Rutgers professor examines how this growing trend relates to work, family and gender roles

Commuting Couples
Married couples often have to live apart because of their careers.

The number of couples who live apart has more than doubled since 1990 – up to an estimated 3.5 million married couples living at different addresses.
– U.S. Census Bureau

The Monday after Matthew Weber married his wife, Emily, in May 2010 she started an MBA internship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and he remained almost 350 miles away in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

When the internship was completed in August, Emily Weber returned to Ann Arbor to finish her MBA at the University of Michigan. Unfortunately, her husband wasn’t there. He left Michigan earlier that month to take a postdoc position at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, 675 miles away – an 11 hour 22 minute drive or four hours door to door if he flew.

The Webers' long-distance marriage lasted for 14 months until Matthew Weber got a job at Rutgers as an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Information and his wife got a job at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in Morristown.

“There was nothing simple about it,” says Matthew Weber, who flew to Ann Arbor every other weekend. “You need to have a lot of patience because finding time to talk when you are in different states and cities and coordinating schedules just to have a simple date night can seem almost impossible.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Webers' situation is not that unusual.  The number of couples who live apart has more than doubled since 1990 – up to an estimated 3.5 million married couples living at different addresses.

Although the census does not track how many of these commuter marriages are job-related, Danielle Lindemann, research director at the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers, says wives who may have moved in the past because of their husbands jobs are more likely today to be invested in their own careers.

This is one reason that these long distance relationships have become more commonplace. In academia, Lindemann, an assistant research professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations, says it is not usual to have spouses living apart because higher education tenure-track position are so highly coveted.

“In higher education it’s kind of expected that you will be living apart,” says Lindemann who became interested in this topic when she took a postdoc research position at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, only days after returning from her honeymoon. “With us, I only had to be there 10 days a month but it lasted two years and the travel involved was still pretty hectic."  

Now living under the same roof with her husband, Lindemann is researching spouses who live apart because of their jobs to shed light on broader trends related to work, family and gender roles. The 97 people she has interviewed have ranged in age from their 20s to 60s. They are college-educated professionals working in technology, medicine, consulting, foreign service and higher education.

Danielle Lindemann
Danielle Lindemann

While some don’t see each other for months, the typical arrangement mirrors the Webers' situation where couples find ways to get together on weekends. Like the Webers, Lindemann says these couples feel as if they don’t have a choice if they want to kick-start their careers or make it up the next rung of the professional ladder.

“All but one person I interviewed saw this as a temporary situation,” says Lindemann. “But they knew it was something they needed to do and even though it was a hardship, they wanted to make it work.”

Matthew Weber says he thinks the only positive personal outcome in living apart is that it makes you value the time you have together. “I don’t think anyone gets married with the intentions of not living together,” he says.

Still, Lindemann says her research indicates that the perks, disadvantages and final outcome of living apart doesn’t appear to be the same for men and women. According to her research, women seemed happier than men who said that they felt lonely being separated from their wives.

”When I asked them if there was anything they liked, women were significantly more likely than men to say they could get more work done,” Lindemann says.

Women who did not have children often referred to the separation as a respite or a vacation. Those with children, however, felt that they had to undertake more than their husbands because the children almost always lived with them and fathers were not around to share the responsibilities of parenting, Lindemann says.

Men also differed from women when it came to household chores.  While the women spent free time cleaning, the men were more likely to hire someone to do it for them.

“These couples were both so invested in their careers that you would think that they wouldn’t fall into typical gender roles,” says Lindemann. “But this was not necessarily the case.”

Although saying never can be dangerous, Matthew Weber says he and his wife – who are expecting their first child in April – would never takes jobs that would force them to live apart again.

“At the end of the day it comes down to the fact that we got married, want to be together and need to make compromises in our career options in order to live in the same state,” says Matthew Weber.