A long train ride or sitting in traffic for hours each day can no doubt take its toll on your stress level and your health, but a recent study says it can also put a strain on your relationship -- especially when one spouse commutes long distances every day and the other one doesn't. Researchers at Umea University in Sweden surveyed 2 million households and found that when one partner has an extended commute, a couple's chance of divorce increases by 40 percent.
"One of the long-term risks with commuting is that it can sustain gender-based stereotypes both at home and in the labour market," Erika Sandow, who authored the study, told The Local, an English language news website in Sweden. When a husband is required to commute, she found, his wife is more likely to take a lower-paying job close to home and to take on even more of the household and childrearing responsibilities than she might otherwise.
There are plenty of one-commuter households in the U.S., too, and we're guessing that the problems commuting can cause in a marriage aren't exclusively Swedish. If you or your spouse has a long commute, there are ways to decrease the strain it can place on your marriage. Try these steps offered by Dr. Judith Coche, a clinical psychologist and couples counselor in Philadelphia, and Rachel Sussman, a licensed clinical social worker and New York City couples therapist:
1. Identify The Real Problem
"It's not the commuting per se" that keeps a relationship from working, says Coche. "It's about the distance between the people."
That means the two of you should schedule a time to sit down and talk about the various issues caused by the commute and get to the root of what's upsetting you. If you've been complaining about how much of the housework becomes your responsibility when your partner spends so much time in transit, ask yourself if your resentment is actually about career opportunities you're missing because you need to be home more. If you're the commuter, maybe you're looking for recognition of how hard you work and feel underappreciated when you come home to criticism.
2. Implement Solutions
"Make a plan to try to improve things in the relationship that are lacking," says Sussman. "If you're not spending enough time with the children or helping enough around the house, see if there are other ways that can be accomplished."
Perhaps it's time to pay for some extra help around the house, or the commuting spouse might need to commit extra time on the weekends. Moving or switching jobs is probably not an option -- if it were, you probably wouldn't be in this situation in the first place -- so focus on solving the problems that are within in your control.
3. Phone Home
If you drive to and from work, resist making work-related calls the whole time. If you carpool or take the train, don't dive right back into that spreadsheet as soon as you leave work. Take a few minutes to phone your spouse -– preferably at the same time every day. And try to make the conversation enjoyable, Sussman suggests. Don't "just give each other a to-do list."
4. Demystify The Commute
Does the same weird guy sit next to you every day on the bus? Does one exit on the highway back up at the exact same time every morning without fail? You might be tired of thinking about either by the time you get home, but if it's part of your day, you should be talking about it.
The commuting spouse "begins to have another world that they go out in to," says Coche. "Everyone thinks of this as a nonevent, but it really is an event."
So make the commute part of your daily conversation: it's a psychological strategy to decrease the effects of the physical distance. If you really want to know what your partner's mornings are like, Coche suggests you tag along one day.
"Make the commute something that the partner understands," she emphasizes.
5. Find Things To Do Together -- While You're Apart
"If you are going to be spending time apart, read the same book or article, do the same hobby, whether you're playing solitaire online or Scrabble," says Sussman. "When you get together you can discuss it."
Do you drive several hours per day? Try listening to a book on tape while your spouse reads the print or ebook version. Remember, you're trying to minimize the mental and emotional distance between you in whatever ways you can.