Commuter Marriages (and Partnerships)

As we begin the job search season in the academy -- and as I begin to send out my own job applications -- the idea of having to spend time apart from the spouse weighs heavily on my mind. Spousal and partner hires in the academy seem to be more and more acceptable, although not across the board. But getting to the point where both partners are worth hiring in tenure line jobs -- and finding that place where they'll both fit, where the school wants them both, and where the school can afford to create two tenure line jobs -- is an arduous task.

I know a number of academic couples who spent some parts of their marriages/partnerships apart. I also know of a number of academic couples -- now senior scholars in my field -- who have spent entire careers apart. Some senior scholars commute to their academic jobs (for example, I know of one scholar who lives in NYC with his academic wife, but would commute every two weeks to Chicago to run a center at a university there. I think he's now taken a job at a prestigious university in upstate NY). I also know that a number of younger academic couples have been fortunate enough to find tenure track jobs together -- in great part because they found schools that recognized the potential of both partners.

Apparently, in the middle class working world, this is becoming more common. Time Magazine has an article about this:

Commuter marriages, in which couples live apart for long stretches, are multiplying. Their number jumped 30%, to 3.6 million, from 2000 to 2005, according to an analysis of census figures by Greg Guldner of the Center for the Study of Long-Distance Relationships, a Web-based clearinghouse for research in this nascent field. While military deployments, migratory jobs and economic need have long forced couples around the world to live apart, in America today, it is more often the woman's career that drives the separation. Technologies like instant messaging and Skype make the parting easier by facilitating virtual pillow talk that keeps couples in touch.

Certainly, as the article acknowledges, economic necessity has forced many people to live parts of their lives apart -- so some of my own hand wringing about the concept is a privilege of being a part of a highly-educated, specialized, professional middle class (I could probably add more descriptors in there -- you know, like straight).

The article suggests an interesting point that I'm not sure I agree with:
The companies that employ these commuting couples often get the best end of the deal: employees are married and thus thought to be more stable but are wedded as well to their jobs--perhaps especially so, given the physical absence of a spouse. Sheila Gleason, 49, met Jay Banerjee, 56, while both worked as banking executives in Singapore. He soon relocated to Germany, then to Belgium. She eventually accepted a big job in London. "During the week we would work ridiculous hours, so it was easy to devote weekends to each other and nothing else," she says. Their commuting romance lasted 10 years, until they married in 2004 and moved together to New York City.

I'm not sure that this is quite so true in the academy. Generally, it's important for academics to become involved in the life of the college (I think), so a commuter relationship makes this difficult.

Oh, and more on the economic necessity (and the changing reasons for this trend):
Men have worked in transient jobs since the beginning of time--as soldiers, truck drivers, traveling Bible salesmen--leaving the wife and kids home to hold down the fort or moving the entire family from town to town. But with today's preponderance of dual-career couples--80% of the labor force--it is just as often the woman's job that separates the partners. Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., a historian of marriage, argues that this represents a newly egalitarian attitude toward marital roles. "There's no longer the assumption that the woman immediately puts her career on hold once she gets married," says Coontz. "It's part of an avalanche of evidence that marriage is being reconstructed for the first time in history as a marriage of equals."

Leaving aside the annoying first year-student tendency of this paragraph, it makes an interesting point about this. This is a result of -- and resulting in -- changing concepts of what marriage means. We're moving in a good direction, I think. Upending the traditional notions of marriage is sort of a goal of mine, certainly, since I'm convinced that those "traditional" notions never really existed.* At the same time, Coontz is on to something by suggesting that this is the first time in western culture where we're really truly thinking about what it means to be equal partners in marriage.

I found this on The Chronicle's "On Hiring" blog, which also had a puzzling comment about academics somehow being the migrant workers who leave the third world to make money. I get frustrated with the artificial comparison of academics with the working class. Certainly, labor issues in the academy exist, and I'm fully in support of unions for academics and graduate instructors -- and particularly for adjuncts. But it's unfair to the working class to suggest that what academics do is the same thing; and it's not particularly instructive as a comparison.

One problem with this comparison is that migrant academics simply have more choice. This really is a privileged complaint, as I mentioned above. I certainly could get another job -- it would be difficult and not as fulfilling as the career I've been preparing for since I began grad school -- but I've made a specific choice to be a part of a professional world that requires certain sacrifices of me. I will never be wealthy (it would be wasted on me anyway); I rarely get to spend holidays with my extended family; I will not live near where I grew up or where my friends and family are (I can always make new ones ... as I have in FL. It just means more holiday cards to mail). But I've chosen to do this, and I knew going in that things wouldn't be the same for me as they were for my friends who went back to Aurora, or who stayed in Rock Island teaching at the local public schools. I like what I do and I want to keep doing it. (I do, admittedly, like aspects of the transitory nature of being an academic.)



*When I get it together enough to get my article on middle class marriage in 17th century London, I'll let you know. Just trust me on this one.

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