Commuter marriage

Posted on | May 1, 2012 | 4 Comments

I have been reading a book from the early 1980s on ‘commuter marriage’. It stood out from the shelves in the library when I was preparing my course reader this year, and for obvious reasons I have an interest in the topic. What’s remarkable, reading it from the set of presumptions I have today, is how troubling it seems to have been not so very long ago. In fact the book opens by explaining that the practice was technically illegal in the US at that time if it involved separate residences.

Reading some of the passages below I began to realise how regularly I have been exposed to people’s concerns about this aspect of my relationship over the past couple of years. This makes me wonder whether my responses to such concerns have been performative or truly held statements about the kind of marriage I want. As students have been writing in their GCST2610 essays this month, this is the difference between ‘surface acting’ and ‘deep acting’ in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s framework of ‘managing feeling’. It has a lot to do with the pressure I feel to conform to others’ expectations of marriage in spite of my personal politics and situation. This book has some helpful points of clarification as I think about changing concepts of work, intimacy, presence and love.

Notes from Fairlee E. Winfield’s Commuter Marriage: Living Together, Apart, New York, Columbia University Press, 1985.

Two-career couples: ‘feel no need to choose between two very important aspects of their lives, a job and a relationship’ (4)

Both job and an intimate relationship are highly important. Commuter marriage is a new social structure for which there are no rules and few norms (4)

Types of commuter marriages:
– The Young Professionals
– The Relocatees
– The Well-Established: ‘both have important and possibly even prestigious careers in different cities when they wed, but they choose to continue their two-city lifestyle. Frequently the well-established are also “well-heeled,” famous, and highly visible’ (16)
– The Economically Motivated

Younger couples struggle with ascendancy conflicts; they wrestle with the dilemma of whose career should predominate (21)

The issue is not whether the wife shall have a career; the majority of male students in university classes and middle-class males in the work force now state that they expect their wives to work. The issue is whose career is more important (24)

The gaming approach of “we’ll take turns” is a hedge that allows retention of male self-image on two levels: first, the recovery of the traditional ascendency of the male breadwinner role; and second, the maintenance of pride in a more participative intimate relationship (24)

‘adjusting couples’ (Harriet Engel Gross 1980: 573): ‘have not had the time nor the shared experiences that contribute to a sense of “we-ness.” They lack the emotional reservoirs of an enduring long-term marriage. Second, as new, struggling professionals, they have not yet confirmed their professional competence. They still lack the ego and strength of their older counterparts (25)

The negative pressures from friends, colleagues, and relatives who question their living apart can be neutralized by seeking friendships with singles and other commuter couples (25)

Three things seem to make coping easier for the older couples: (1) the solidity of their relationship, (2) the faith that they can endure the demands of living apart, and (3) the recognition that they are compensating for the wife’s past efforts on the husband’s behalf (28)

The ‘pseudo-divorce’ category is generalized to all commuters and prevents societal changes that would genuinely make two engrossing jobs, two residences, and a rewarding relationship less bizarre (28-9)

“Syndromes” affecting commuter couples

    – The Supermom, Superdad, Supersuccess Syndrome (“role overload”): women tend to feel responsible for everything – practical and emotional (29). This depends on whether they aspire to both a high standard of domestic living and a high standard of career achievement (30)

    – Fatigue Fallout Syndrome: physical exhaustion; emphasis on good health; problem of stamina commuting requires (31)
    “You do run out of steam. We’re amazed sometimes that we have survived until the holidays.” Not everyone makes it. They are simply too tired. But only a few considered that the drain on physical energy incurred by frequent travelling is a major issue. The commitment to work, especially for established couples, is so well fixed that dropping out seems unthinkable (33)
    Commuter couples aren’t the only ones who fact the “intermittent husband and wife syndrome.” Military, diplomatic, truck driver, and oil rig wives, to name only a few, have all reported that they feel more relaxed when their husbands are away once they have become accustomed to getting along on their own. Adjusting to widowhood or divorce has received a great deal of attention from psychiatrists, but adjusting to a returning husband or more recently a returning wife is just now beginning to be investigated.
    Symptoms include weeping, headaches, alcoholism, sexual promiscuity… early psychiatrist studies classified these as neurotic responses (34)

