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Commuter couples who make it work

Romantic partners who are employed at universities in different cities confront many challenges in making their relationships work.


For more than two decades, Claire Carlin and Bruce Wonder have been making the four-hour trek by ferry and car between Victoria, B.C. and the state of Washington, alone or together, dozens of times a year.

The marathons began less than a year after they met at Western Washington University in Bellingham, north of Seattle, where Dr. Wonder chaired the department of management and Dr. Carlin had a temporary position teaching French. In 1989, she accepted an offer in French studies from the University of Victoria. Soon after, she says, “I knew very quickly that I wanted to stay at UVic and I wanted to stay with Bruce.”

Like many academic couples, this one is often on the road, or on a train or plane, visiting each other, coming home and going to work. They even have a name – long-distance LAT (living apart together) couples – for people who are in long-term romantic relationships, living in separate cities, provinces and even countries while they work at different institutions. They, and those who study them, contend that their circumstances have become a timely issue for universities and colleges.

Many long-distance couples spend almost every weekend together. Others see one another for extended periods several times a year. Some are raising children, while others have decided against parenthood. They often use sabbaticals to extend their time together. They may define “home” as one or both of their residences, or as a transcendent concept meaning any time and place that they spend time with their partner.

For the four couples featured in this article, life is a mix of dizzying activity and precise planning. All have the financial burden of high travel expenses and maintaining more than one home. But, to a person, they express satisfaction of having found both love and work, even in different places. They all say that a benefit of constantly being apart is that they value their moments together more. What does rankle is when colleagues question their commitment to their careers – a vestige of an old system that equated being on campus with being on track.

“Those [particular] living arrangements may be less a matter of ‘choice’ and more of necessity,” write Karen Kobayashi, a sociologist and research affiliate in the Centre on Aging at the University of Victoria, and Laura Funk, a sociologist at the University of Manitoba, in a proposal for a research study they’re conducting on couples who live apart in different geographical areas. Dr. Kobayashi says, “We know how difficult it is to find two positions in the same place.” Today, these kinds of relationships are “more prevalent and more acceptable.”

In the case of Dr. Carlin and Dr. Wonder, early in their relationship it was Dr. Carlin who usually made the trip from the condo in Victoria to the rural house near Bellingham, where she enjoyed helping to raise Dr. Wonder’s three teenage children. After 10 years of this, she asked her husband to carry more of the burden. “She had been doing the heavy lifting” up to then, he says. In 2000, Dr. Wonder began travelling to Canada more often. When he retired as a professor in 2008, he kept some entrepreneurial contracts but he found semi-retirement didn’t suit him, so when Western Washington asked him to take on a part-time appointment as chair in 2010, he accepted. He now does the trek to Victoria two or three times a month, staying there Thursday to Sunday, while Dr. Carlin travels to Bellingham about once a month. She says that the new routine, where she spends more time at UVic, improved her colleagues’ perception of her; she was appointed associate dean of humanities in 2004 for a five-year term.

Theirs is a model of success, but with costs. “People who like being together can stand being apart, but we have too much of it,” says Dr. Wonder, assessing the “continual transition” that marks their life. “I expect that in a couple of years, we’ll spend more time together, and I look forward to that.”

As administrators and senior academics, they have mentored others in situations similar to their own. They also have advice for universities on how to deal with it. “The discourse is important,” says Dr. Carlin, “because it sends a message all the way down the line. It is the responsibility of the colleague who takes this on to make an extra effort toward the department. [But] the commitment of the institution begins at the moment of hiring.” Her husband says he favours “an expanded notion of flexible work weeks” to attract talented people.

Creative and flexible scheduling

That, in fact, was what York University gave Marc Stein to allow him to spend more time with his spouse, Jorge Olivares, who is the Allen Family Professor of Latin American Literature at Colby College in Maine where he’s taught for 30 years. The couple, together since 1996, was able to continue their relationship, and York was able to retain Dr. Stein, now professor of history, women’s studies and sexuality studies, because York agreed to, in his words, “creative scheduling flexibility.” It means he is on campus from January through August; from September to January he lives at their home in Maine. From mid-January to May they spend most of their time apart. Then Dr. Olivares leaves Colby College to spend much of the summer in Toronto. “Maine is lovely in the summer,” he says, “but Marc is here. He trumps that.”

