They live more than 500 miles apart, and they travel three to five hours by plane once every four to six weeks. Their average age is 45, and they have been married or involved in a serious relationship for 14 years. Two out of three are in managerial or professional positions; the others toil in the Academy. Some 18 percent have children.
That composite represents the average “commuting couple,” based on a survey of more than 100 couples whose careers have sent each partner to work and live in different cities. The study — “The Commuting Couple: Oxymoron or Career Freedom?” — documents both the challenges and rewards of such arrangements. It was conducted by Dr. Karen “Etty” Jehn, associate professor of management at the Wharton School, along with Mary Ann Von Glinow, associate professor of management and international business at Florida International University, and Linda K. Stroh, director of WorkPlace at Loyola University in Chicago.
None of the three authors could be accused of excessive clinical detachment from the subject. Jehn herself was in a commuting relationship for four years, while Von Glinow and Stroh also lived apart from their spouses because of their careers.
“I knew what was important to commuting couples because I was one,” Jehn says. “I knew what the difficulties were and how it affects your work. And I knew what the positives were.”
In fact, Jehn and Von Glinow first decided to study the subject in 1992 while chatting at an academic conference in Taiwan, after discovering that they were both shuttling between their jobs and relationships.
“We started talking during a coffee break and sharing stories on how tough it was,” Jehn recalls. “We felt there hadn’t been much published on the subject and that it would be a good area to research.”
Jehn was then an assistant professor at Wharton, while her husband was working for an airline in Washington, D.C. She had just spent the previous two years completing her doctorate in organizational behavior at Northwestern University while he worked in Minneapolis.
“If you want to teach at a top-tier school like Wharton, sometimes you are forced to make tradeoffs,” Jehn says. “So you find quite a few commuting couples in academia.”
Stroh, who was brought aboard two years later to jump-start the project, also had commuting credentials. Soon, the trio was launched on a long-distance research effort, sharing work and ideas by telephone, e-mail, and fax.
Over the next three years, Von Glinow contributed to the project by developing an extensive network of contacts who could answer the surveys by mail or over the Internet. Stroh complemented the team with her organizational skills. Jehn’s strength was translating ideas into solid survey questions.
“Etty has extensive experience in survey work,” says Von Glinow. “She brought a methodological skill to this project.”
“Etty is really the make-do person of our crew,” adds Stroh. “We have lots of great ideas, but she’s the one who pushes it into completion.”
Wharton served as the de facto headquarters for the project, partly because Jehn was responsible for developing the survey and partly because the school had extensive research and administrative capabilities.
“Wharton is very supportive when it comes to funding for research — everything from funds for photocopying and mailing to a computer and word-processing staff,” Jehn explains. “Plus, the Wharton name helps a bit when it comes to sending out surveys to people who don’t know what it’s all about.”
Jehn also had the support of Dr. Peter Cappelli, chairman of the Department of Management. “She starts with interesting questions that matter to people, the type of issues that you can imagine facing in your own life or work,” says Cappelli. “Her study of commuting couples is a perfect example of such a problem.”
In addition to some basic questions — how long had the couples been in commuting relationships; how often did they see each other; what was the nature of their living arrangements and finances; what were their romantic experiences — Jehn’s nine-page survey also probed their feelings. How, for example, did they think their work performance was affected by the commuting? How much tension did it place on their relationship? How was the arrangement viewed by family, friends, and co-workers?
Their findings, first presented last fall in Boston at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, revealed that couples decided to live apart because they did not consider one partner’s career to be more important than the other’s, and because they respected each other’s work.
But not surprisingly, many couples encountered a number of difficulties. On the practical side, there were the costs of travel and the expense of maintaining separate households. On the emotional side, couples experienced isolation and loneliness, the strains of raising children on their own, and, in some cases, a sense that their standard of living had been lowered.
“The people who were least happy were those who were in a living arrangement in which one person was living in a nice house and the other a dump,” Jehn says. “Those who thought the commute was short-term and didn’t spend much to decorate and furnish their second residence were much less happy than those who thought it was long-term and made their second residence more livable.”
Yet there were also a number of positives cited by the respondents. Most noted an increase in work performance, mainly because they could put in long hours on the job. Individuals experienced a greater feeling of independence and self-sufficiency. And most couples said they were more affectionate and communicated better when they did have the opportunity to be together.
“One of the advantages commuting couples have over regular dual-career couples is that when commuting couples work, they work. When they’re together, they play. Sometimes that gets lost when you are together every day,” Jehn says.
There were significant differences between the responses of men and women to the survey. Men, for example, found greater acceptance from society when they traveled to another location to work than did women, who often felt that they were deemed poor wives or mothers for failing to keep together the traditional family unit. But some men also acknowledged that their pride was wounded or that they were considered “weak” for allowing their wives to pursue career over family.
“Couples often found that family, friends, and society as a whole often don’t approve of commuting relationships,” Jehn explains. “People are much more comfortable with traditional living arrangements. So often people think the commuting couple has a bad relationship. This places certain pressures on both the man and woman.”
The study concludes by offering some advice for commuting couples, such as open communication, striking a balance between the sacrifices made for work and family, and keeping the period of time apart as short as possible.
It also advises employers to be flexible for workers in long-distance relationships. For example, commuting couples often work longer hours most of the week in order to gain an extended weekend. And companies should be more receptive to employees who work from their homes, since it enables those in commuting relationships to stay with their partners longer, the study suggests.
The study showed that the average long-distance relationship lasts less than five years — a pattern that also pertained to the three authors. Stroh’s husband of 30 years recently moved back to Chicago to take a job, and the couple is now in one household again. Jehn’s and Von Glinow’s marriages, however, both ended in divorce.
“One of the things that fascinated me was that people who were together for 14-plus years were the ones best able to deal with a commuting relationship,” Jehn relates. “Yet it is young couples that are most often forced into commuting relationships because they are just starting out their careers.”
Jehn and her colleagues are not finished with their research in this area. They plan to survey more commuting couples, both domestically and internationally, to expand their database. (Those interested can contact Jehn via e-mail at jehnk@wharton. upenn.edu or through the Wharton School.) With fresh information, they seek publication in a number of scientific journals. To share their information with the general public, they also hope to write a book on the topic, while seeking the attention of newspapers, magazines, and television.
“We think that the advice in our study is relevant and can be of use to people who are in commuting relationships or are considering it,” Jehn says. “It’s important, in this age of changing careers and roles, that we continue to examine workplace issues and see how they affect our lives.”
— John Slania