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Commuter Marriages - Demographics Of Commuter Marriages

family percent couples commuting home

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.


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