Dr. Stein proposed the arrangement to York when he was in strong contention for a position at a school closer to Dr. Olivares. He says it’s a win-win for both him and York because the university needs people to teach in the summer term. Dr. Stein notes that his teaching schedule has met little resistance from his colleagues; he makes a point of serving on as many committees as he can when he’s at the university.

Why didn’t they try for positions in the same city? As someone who had already emigrated once – from Cuba to the U.S., when he was a child – Dr. Olivares didn’t want to emigrate again. It also would have meant a drop in academic status to leave Colby College.

As a result, Professors Stein and Olivares have to cross the U.S.-Canada border many times a year, alone or together. Theirs is a 12-hour drive from midtown Toronto to Waterville, Maine; sometimes they opt for commuter planes, usually on non-direct routes that may take almost as long. When he retires in six years, Dr. Olivares plans to spend more time at their comfortable, wood-trimmed home in Toronto. They’re at ease with the way things have turn-ed out but admit there have been sacrifices, not only the usual financial ones. The couple also decided against having a child, due to their circumstances.

This decision is not that rare, it seems. In a 2007 U.S. study, only about half of long-distance couples reported that they were parents. No figures are available for Canada.

Three homes to make it work

Sharry Aiken and Rudhramoorthy Cheran are among the LAT couples who do have children together. In the bright, semi-detached downtown Toronto home that they own together, the evidence of their four-year old twins abound: the front porch holds small bicycles with training wheels and pairs of tiny shoes, while a photo of the family sits prominently on a wall amid books and art.

Professor Aiken is associate dean of graduate studies and research, and associate professor, in the law faculty at Queen’s University. Dr. Cheran is associate professor in the department of sociology, anthropology and criminology at the University of Windsor. They have been together since 1998. Professor Aiken was offered a tenure-track position at Queen’s in her field (migration, human rights law and border security) in 2002. At the time, Dr. Cheran, a former journalist from Sri Lanka, was finishing a postdoc at York University in transnational communities, migration and development. Besides being an academic, he is also a poet and playwright, and opportunities to combine scholarship and creative work abound in the U.S., he says. But Dr. Cheran prefers Toronto, where his several identities – Tamil, European (where he’d lived and worked) and North American – come together.

U of Windsor supports his dual career path and offered him a position in 2005. The couple bought a house in Toronto, preferring to travel back and forth to and from Windsor and Kingston, Ontario.

They are resolute that their children will always have one or the other parent at home. Most weeks, Professor Aiken leaves to catch the train to Kingston while her partner stays in Toronto. She returns just as he is about to leave for Windsor, about four hours west. Weekends they are all together. They retain a part-time, on-call caregiver for emergencies.

While they praise their institutions for their cooperative efforts, nevertheless, “the challenge every summer is to make sure we have opposite teaching schedules” for the fall, says Professor Aiken. “We have been very fortunate that it’s worked out.” If it didn’t, she would approach her dean: “I’m a woman with young children. To not accommodate would be contrary to the spirit if not the letter of what it means to run an equitable workplace.”

Like the others interviewed for this article, they say there would be ways to make their lives easier. Some suggest using technology such as Skype to facilitate departmental meetings, others propose extending unpaid leaves and offering guest lecture opportunities to a spouse. “There could be systematic accommodation and some recognition of our challenges,” says Professor Aiken.

Something that irritates everyone is the notion that living away denotes a lack of loyalty to the university or a shirking of duty. Professor Aiken was annoyed when the question of her future residence came up during her hiring interview. “I can tell you that there are people who live [close by] who are in that building far less than me,” she says. “When I’m there, I’m really there – I’m not rushing back [home].”

Perhaps from fear of these kinds of reactions from colleagues, long-distance scholars, particularly younger ones, often keep their status to themselves. This “invisibility of commuters” concerns scholars and policymakers, write Richard Glotzer and Anne Cairns Federlein in their 2007 report, “Miles that Bind: Commuter Marriage and Family Strengths,” in the Michigan Family Review: “They have no lobbying organization and, despite their growing numbers, are not seen as a distinct occupational category.”

Sociologists Kobayashi and Funk point to a dearth of data, particularly in Canada, on how many people are conducting long-distance relationships, despite some efforts to quantify it. In the U.S., it’s estimated that from 700,000 to one million people make up this group.

