Long Commutes Can Drive Couples Apart

Spending too much time on the road can take a toll on a marriage.

ByABC News
May 30, 2011, 10:54 AM

May 31, 2011— -- It was a young family's dream home, complete with an in-ground pool, a guest cottage, cherry trees and blueberry bushes. But Teresa Difalco had reservations about moving into the house in McMinnville, Ore., because it was 35 miles from where her husband, Anthony Difalco, worked in Beaverton. She thought the 2½ hour roundtrip commute would wear on him. But he was a New Yorker used to the commuter life, and insisted the drive was no big deal.

They bought the house, and the distance between them grew.

"I would see him pull away, and it felt like he was going to another world," said Difalco, a freelance writer who works from home.

Before the move, the couple happily took turns carting their two kids to various activities and squeezed in the odd impromptu lunch together. But the commute turned such pleasantries into "a production."

"He couldn't really do anything unless he took the day off," Difalco said of her now ex-husband. "His life shifted to where his office was. We had our dentist, our doctor -- all our own people in our town. And he had all his own people near his office."

And that included a mistress. When the affair came to light, the couple separated and tried therapy to get their marriage back on track.

"In more than one session, we started talking about the commute when we should have been talking about the affair," Difalco said. "The distance was even more of an intruder than his affair."

They divorced three years after they moved into their dream house.

Compared to their locally employed counterparts, commuting couples face a rocky marital road, Swedish researchers reported last week. According to a study of 2 million Swedes, couples in which one person commutes 45 minutes or longer are 40 percent more likely to divorce.

"To be able to commute to work can be a positive thing because it means you don't have to uproot your family with every career move, but it can also be a strain on your relationship," Erika Sandow, a social geographer at Umea University and lead author of the study, told the Swedish publication the Local.

The decision to commute can stem from career aspirations, economic woes and ties to social support in a particular place, according to Susan Heitler, a Denver psychologist and marriage counselor. And on top of life's other pressures, it can leave both partners feeling overworked and underappreciated.

"It's like a perfect storm. The couple can't realize that the problem is the commute, not the other person," Heitler said, explaining the tendency to personalize problems and get defensive. "Once you get angry, upset and frustrated, it's easy to start pointing fingers."

At a time when relocation or landing a new job are unrealistic options for many Americans, less dramatic, more nuanced solutions can make it easier to find middle ground, Heitler said.

"You need to drop down to explore the underlying concerns on both sides," she said.

Dedicating one night of the week to the commuter, or spending a little cash on help around the house can relieve some of the stress for both partners, Heitler said. And having an open, honest conversation about the pros and cons of the commute is key.

"For commuting couples, every minute that they're together is so valuable," Heitler said. "They can least afford to have poor communication skills."

Although she tried desperately to find her husband work closer to home, Difalco said she wished she had done more to close the space the commute brought into her marriage.

"Looking back, I could have made more of an effort," she said. "It didn't occur to me to drive an hour and half to have lunch. But I should have done those kinds of things to bridge the gap."

She now lives with her kids in Vancouver, Wash. Anthony Difalco, who has since "consolidated his life," now lives 15 minutes from his office.

"The commute just puts so much space between you, it can be very difficult to have any overlap," Difalco said. "If there's nothing you can do in the short term," like relocate or change jobs, "my advice would be to make extra efforts to overlap the two worlds."