Apart but not separated

Which spouses live apart?

When the Census Bureau collects information on marital status and family structure, they count some people as “married, spouse absent.” These are people who aren’t separated — in the sense of a legal separation or with the intent of getting divorced — but who are:

married people living apart because either the husband or wife was employed and living at a considerable distance from home, was serving away from home in the Armed Forces, had moved to another area, or had a different place of residence for any other reason [except marital discord].

These are not to be confused with couples that are “living apart together” (LAT), a kind of relationship increasingly recognized by demographers but not counted by the Census, because they are not married and don’t live together.

So who are these “spouse absent” people, besides a problem for data coding and analysis?

In this category, in 2008 there were an estimated 4.6 million adults listed as having an occupation (meaning they are employed or were recently). These are the most common occupations they reported:

Here’s what I get from this:

  1. They are disproportionately working class. Rich people may travel for work, but they don’t have separate residences as much as these folks.
  2. They are disproportionately foreign born — an estimated 41% of those reporting an occupation.
  3. Among the U.S.-born, the men are more likely to be away from home for work — especially driving trucks and doing construction. The women are more likely to be left home (their occupations look more like the general female population). Some of the women have husbands in the military.
  4. Among the foreign-born, there are more men (which means their wives are not in the U.S., or they are married to U.S.-born women). But lots of the foreign-born women have families back home, as we know especially from studies of those in the caring industries like those listed here.

Among the family inequalities, not having a family is an umbrella category — from orphans to widows to people denied family rights legally or through wars. But some people have families, they just don’t live with them, by choice or necessity. Partly because so much of our data are collected by the household — so a family is defined as people living together — this kind of inequality is usually overlooked.

1 Comment

Filed under Me @ work

One response to “Apart but not separated

  1. odorunara

    As a spouse living temporarily apart (I joined a work program in Japan; he stayed behind in the US), I was really interested in this information, especially with the class and nativity differences.

    The reactions I get from middle-class Americans are very strange–they can’t understand why I would choose to work overseas (never mind that the job is actually in my field.)

    The Japanese, however, are quite used to the idea. In white-collar Japan, the chances your company will transfer you during April transfers are rather high. Most people will transfer departments in a place like city hall; teachers will be moved around between local schools, often living in one town and commuting 15-60 minutes to work in another; some people at large companies with multiple branches may be transferred to another prefecture or regional. In the US, having (white-collar-job-holding) one parent get transferred often means that the whole family will move together. In Japan, the transfer is unlikely to be permanent, and so the cases of men living away from their families, absentee-fathers, has continued since the 1980s or so.

    So, while the Japanese understand the situation of living away from my partner, my situation is weirdly gendered to them. Women don’t tend to (and aren’t supposed to) be the ones sent away from their families for the sake of their careers–and I came here willingly! Most people often have no idea what to make of this.

    Anyway, I found your blog through Sociological Images, and I was really fascinated by books like Unequal Childhoods in undergrad and grad school, so I look forward to reading your work.


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