In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Are Commuter Marriages Good Marriages?

"When my personal space was violated by my husband, I began to have affairs."

"A long marriage is two people trying to dance a duet and two solos at the same time." Anne Taylor Fleming

The wish to be close to the beloved is characteristic of profound love. However, can romantic closeness be too close, causing lovers to feel as if they are in captivity without any personal space? Should we (as John Stevenson suggests) keep a loose rein on our marriage in order to keep it steady? A commuter marriage is an option worth considering.

Losing one's personal space: The story of Laura

Profound romantic love is characterized by the wish to be with the partner all the time. This, however, can harm each one's personal space. Consider the following true story of Laura, a divorcee in her early forties:

"When my former husband and I lived in a commuter marriage, I felt good about having my own personal space so I did not have extramarital affairs. After eleven years of marriage, when we moved with our three girls to a house of our own and stayed in the house every day, I felt that my personal space and freedom were being violated by my husband and as if I was in captivity. At that time I began to have affairs.”

Is a commuter marriage a way to prevent closeness from becoming harmful?

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Love as a union: "We are soul-mates who are meant for each other"

"I've got you so deep in my heart, that you're really a part of me." Frank Sinatra

Ideal romantic love depicts lovers as being very close to each other, almost a single entity. The two lovers form a profound union (or fusion) as if they were two faces of the same coin. The desire to fuse with the beloved implies losing one’s identity. Making the beloved an inseparable part of the lover is a way of coping with the fear of separation. This implies a Siamese twin model of love, where each one's every single movement requires consensus. The prevailing Siamese-twin model is expressed in the following authentic statements of lovers: "We think alike, dream alike, wish alike, and love alike," "I can't be a second without him," and "I never want to be separated from him ever again; I want him to be deep inside me for the rest of my life" (In the Name of Love).

Such a notion of unity can be dangerous as every small action that a lover takes may have an exaggerated negative impact upon the other. When there is some distance between two lovers, it can absorb certain shocks. The distance has a similar function to the cartilage in our bones: it protects the bones from rubbing against each other too much. In contrast to the romantic ideal of unity, too much time with the beloved can decrease love. A certain distance, providing a greater personal space, is important for romantic relationships. As the saying goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

The nature of commuter marriages

"Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then." Katherine Hepburn

Commuter marriage is a marriage between spouses who live apart, usually because of the locations of their jobs, and who regularly travel to be together, as on weekends. Commuter marriage is a growing form of distant relationship. More than 3.5 million couples in the United States are living in such marriages and that number has more than doubled since 1990. This increase is impressive in light of the decrease in the number of marriages in the United States and Europe. Those who live in a commuter marriage are typically better educated and better paid. Indeed, those with greater financial resources or flexible job schedules experience fewer difficulties in these marriages.

Laura Stafford argues that long-distance romantic couples (including both dating and married couples) generally enjoy equal or even higher levels of stability, satisfaction, commitment and trust than in comparable geographically closer couples. Concerning the question of how long is too long to go without physically seeing each other, too long is perceived by partners as just slightly longer than they usually go without seeing each other. Thus, individuals who reported seeing each other every week (or month) felt that more than a week (or month) is too long. Those with frequent, short separation, often experience a honeymoon-like reunion, putting on their best fronts and avoiding conflict. Commuter marriages have their own difficulties, especially when there are small children. However, they do not experience more stress and difficulties than other relationships.

The attraction of commuter marriages

Commuter marriages allow for the fulfillment of two major needs: personal fulfillment and intense emotional intimacy. Personal fulfillment is indeed higher in commuter marriages. Thus, commuter couples with dual careers are more satisfied with their work than are dual-career, single-residence couples.

Marriages can be good or bad for various reasons. One such reason is the lack or presence of personal space and hence personal fulfillment. At least from this perspective, commuter marriages are very positive, as the two partners are ready to invest much effort and resources and to sacrifice various positive experiences, such as spending more time with their family, in order to ensure the personal fulfillment of each partner.

Karla Mason Bergen argues that many commuter wives describe their marriage as "the best of all worlds"; others describe it as "torn between two worlds." It is the best of all worlds as the wives are both independent and interdependent; they take advantage of opportunities for personal fulfillment, and keep their marriages intact. Bergen claims that commuter marriages may in fact nurture a more egalitarian marital arrangement than existed prior to the commuting arrangement. The commuter wives who describe their situation as being torn between two worlds are frustrated with managing their multiple identities, as commuting involves sacrifice. They feel guilty about not being able to “do it all,” and they recognize that they are different and do not fit in with the social norms. Bergen further suggests that many commuter wives experience simultaneously being in both “the best of both worlds” and “torn between two worlds.” It should be noted, however, that commuter wives did not describe their experience as "the worst of all worlds." Indeed, in Bergen's study, commuter wives framed the commuting arrangement as either positive or unproblematic for their husbands.

Like in other marriages, in commuter marriages some people are very satisfied and some are less so. But what is characteristic of commuter marriages is that they do not compromise on the personal fulfillment of the partners and this is highly important in maintaining satisfying marriages.

