There is an old adage that states "absence makes the heart grow fonder", but is it really true?

Not if you're a long-distance commuter, said researchers at the Umea University in Sweden with their 2011 study. The study found people who have long commutes have higher divorce rates. 

Study Data

The 2011 research was comprised of a study that surveyed two million Swedish households between the years of 1995 and 2000. Its researchers concluded marriages, where one partner commuted for more than 45 minutes daily, were 40 percent more likely to end up in divorce.

"More people are spending more time commuting every day and at the same time we have a political discussion that it is good for economic growth to facilitate long-distance commuting so everyone can find new jobs,” Erika Sandow, a researcher at Umeå University who conducted the 2011 study, told the  Toronto Star.  "But the social consequences and the fact that actual people are involved are often forgotten.” [1]

Fast-forward to 2016 and, for many, commutes are getting longer and the relationship strain has continued. In the United States, recent data shows the average commute for Americans is increasing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average commute time is now 26 minutes, which is a historical high. The Census began tracking commute times back in 1980 and, at that time, the average commute was 21.7 minutes.

That might not sound like a lot, but you figure that is just an average time, many people working in big cities spend a lot more time commuting; 17 percent spend more than 45 minutes a day getting to work.  In an article published earlier this year, the Washington Post did the math and found Americans spent 1.8 trillion minutes commuting in 2014; the long commuters are literally spending weeks a year driving to and from work. [2] According to a Guardian report last year, the average commute in the United Kingdom is as high as 55 minutes each way.  [5]

NYC subway
Credit: Leigh Goessl

New Yorkers have, on average, the longest commute times in the United States. 

Divorce One of the ‘Dark Sides’ of Commuting

There are many problems often associated with commuting, but how does it affect relationships? While the other negatives may be difficult to cope with, maintaining and/or repairing relationships is not so straightforward. 

Softpedia described the increased divorce risk as the one of the "dark sides of commuting", which, along with broken marriages, included a boosted risk of emerging health problems and amplified stress, all of which can cause additional strain on a marriage. [3] Essentially, the less time these commuters have available to spend with their families, it creates a ripple effect and spills into other areas of their lives.

Financial Benefits Vs. Loss of Time

The economic benefits of commuting vs. social costs, which Sandow mentioned, are an important contributing factor which warrants consideration. When people typically agree to accept long commutes to and from work, this generally is because there is a higher financial reward in taking on the additional burden of travel. However, as a negative result, marriages can suffer. When a job involves a commute, couples should carefully consider whether or not the additional pay (or benefits) is worth the trade-offs.

Other Potential Conflicts

Other potential issues that can be perhaps attributed to extended absences include added strain on the shoulders of the spouse remaining closer to home to take care of children. Consider this spouse also probably tends to the home, prepares meals, is consistently on homework duty, and shuttles the children to and from all their activities. Over time, this could lead to burnout, frustration or resentment.

Family and finances
Credit: Geralt via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

Other couple conflicts could include:

  • One spouse is forced to take a job closer to home, potentially losing out on good opportunities and limiting employment prospects, limiting his or her career.
  • Higher overall stress that accompanies long commutes. You figure there is traffic, crowded public transportation and miscellaneous delays (i.e. staying at work because a boss needed you for 10 minutes could affect commute time if a train or bus is missed). 
  • Kids stop turning to the absent parent, making him or her feel bad. Or putting additional responsibility on the spouse that spends most of the time with the kids.

The long commutes and stress are very common here in the Washington D.C. area where I live. Even if you live 20 miles out of the District, it could take a couple of hours to get home. (D.C. carries the distinction of having some of the longest average commutes in the country - second to New York City and Long Island).

Traffic on I-66 in Virginia
Credit: Leigh Goessl

For the spouse not commuting, a combined sense of longing and resentment could emerge in the marriage, leading to mixed feelings and resulting in rocky circumstances.

On the Plus Side

There are also some positive aspects of commuting aside from the aforementioned financial benefits; some couples blossom with the opportunity to spend some time apart. Commuting perhaps helps them avoid the similar challenges that work-from-home couples experience, as in some of these marriages a little “absence” time might be welcomed if two people are continuously together.

The Star reported Sandow considered these positive aspects of longer commutes. The researcher wrote in her paper:

"Not everyone is separating; for many people it is a sustainable strategy,” said Sandow. “I am guessing that those who are managing have worked out a strategy of how to divide the household and organize their day in a way that works out for both partners. You have to create strategies on how to manage daily and remember the commute is not only affecting the commuter but those who stay at home.”

Additionally, the data did show that couples who have spent five or more years doing long commutes (defined as 45 minutes or more per day) have far lower divorce rates. It could be these couples have already successfully navigated through the issues that tend to crop up with long commutes or they began their relationship after one mate was already commuting; in other words, this wasn’t anything new that happened after the couple got married.

Do you or your partner have a long commute? How does it effect your household?