Do academics and postsecondary professional staff comprise a high proportion of these couples? No one knows, but Dr. Funk contends that a “cultural emphasis on independence” among people in this sector may make university faculty and staff over-represented in LAT couples.

A temporary measure

Independence is part of the reason why they’ve been able to make it work, say the fourth couple, Sean Kinsella and Kate McGartland-Kinsella, who are both student services professionals in the postsecondary sector. Ever since they sat next to each other in a first-year English class on their third day at the University of Waterloo 10 years ago, they have been inseparable – except for the many periods that they’ve had to live apart.

Both had been residence dons at U of Waterloo, and both came to realize that working on the staff of a university or college would suit them. They married right out of university. She went to teacher’s college in Toronto, and they lived together in Guelph for two semesters while they both commuted – Mr. Kinsella to a job in Cambridge, Ontario.

“That first year was tricky,” recalls Mr. Kinsella. They were both in their mid-20s, and “there was no instruction manual, no models you could look at [for living apart]. It was intended to be a temporary measure.”

They spent the next few years going where the jobs were, which meant long periods apart, mainly commuting between Peterborough and Guelph. Within months of her moving back to Peterborough for work and so they could live together, the University of Toronto Mississauga offered Mr. Kinsella a job as community development coordinator. It was something he’d wanted for a long time and that they agreed he should pursue. His work entails organizing social, academic and life-skills programming, and he has a hand in developing and conducting a university-wide aboriginal studies project, an interest inspired by his own Cree-Métis-Algonquin heritage.

She travels to join him most weekends, which they call “sacrosanct” time alone together; their parents and friends, who live all over southern Ontario, understand their priorities at this stage.

In their neat and cozy two-bedroom townhouse on the U of T Mississauga campus, the couple sit close together on a sofa, gazing at each other intently and often nodding at the other’s words. They describe their financial burden as especially onerous – maintaining two places like any other LAT couple while they’re still paying off student loans. Both are pursuing master’s degrees in education at different universities, and they must stay focused all the time.

Asked about any benefits to their situation, they agree that they have a deeper appreciation of one another and of their relationship. Mr. Kinesella says he can work more intensely and not worry about after-hour demands on his time when his wife is away.

This past winter, she started looking for a job near Mississauga. They say they’re going to live together soon, however her job search turns out. Although children aren’t in their immediate plans, Ms. McGartland-Kinsella has made it clear: “I don’t want to be a married, single mother.”

Mr. Kinsella tries to define “home” for himself. “My parents lived in the same place for 25 years. My own notion of it had to change. Kate is my home. It’s wherever we build it.”

The scoop on LAT couples

Sociologists Karen Kobayashi at the University of Victoria and Laura Funk at the University of Manitoba have completed qualitative research on “couples living apart together,” or LATS, in the same city. They have already recruited 25 more LAT couples who live in different towns or cities for another study. Next autumn, they plan to submit a grant proposal for a larger multi-site, mixed-methods project on the phenomenon to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Dr. Kobayashi says that the large response to a call for subjects, after media reports about the study, confirmed their view that long-distance relationships are part of an emerging trend in non-traditional relationships. She says that when people heard of others who were treading a similar path, they told her: “Now, we can say to our friends and families, ‘We’re not alone doing this.’ They felt validated.”

Harriet Eisenkraft lives in Toronto and is a regular contributor to University Affairs.

Harriet Eisenkraft
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  1. Gena Hahn / July 28, 2012 at 12:24

    I suppose we must hold some kind of a record – 33 years of frequent commuting and (so far) 2 of less frequent trips. I teach at University of Montreal, my wife was Directeur de recherche at CNRS in Paris before becoming scientific attache at the French embassy in Prague (1999-2002) and then at the French consulate in Montreal (2002-2006) and then being the director if international relations at CNRS in Lille (2006-2008) and at INRIA in Paris (2008-20010). She retired in December 2010. We met in 1977 in the math departement at McMaster, got married in 2000 in Prague and have been living on airplanes forever. The price: no children. But colleagues have been supportive (though I did not appreciate the comment once made that suggested I could have CHOSEN otherwise; my emphasis).

    Perhaps there is an advantage to this: the couple must really be committed, and the time together does not really allow for the development of destructive routines.

  2. Jens Christensen / January 21, 2013 at 08:34

    Please feel free to visit our brand new social network for couples living apart together?