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The 1,000 Mile Marriage (Part 2 of 3)

July 26, 2010

This is part 2 of a 3 part feature article I wrote last fall for a class with David Beers. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.

The retirement home setting may be unique, but commuter marriage is nothing new. In the mid-1970s, journalists spat out a succession of catchphrases to herald a happening in North American households. Instead of familiar patterns of travelling salesmen or military families, women were pursuing careers – not just jobs – of their own. A growing number wound up in what were dubbed “weekend marriages” or “dual-household marriages.” The unions, pundits noted, often occurred at financial cost rather than benefit. More often than not, they begged the question: does it really work?

Photo by Burning Image (Flickr cc)

Not especially well, it turned out.

Publish-or-perish academic couples were among the first to give commuter marriage a whirl. Fittingly, they were equally quick to study it. A succession of studies surveyed dozens of commuters, many of them also academics, tackling everything from personal finances to adultery. Scholarly restraint fails to dampen the sentiment of one seminal study, Commuter Marriage (1984) by sociologists Harriet Gross and Naomi Gerstel: “we, like commuters themselves, would rather see a world where career demands cost less, and responded more, to the family life of women and men.”

Between jaunts to the extremities of the University of British Columbia campus, family sociologist James White tells me divorce rates are higher for commuter couples. Transition zones, he says, are the major fault line. To adjust to living with someone, it takes three days to segue from bachelor life and back into cohabitation. When a couple only catches up on weekends, that adjustment is never made.

“The person’s used to living without a spouse,” says White. “They come back and they have to readjust to having somebody sharing their space, using the bathroom.”

A marriage can always gel or crack, but commuting adds pressure to the dynamic. That’s what makes evaluating the successfulness of commuter marriages difficult. Do commuter marriages falter because of the commute, or because the lifestyle attracts people with different expectations for their marriage?

“Commuter marriages are more likely to be egalitarian,” White notes. “They’re most likely to have separate bank accounts. We know from study after study that one of the best predictors of divorce is having separate bank accounts. Having a common bank account means people are committed: you’re sharing everything.”

White thinks this “selection effect” has gone untested in much of the literature on commuter marriage. What might look like an unhappy commuter may actually be flying from stress at home, such as the growing possibility of an autistic child. Or they might simply see marriage as a relationship for an ongoing development of self that can run its course. But each case is different. That’s why it’s no surprise that many commuter marriages work well.

So it’s not all gloomy news for commuter couples. Commuters, especially women, express happiness with how the arrangement frees them from sacrificing their careers. The studies also reveal several other interesting tidbits:

  • Bored with marriage? Try commuting! Commuters say they are less likely to bicker or bore. There simply isn’t the time for it.
  • Newlywed or Nearly-dead? Commuters tend to fall into “establishing” and “established” demographics, either before children or as empty nesters. Young children tend to sully the lifestyle.
  • Friends? What friends?: Commuter marriage may have a greater impact on other relationships. Weekends are reserved for spouses. Friends tend to get squeezed out.
  • Family = coresidence?: Commuter marriage literature has branched into an array of LATs, or “living apart together” arrangements. Some couples keep two apartments for the sake of sanity.

Thirty years after splashing into the news, commuter marriages are still driven by the same motivations: the quest for a better job, better money, or better prospects. But the double-household’s taken some interesting twists and turns. In addition to mounting economic and environmental pressures, advances in technology makes commuting an ever-evolving creature.

Photo by dherrera_96 (Flickr cc)

The honeymoon officially over, Lisa Cramer stood at the Peace Arch, weeping.

A border guard had accused the 33-year-old Langley native of illegally attempting to smuggle her new American husband, Tim, into Canada. Hours after a Disneyworld vacation, the couple had their marriage certificate and proof of marriage in hand, along with Tim’s belongings. Married or not, barked the guard, Tim needed permanent residence status – another year’s wait time – before getting a visitor record necessary to come and bring his belongings into B.C.

Cramer was at her wit’s end.

“I said to them, ‘This is ridiculous,’” Cramer recalls just days after the confrontation. As she’s talking, she deconstructs a wall of wedding gifts behind her couch.

“I’ve been working on immigration papers for the last three months. I came to the border and asked three different immigration officers what to do and we did exactly what they told us to do.’”

A cross-border marriage sounds romantic, even dangerous. In reality, it is the essence of tedium and a boon to the Pacific Northwest’s struggling pulp and paper industry.

Lisa Cramer could have a black belt in filling out forms. In addition to work as an insurance manager in Surrey, she has a home business selling microfibre cleaning products. But nothing prepared her for the bureaucratic nightmare of an international commuter marriage.

The guard eventually yielded and granted Tim a six-month visitor’s visa. Disaster neatly averted, the couple is still staring at a stack of paperwork and a monster commute for the foreseeable future, especially at the beginning of her marriage. Tim owns a commercial janitorial business in Everett, Washington, and will commute three times every week, staying over one night, while spinning nearly 50,000 kilometres on his odometer each year.

It may be a stressful start to ever after, but the Cramers’ show how social networking may be creating commuter marriages. Instead of meeting within set geographical confines – at a bar, work, church, or through friends – Lisa and Tim met online on eHarmony. The American-based internet dating juggernaut pooh-poohs the chance of proximity, boasting instead that its 258-questions and sophisticated algorithms will net you your better half. While the company closely guards information about how many Canadians use the service, they claim 20 million worldwide members and an average of 236 eWeddings per day.

“It was the best system,” says Cramer. “I didn’t have to look and research and search. It just got matches that were good for me.”

While Cramer credits the service for an excellent match, she actually specified “no Americans” on her survey. When eHarmony kept insisting on Tim as an option, she couldn’t help considering him. And while they may have matched well based on affinity, the logistical nightmare of the border is already wearing thin.

“I love my husband, but just don’t marry an American,” says Cramer. “I think we’ll be commuting for the rest of our lives.”

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