Tamar and Avi are an American couple in their late thirties who made aliya to Israel two years ago with their four children. They presented to couple therapy in distress. They reported that they argued frequently about their children, their in-laws, household tasks and money. Tamar said she felt that Avi took her for granted and had no idea what her life was like. Avi complained, “We hardly ever have sex.”
After a meaningful introductory session, where each partner felt heard and validated, I invited the couple to return at the same time weekly to begin therapy. Before we would begin joint therapy, I explained that I first wanted each partner to come alone for one session, in order to get to know each of them better.
“That’s going to be a problem for me,” said Avi. “I am flying to the US and won’t be here for the next two weeks.” I then offered to see Tamar alone the following week, and A
vi in three weeks, when he would be back. “We can begin the weekly appointments after that.” “Yes, but then I will be gone again. You see,” Avi explained,” “I work in America two weeks out of every month.”
Tamar looked at me and remarked dryly, “Welcome to my world.”
Tamar and Avi managed to keep up with the sessions despite the lack of continuity. They were a normative couple that had been together since high school. They really did love one another, knew how to have fun together and shared the same values. However, their challenges in creating marital harmony and satisfaction were related to poor communication skills and a tendency to blame and criticize one another. Furthermore, they were experiencing a great deal of stress attempting to adjust to aliyah, and Avi’s travel schedule was a great source of contention. Tamar was simply not on board with it.
Tamar and Avi’s challenges are fairly common to commuter marriages.
Avi reported feeling a sense of “splitting” and living two lives.” When in the US, he stayed with his parents in his childhood bedroom, which felt regressive to him. His mother happily cooked for him and did his laundry, but his parents also freely offered unwanted advice. He felt released from the responsibilities of home, wife and family, but was overburdened by long and difficult shifts as an emergency room physician. He worked very hard, but felt that Tamar was not empathic or supportive and her comments about him “just getting to leave” were hurtful. After all, he was working to support the family, not to have a vacation for half of the month. When he returned home, he often felt as though he were entering his “other life”, and it took him time to re-orient himself. He felt that he lacked authority with the children and sensed that Tamar expected him to forfeit his rights to an opinion about issues having to do with their education and other aspects of their development. Furthermore, while away, he missed Tamar and came home feeling anxious to reconnect alone with her and engage with her sexually. In fact, he had coordinated his schedule such that his time away would coincide with Tamar’s Niddah period, and his return would coincide with her available times. But more often than not, when he came back she was so angry, high-strung and exhausted, that sex wasn’t on the table.
Tamar’s experiences were representative as well. She resented that Avi would “disappear for two weeks” and then want to pick up where they left off. In the two weeks he was gone, she was, in essence, a single mother. She had to deal with all the household tasks, and could not hold down a job because she had to be available for the kids 24/7. Shabbat was difficult and she had to ask neighbors to sit with her sons in shul. She felt that Avi had no idea what she had to deal with while he was gone, and she could rarely contact him while he was working. When he did call and want to talk, she was usually in the middle of dealing with the kids and not able to give him the attention he wanted. When he came back, it took him two days to get over his jet lag, and even though she did not feel emotionally connected, as they had not spent any quality time together, he was anxious to hop in bed with her.
Avi ended up quitting his job and accepted a lower paid position in Israel. This allowed Tamar, who had put her career on hold, to find a full-time job. The couple benefited a great deal from learning how to communicate effectively and talk about their feelings without blaming or criticizing. But what was necessary for this couple was for Avi to quit commuting, despite the lower income.
Not all couples can, or want to give up on the idea of traveling for work, and there is little research about the effect of commuting on marriage. In 2013, Judy Landesman and Rudy Ray Seward published results of a study comparing marital satisfaction between commuting couples in Israel and the US. They sampled 434 respondents in Israel and 130 in the US, and found that commuting appears to have a modest negative impact on couples’ satisfaction with their relationships, particularly when the commute is frequent. Women who support gender-specific roles for couples report more satisfaction with the arrangement.
It appears that marital satisfaction can be maintained if several important variables are in place. In order for this arrangement to succeed, both partners must be in agreement with the plan. If the stay-at-home spouse is unhappy with the arrangement, chances are that the marriage will suffer. If one spouse does commute regularly, a great deal of cooperation, communication and a shared commitment to making it work is necessary. Here are some tips to help make this arrangement a success:
- Agree to agree . This arrangement needs to be mutually consensual, and both parties need to be committed. If one partner is unhappy with the arrangement, it may be necessary to consider alternative professional arrangements.
- Communicate regularly . In addition to setting times for the commuting spouse to video chat with the children, set specific times daily when you are both free and available to interact. Set aside time to discuss technicalities of home and kids, but leave time for talking about what is going on for each of you emotionally in your work and in your life.
- Don’t make your traveling spouse feel guilty for leaving. If you have negotiated and agreed upon this arrangement, avoid making critical comments about it. Your spouse is likely working hard and not having as a great a time as you may think. This does not, however, mean you can’t get emotional and shed real tears when he or she leaves.
- Don’t be a martyr . If you are the spouse staying home, don’t attempt to be a superwoman or superman. Cut corners when you can, as the kids don’t necessarily need a bath every night. Make sure to get plenty of household help and babysitters while your spouse is gone, so you can engage in your own self-care, making sure to work out or have an evening out with friends.
- If you are the traveling spouse, be considerate of your partner when you return. He or she may have developed a system that works, and criticism in front of the kids can undermine it. When you do return, attempt to make up for being away, by going the extra mile with household tasks, making sandwiches and getting the kids off to school.
- Keep up the intimacy while away. Video chatting and texting can present creative opportunities to flirt and engage lovingly through language and gestures, in the absence of actual touch.
- Communicate about intimacy. While you may have planned the trip to coincide your return with mikvah night, the reunion may not necessarily be conducive to having sex. Jet lag can be a real libido killer. Use the time to reconnect with lots of hugs and cuddling.
- Use opportunities to be alone to connect. If possible, drive your spouse to or from the airport. Catch up with each other on your lives.
For Avi and Tamar, the commuter marriage was not sustainable, and acknowledging this and finding alternate arrangements restored their relationship and their marital satisfaction. For other couples, with proper planning and a great deal of communication, the arrangement can definitely be doable. Finally, some couples may actually thrive, as for them the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
Talli Rosenbaum is an individual and couples therapist and a certified sex therapist. She is the academic advisor for Mercaz Yahel, the Center for Jewish Intimacy.