Commuter marriages as incomplete romantic experiences

"A dress that zips up the back will bring a husband and wife together." James H. Boren

Commuter marriages are incomplete since they lack co-residence; the two individuals cannot physically be together every day as the ideal of romantic love assumes they should be. In these marriages, couples may miss the luxury of daily discussions about “trivial” matters with their spouses—the sharing of little things. However, they gain other things, such as personal space and fulfillment. Distance may focus the partners’ attention on the profound aspects of their relationships and help them to disregard the superficial ones. And if the profound aspects are perceived to be positive, then the whole relationship is seen this way. Like other incomplete romantic experiences, commuter marriages are also typically romantically intense.

The correlation between physical and emotional closeness varies according to the distance involved and other features. Emotional closeness is often, but not always, associated with physical closeness. However, profound personal fulfillment may increase emotional closeness despite the physical distance. Frequent communication is helpful in bridging the physical distance. Bergen reports that one commuter husband told his wife when talking to her often on his cell phone: "I feel like I have you in my pocket."

In and of itself, distance is not necessarily harmful to romantic relationships. Distance may have its own costs, but an appropriate distance can minimize the impact of those costs. While many married couples are busy thinking how to reduce the distance, others would like to enlarge it in order to provide more room for personal space.

Personal space does not necessarily involve sexual freedom. Whereas in cohabitation, co-residence is perceived as essential to the romantic relationship, in commuter marriage it is commitment rather than co-residence that is more important. Indeed, the commitment in commuter marriages is high and accordingly the percentage of extramarital affairs and sexual satisfaction are similar to those of standard marriages (see here).

Another type of non-residential relationship is living-apart-together couples whose defining characteristic is the desire for a committed union, even marriage, which is not accompanied by full-time co-residential status. The two can live at the same city, street, or even the same apartment building, but each one has their own apartment. One woman, who lives at the same apartment building as her partner does, said that at night they always sleep in one apartment (usually hers), but having different apartments increases the excitement and their encounters are like dates, with an intense romantic spell.

Do commuter marriages involve a romantic compromise?

"All marriages are happy. It's the living together afterward that causes all the trouble." Raymond Hull

I have suggested that extramarital relationships are examples of incomplete romantic experiences since they involve the wish to upgrade the relationship to a full primary loving relationship where the two can be together whenever they want. In such affairs, lovers may feel profound love but yearn to fulfill it more completely. Online relationships are also incomplete romantic experiences as they lack actual physical interactions. As a result of their incompleteness, the emotional intensity of extramarital and online relationships remains high for a long period—in the words of one woman, “passion at an unbelievable peak” (see here). Both extramarital and online relationships involve an element of romantic compromise as the partners' wish to be with each other in a more complete manner is not fulfilled. Standard marriages also involve considerable romantic compromises that entail giving up a significant degree of personal space in the romantic and other realms.

In many relationships, it is the lack of distance and personal space that is the main incomplete feature of the relationship. People, especially women, feel that the lack of such space is a great romantic compromise for them. In flourishing relationships, the importance of personal space and fulfillment cannot be exaggerated.

Commuter marriages are similar to extramarital and online relationships in being cross-residential and long-distance relationships and in lacking constant physical closeness. However, commuter partners do not consider their marriage as a romantic compromise; as Bergen shows, they find excuses and justification to explain the difference between their marriages and standard marriages. A major reason for this is the presence of personal fulfillment, which usually increases the quality of the relationship within marriage.

A paradoxical aspect in both extramarital and online relationships is that although they are very intense, partly due to their incompleteness, the partners still wish to transform them into a more complete one, such as a standard marriage—which usually decreases their intensity and often leads to their termination. This wish "to complete" the relationship typically does not exist in commuter marriages as their participants usually see it as an advantageous form of marriage. However also here, when the incomplete experience of commuter marriage is turned into a complete, standard one, the marriage is at risk of termination. Stafford notes that some people who lived in a long-distance relationship and then began to live geographically closer report that they now miss the feeling of missing each other and the anticipation of seeing each other.

The opposite direction exists as well. The change from a standard relationship to a commuter relationship may also ruin the relationship. Unlike the case of Laura, where limiting her personal space generated extramarital affairs, there are cases in which increasing personal space by entering into a commuter marriage encourages extramarital affairs and the termination of the marriage. It seems, however, that the destructive impact of limiting personal space is more harmful. The foundations of marriage get shakier when the personal situation deteriorates; it is typically easier adapting to a better situation than to a worse one.

Conclusion

In light of the importance of a personal space in intimate relationships, being physically very close to someone may mean being too close. A certain distance is almost as important as closeness is. A commuter marriage provides one vehicle that in some cases provides a good solution to the question of how close lovers should be. For the price of being physically apart some of the time, commuter marriages can offer greater emotional closeness and more profound personal space and fulfillment.

I do not think that commuter marriages can or should replace standard marriages, but they may be more suitable in certain circumstances and could make marriage more appealing to those who find standard marriages restrictive.

Can readers who have experienced commuter marriage comment on whether commuter spouses enjoy their romantic relationships more?

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

more...

Subscribe to In the Name of Love

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?