often satisfying to such individuals. Association with professional colleagues and independence in scheduling their time is also a plus, as is personal freedom and "their own" environment. These considerations clash directly with the values associated with being part of a family, and it not surprising that such relationships work best when couples are enjoying an empty nest. The most successful commuters are those that can, like single residence dual career couples, compartmentalize work and family life (Franklin & Ramage, 1999; Schnittger & Bird, 1990). Commuters who tend to meld work and family together have the hardest time with commuting. Neither offers much to children or the remaining spouse with the emotional dislocations of commuting. …

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