HBR: What types of people are most likely to try a commuter marriage?
LINDEMANN: Many of them are highly educated. It’s counterintuitive, but when you’re in a high-level job, employment possibilities become more limited, because only a few roles will make sense for you. One recent study, for instance, has shown that couples with graduate degrees are more likely to live apart than are couples with just college degrees.
What factors determine whether a couple can make this work?
According to the people I interviewed, the most crucial factor is life stage—especially whether you have kids. People who don’t have children at home experience fewer complications. Personality also plays a role: You need a certain self-sufficiency and independence to make this work. Take into account how flexible your job is. If your company allows you to telecommute, or your career has built-in rhythms (such as slower summers in academia), it will be easier to live apart. Consider how far apart you’ll be. One couple I studied was living a two-hour drive apart and seeing each other every weekend; they experienced fewer complications than the guy who was in a time zone 12 hours different from the one his wife was in—they had trouble figuring out when to even call each other. Finally, take the temperature of your relationship. If it’s new, or if you’re struggling a bit, living apart can exacerbate the problems.
Is technology making this easier?
Yes. Many professionals can stay in semiconstant contact with their spouses, texting throughout the day. Frequency of contact is important: One study of workers on oil rigs who were out of touch with their families for days at a time found it was really tough on their relationships. For most couples now, phone and texting are the most important channels of communication—even more than video chat. Couples who communicate effectively think about which channel to use depending on the kind of information they’re sharing. If they’re making plans and need to get details across, they send an email, but if it’s a more emotional conversation, they’ll get on the phone. Many modern communication tools are what my colleague Raelene Wilding has called sunny-day technologies, because they work well when your relationship is going well but can do more harm than good for unsteady relationships.
“Some couples say that their communication improves when they’re apart because their distance becomes a forcing function.”
Should couples go into these arrangements with an endgame?
Most do anticipate living with their spouses again. Some have a specific date in mind, often tied to a career milestone such as the end of a medical residency or retirement. They view having an end goal as a positive thing. Those with a hazier end date tend to experience more anxiety.
What happens when these couples move back in together?
There’s an adjustment period. They’re used to having their own space, and suddenly there are turf wars; they’re used to doing things in a certain way, and suddenly that creates friction. This is similar to what’s been found in research about military spouses coming home from deployments.
Are there any benefits to living apart from your spouse—other than being able to take the job you want?
Yes! Some people find that they’re recharged with the excitement they felt when dating. Others appreciate the absence of all the little tensions that arise from sharing a space. This is particularly important for women, who cherish their newfound independence—having their own space and their own time. Some couples say that their communication improves when they’re apart because their distance becomes a forcing function. If you have a call scheduled with each other every night at 8:00, you have to talk about your day. Finally, the amount of work they can get done is one of the biggest benefits—they can work evenings when they want to without fear of impinging on family time. This is again particularly pronounced among women, unless they have children. One woman I interviewed said she didn’t think she would have gotten tenure if she had been living with her husband.
How should employers be thinking about this?
I’d encourage managers with employees in commuter marriages to consider more flexibility for people whose jobs don’t depend on being in the office five days a week. That’s in the employer’s best interest—it may make it less likely that people will look for another job that might allow them to spend more time with a spouse.
HBR Reprint R1905B ■