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Commuter Couples Work Harder at Keeping Marriages Strong


When Doug Hanson leaves for work early Monday mornings, he and his wife kiss and embrace knowing they won't touch again for about five days. The Hansons have what is called a commuter marriage. During the week, Doug Hanson, who is an architect specializing in designing museums, colleges and libraries, travels to projects in Denver, San Francisco and New York City. He sees his sons and his wife on weekends at their West Los Angeles home.

"You overcome that distance, and it forces you in a way to communicate better," said Doug Hanson, who has been traveling for the last two years but plans to move his offices from Colorado to Los Angeles in January. "We usually talk after the kids go to bed by telephone. I think about her all the time, so I send flowers more, or send a card. I do those things instead of having that cup of coffee in the morning with her."

For Donna Hanson, who single-handedly runs the household and cares for four boys, all under 9, the biggest challenge is maintaining intimacy and connection.

"It is like a holiday when he comes home," she said. "I plan really nice meals. I make sure we do things that are no-stress. Of course, he gets bombarded by the kids because the time is so short--then the two of us get what is left over."

A growing number of couples opt for commuter marriages because career opportunities for two working individuals lie in different cities or because one spouse's job takes them away from where a couple decides to set up house. There are 2.4 million intact marriages in which one spouse lives and works in a different city, according to 1998 U.S. Census Bureau figures, up from 1.7 million in 1970. Social scientists who have studied commuter marriages report that relationships tend to be stable. The separation can have a honeymoon effect on a couple's sex life. And divorce rates are lower among commuter marriages than for the general population, according to studies conducted in the 1980s.

"Divorce is lower because these couples try harder," said Karen Shanor, a clinical psychologist whose football coach husband lived in different cities for 6 1/2 years while she and her son stayed in Washington, D.C., where she had a clinical practice. "Couples really don't and can't take each other for granted. If you have a long-distance relationship, you have to work very hard at it because of the physical nature of it."

Trouble lies not so much in the separation, but in reentry and departure.

"Each person thinks that they have sacrificed the most," said Fred Medway, a professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, who conducted research on long-distance relationships. He found that the person at home wants contact, conversation and to be thanked for their sacrifices upon their spouse's return. The returning spouse often feels resentful at not being able to do jobs around the house and will do things like look at the mail or read a magazine to reclaim territory. The returning spouse is like an outsider trying to fit in.

"We have our own routine here," Donna Hanson said. "And he sort of has his own life."

Doug Hanson, who calls his wife his entire support team, likens it to being a consultant. "I kind of feel like a visitor," he said. "The first day back is kind of crazy. There is a transition for Donna and the kids. When I give the kids a bath, I have to do it the way she does it."

And once everyone adjusts to being together, it is nearly time for Doug to depart again. This is when couples typically experience separation anxiety, said Shanor.

"When he knows the time is near to leave, he tells me that though he is leaving, it will be OK, and time will pass quickly and he gives me the itinerary," she said. "He will say, 'Hopefully, I will bump stuff up, and I can get back early, but if not, I will be back on this date.' "

Until the couple reunites, each has a comfort ritual. She will read the beautiful handmade cards her husband has given her, which she keeps on her dresser. He will occasionally look at the photographs of his wife and sons' faces, which he keeps with him wherever he is.


Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at

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