    – Identity Syndrome: internally generated conflicts about whether one is a ‘good’ husband/wife/person…(35) arising ‘from cultural ideas of work and family as intrinsically masculine and feminine’ (36)
    Lacking a new model, the exotic two-city family compares itself with “real’ marriage (people live together)… there is limit beyond which experimentation seems unable to go without damaging the male or female sense of self-esteem (36)

    – The Motivational Syndrome: Why am I doing it?
    → alone at the top syndrome: both partners need a “wife” (41)

Married singles are expected to be promiscuous, and because of this expectation they are frequently subjected to sexual harassment. Peers, friends, co-workers, an employers look at the partners in commuter marriages as footloose, fancy free, and ready-to-play. They assume that the commuter is “separated” or getting a divorce, that no serious relationship exists simply because the couple is not living together as convention requires. Married singles are seen at best as “available” and at worst as rakes and wantons (46)

Most of the commuter couples tend to rule out sexual jealousy because such doubts are too much to cope with in a busy two-city marriage. They feel that extramarital relations are likely to cause serious strains on their present relationships. Sexual permissiveness is not a natural outgrowth of untraditional marriage (47)

Researchers insist that commuters do not have any more affairs than stay-at-home couples. So much concentration is poured into work and marriage that there is little energy left over for it. Obviously, women who were once upon a time limited to the milkman or the golf instructor now have the same opportunities for misbehavior as the men have had all along, but fatigue can put restrictions on extramarital affairs (49)

Dual-residence relationships don’t have more sex but the people involved enjoy sex more. Couples are generally highly monogamous and devoted to their sexual partners… Social problems, obstacles to privacy, and financial difficulties of commuter marriage at the lower income levels can diminish the “honeymoon” aspects. However, the couples who can use their imaginations in detailed planning of their “prime time” together have an advantage regardless of income level. It is really the care taken in shared time that is the important factor, and commuters seem to take more care because time is so precious (60)

The two-city marriage breaks a rigid moral commitment to the traditional family. Because this new social structure demonstrates that the major concern in our culture is not the family, nor intimacy, but work, it breaks very powerful taboos (63)

Couples who live together, apart, resort to the strategy of insisting that they are “only doing this temporarily” (77)

The required behaviour, at least for the moment, is that a couple live together. If you can’t do that because of a career considerations, you must at the very least say that you would like to do it. That is the ideal (77)

Commuter couples have almost no time for mutual friends, but their support system can more easily develop through encouraging separate circles of friends in the two locations where they live (84)

Overall, commuting couples report fewer social contacts because of their ambiguous social status, but they seem to be only slightly disturbed by this… “we each have a few devoted friends in our separate cities. That and our relationship is enough” (85)

It is estimated that half of the commuter marriages are in the academic world where work schedules are flexible and jobs are very scarce. But the number is growing in business, politics, journalism, publishing, and show business (166)

Couples who live together full time frequently seek leisure activities with outsiders – as a type of release from overdoses of intimacy in a marriage. Commuters, on the other hand, continue their leisure activities together (168)

Solitude in itself doesn’t produce loneliness, it comes when expectations fail (170)


4 Responses to “Commuter marriage”

  1. Kiley
    May 1st, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

    Do you consider both homes ‘home’? We’ve always travelled a lot for work and I’ve lived overseas for work while paul has travelled for work here but because we’ve had children all of those twenty years, I’ve always been the primary caregiver and so ‘home’ is generally wherever I’m living/staying. Do you plan on keeping this arrangement in the long term? What will you two if you have children?

  2. MC
    May 2nd, 2012 @ 7:23 am

    There is not really a Canberra home anymore – there are improvised places to stay, as is the case for many people working on and off in Canberra, I think. The other questions illustrate what I am saying!

  3. ana australiana
    May 2nd, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    I love the last two quotes especially.

  4. CB
    May 3rd, 2012 @ 12:32 am

    On first glance, I misread this as ‘computer marriage’ and wondered if this could be a good idea…!

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