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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
"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
"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
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
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
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