February 26 2017

The Commuting Life

by Judith Plaskow, Manhattan College

cars driving on a highway

I have been in a commuting relationship for almost thirty years. While the specifics of my commute are shaped by the fact that my partner and I live a three-hour drive from each other, I have learned a number of lessons that I believe apply to a variety of situations. The most important is to be together when you’re together. Commuting is not all bad. It allows partners to focus on their work when they are apart and heightens the preciousness of time together. When my partner and I are living together (when one of us is on sabbatical, for example) and feel as if we can talk at any time, it’s easy for us to go a week without a substantive conversation. Ironically, this happens less often when we check in daily by phone (yes, we still use them) and then have weekends together.

Second, whatever schedule makes sense in your situation, set it up in advance on a semester by semester basis and stick to it. Skipping planned couple time once makes it easier to imagine skipping it again and can weaken the bond between you. We have spent virtually every weekend together over the years of our commute. Obviously people who live further apart or who have to commute by plane could not do that. The specifics are probably less important than the structure. For example, I recently met a couple who live four hundred miles apart who meet in the middle every third weekend. And yes, commuting means not signing on to as many weekend lectures or missing things you’d like to attend because you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. That has to be accepted as part of the price of a commuting life.

Thirdly, decide whether one place will be “home” and the other a satellite or whether—as we have—you will genuinely live in two places. The former choice places a greater commuting burden on one partner but allows you to build community together in one place; the latter allows each partner to feel “at home” in her daily life but increases the possibility of conflicting communal commitments—and of continually needing things that turn out to be in the other home!

For the first twelve years of our commute, I had joint custody of a school-aged son. A two/two, five/five schedule (he was with me every Wednesday and Thursday and every other Friday through Sunday) allowed me to continue commuting without worrying about getting back in the middle of a weekend. When he was young and regarded going to Northampton from New York as great fun, we made a two weeks on/two weeks off commuting schedule so that he was in each place one weekend a month. When, in his teenage years, he didn’t want to leave his friends, we shifted to every other weekend. Obviously, had he lived just with me, that arrangement would not have been possible, and a greater burden would have been placed on my partner. Even as it was, she spent break time in New York during his school years.

While it is possible to maintain a commuting relationship over the long term, there is no question that it is made vastly easier by good health and energy. When one partner is ill—even with an ordinary acute illness such as the flu—the serious downside of the arrangement suddenly reveals itself. This is the time to ignore lesson two and be flexible in responding to the “life that happens when you’re making other plans.” In the case of disability or chronic illness, one partner may need to take on more of the burden of commuting, and this needs to be built into the structure of the relationship. At the same time, the partner who is ill or disabled will need to build a support structure where she lives most of the time, as if she were a single person.

Commuting is not for everyone. Some people find it too lonely or an impossible arrangement with children or feel that it defeats the point of being part of a couple. Yet it is possible to build a satisfying commuting life that has its own challenges and rewards.

Image credit: "Highway" (CC BY 2.0) by Adam Freidin