Commuter marriages test more Americans

Amid packing boxes and furniture they hadn't seen since Little Rock days, the Clintons awoke Thursday to a new phase in their life: the commuter marriage.

But while they're now the nation's highest-profile commuter couple - and the first presidential duo in which the wife has moved out of the White House - there are millions more Americans like them. Sort of.

Long-distance marriages are on the rise in the United States, reflecting an era of dual-income households and of women, like Mrs. Clinton, pursuing careers of their own.

The trend is driven by a host of factors, including convenient jet travel and couples having fewer children. But even as it opens career doors, experts say it can strain marriages at a time when Americans seem more concerned about family breakdown.

Commuter marriages are especially prevalent among educated professionals, like the Clintons, who either don't have children or whose children have left the nest, say sociologists and psychologists.

And it tends to involve lines of work that offer some flexibility, such as politics, journalism, or academia.

In fact, "commuter marriages are a regular feature of political life," says Judith Wallerstein, author of "The Good Marriage" (Warner Books). Legislators typically divide their time between a home district and their offices in Congress or a statehouse.

But unlike the president and first lady, most couples who work in separate cities can't call up a motorcade or military jet to get home whenever they want - or send the bill to taxpayers. And, unlike the president, most spouses left holding down the fort probably don't have cooks, gardeners, and other help to take care of all the household duties.

"[The Clintons] have access to transportation and to various resources that most people just don't have," says Naomi Gerstel, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst who studies commuter marriages.

In 1998, 2.4 million Americans said they were married but that their spouses did not live at home, a 21 percent increase from four years before, according to the US Census Bureau. These were not people who considered themselves "separated" - which implies a troubled marriage.

Sociologists like Ms. Gerstel caution that these data include military couples who spend long periods apart. Still, anecdotal evidence confirms that the trials of long-distance relationships are spreading far beyond military ranks.

How well these marriages work, however, is another question.

Tremendous stress can bear down on these relationships. There are two residences and schedules to coordinate. Travel and phone costs increase. If the situation goes on for years, each person can develop a separate life that becomes unknowable to their partner. Worries about infidelity increase.

And if there are young children involved - the greatest challenge of all, according to experts - the person left at home inevitably bears the brunt of raising those children.

Still, everyone interviewed for this story agreed that, while a commuter marriage can speed a divorce - the outcome for half of all US marriages - it is usually not the underlying cause of one.

"The substance of marriage is dependent on other things," says the Rev. James Ford, who, as 21-year chaplain for the US House of Representatives, has heard an earful about the strains of weekend flights back home and long stretches on the campaign trail.

Anne Northrup, a congresswoman from Kentucky, says it's her rock-solid marriage of 30 years, and the fact that five of her six children are up and out, that account for a commuter marriage that "works really well."

She would never have run for Congress when her kids were small, says this Republican, who has been commuting between Louisville and Washington for three years.

But now she's in a new phase of her life, one in which she can work straight through till midnight if she wants to. Still, she gets homesick in her studio apartment, especially when it's the end of the congressional year and she's having to spend five days a week or longer in Washington.

"In the last three or four weeks, every time I would find myself coming through the airport, coming home, with the biggest grin on my face, and leaving on Monday choking back tears," she says.

The president and first lady say they will try and see each other as much as they can, though it wasn't until the last minute that the president decided he could accompany his wife as she moved into their five-bedroom Dutch colonial on Old House Lane in Chappaqua, N.Y.

While gossips wag about the implications for the Clinton marriage, the White House and others point out that the first couple won't necessarily spend more time apart now. Last year alone, Mr. Clinton made more than 80 visits to various states sans Hillary.

He also spent about 30 days overseas without his wife - and that doesn't count the trips she made without him.

"Whatever you can say about them, I guess it's true that somehow, one way or another, they've made some kind of emotional, psychological, or just physical accommodation for being apart over quite a significant period of time," says Barbara Defoe Whitehead, of Rutgers University's National Marriage Project. "You could argue that proves it can be done, or you could argue that's one of the problems."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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