Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
With a global increase in mobility for career advancement, the percentage of married couples who do not share a primary residence, or frequently spend periods of time apart for professional commitments has also increased sharply, leading to more commuter and long-distance marriages. For women, this means an alternative to the “trailing spouse” lifestyle, but also comes with a variety of challenges to marriage and family life. This study seeks to understand how Indian women in such marital arrangements have used technology to enhance communication with their husbands while apart, and to explore whether advancements in communication technology have affected the nature of the communication itself. As technology has changed, evolved, and advanced over the last fifteen or so years, so has the quality of conversation that it permits and creates. This is evident even in the major differences between the abilities of the basic cell phone of the early 2000s and the smartphones of today, the costs of using them, and the access to such devices. Through semi-structured interviews with seven women, themes such as content of conversation, factors affecting technology preferences, and the impact of social, cultural, and economic conditions on geographically distanced marriages are explored in detail. Contrasts between communication technologies over the last two decades, as well as the manner in which these changes altered the women’s understandings of independence and interdependence in their marriage have been highlighted. Finally, the relevance of these findings for market research, marriage studies, and relationship counselling is discussed.
With greater mobility and improvement in communication technology over the last two decades, the occurrence of close relationships over geographic distance has become increasingly common. While couples living apart is hardly a recent phenomenon, the number of married Americans living away from their partners for reasons other than divorce or marital discord has recently seen a 17% rise from 2.7 million to 3.9 billion since 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). These factors are not unique to the United States and extend to the Indian context as well. According to Ernst and Young’s 2018 Relocating Partner Survey Report on international mobility worldwide, the most common reason for an employee to reject an international assignment within their organization was that their partner was unwilling to move.
With time, organizations have begun to offer attractive relocation packages that include greater partner support, and advancements in communication technology have made other alternatives – commuter marriages and long-distance marriages – easier to tackle than they previously were. While these two terms have been used colloquially to describe a range of situations, this paper refers to the definitions proposed by Laura Stafford in her 2004 book Maintaining Long-Distance and Cross-Residential Relationships. As per her definition, in commuter marriage arrangements, the periods of physical distance are often short – ranging from a few weeks to a few months at a given time, and the spouses may still share the same primary residence. In long-distance marriages, on the other hand, the separation periods are far longer (six months or more), and both partners have permanent residences away from each other. The reasons for separation in either may be educational demands, incarceration, living in a nursing home, serving in the armed forces, familial obligations, or, most commonly, career purposes; with separation arrangements ranging from temporary adjustments to indefinite lifestyle patterns.
Communication technology has provided options to ease the impact of the lack of physical proximity on the relationship. As technology has changed, evolved, and advanced over the last fifteen or so years, so has the nature of conversation that it enables. This is evident even in the major differences between abilities of the basic cell phone of the early 2000s and the smartphones of today, the costs of using them, and the access to such devices in the first place. Communications research has proven that these advances in technology enable communication patterns of greater frequency and are user-friendly, and synchronous, which, in turn facilitate intimate relationships between people even over geographical distance. This study aims to understand the impact these changing technologies have had on these two marriage forms that are characterized by separation periods, and how communication practices within them operate in the contemporary Indian context, where a marriage is dependent on many other factors than simply a union between two individuals. By studying couples who have used one or more of these modes or have witnessed the transition between technologies, correlations between the kind of technology and its accessibility and the nature and frequency of communications can be observed.
As this research project is exploratory in nature, interviews of seven women who were either in commuter or long-distance marriages were conducted and analysed to identify some broad themes, recurring ideas, and overall practices that technology has given rise to in terms of marital communication over the past two decades. A greater understanding of how technology aids familial closeness as well as marital intimacy is described in the context of the different technologies that each couple used over time. Some key themes which emerge include the process of developing interdependence despite physical separation, personal experiences with ‘intimacy over a screen’, and how a relationship affects one’s own perceptions and preferences when it comes to technology usage. While the sample size is restricted and not representative, this research will add to the existing body of knowledge, as there is currently little to no existing research on these themes within the Indian context. The findings from the study will be relevant in marriage counselling, human resources policies at organizations which employ individuals in such marriages, and in the communication technology industries.
Review of Literature
Research in the fields of marriage and counselling has explored a range of factors that affect marital satisfaction. As the prevalence of marriages where both partners have professional careers outside the home has been on the rise, new factors have emerged. Holmstrom (1972) reported that approximately 75% of dual-career couples face the issue of geographic mobility due to career commitment. Relocation is often the only solution for both parties to achieve vocational success and satisfaction.
In the context of residence patterns, studies have identified significant lifestyle differences between couples whose work required geographical separation and those whose work choices allowed them to maintain a single residence. A range of studies conducted in the 1970-80s have described in detail the factors that lead to dissatisfaction in commuter marriages, including the absence of intimacy, disproportionate burdening of domestic and familial responsibilities on one partner, loneliness, poor communication, experiences of guilt by the partner who is absent from family, and as a result of all of these factors, dissonance between the two partners and strain on their relationship and broader social networks (Gross, 1980; Gerstel, 1985; Gerstel & Gross, 1982; Kirschner & Walum, 1978).
A study conducted by Govaerts and Dixon (1988) sought to understand how communication patterns differed in traditional marriages as opposed to those characterized by separation, and how they contribute to satisfaction or dissatisfaction within the marriage. They found that the healthiest relationships engaged in a style of communication described as ‘parallel’, which differs from other patterns by involving greater flexibility and accommodation to different topics of conversation, variation in interpersonal exchanges, and consequently, more functional family processes (see, Lederer & Jackson, 1968; Harper et al, 1977). They were also characterized by positive attributional processes and perceptions of each partner towards the other. While studying the differences in commuter and non-commuter marriages, it was found that these two factors – parallel communication and attributional measures – together accounted for a major part of marital satisfaction for commuter marriages, as opposed to a very small portion of satisfaction for those in non-commuter marriages. Overall, marital satisfaction could be predicted by parallel communication, while vocational satisfaction for both groups could be predicted by job security (Govaerts & Dixon, 1988).
In terms of women’s perceptions of these marriages, a study conducted by Bergen (2010) looked at how American commuter wives described their marriages to others, and how these stories and understandings aligned with a “master narrative” of marriage. These “master narratives” were drawn from relationship studies in psychology and sociology, and encompassed traditional assumptions and expectations of a marital relationship, such as frequent face-to-face communication, geographic proximity and a shared residence (Bergen, 2010). All the commuter wives interviewed described their frequent conversations with their husbands over the phone as a way to compensate for the lack of consistent shared residence. This ensured that physical separation would not harm their relationship as the communication assured emotional closeness (Bergen, 2010).
Studies outside of the United States also had similar findings, as demonstrated in a project based on semi-structured interviews with Filipino seamen’s wives (Galam, 2012). This study investigated the communicative practices developed and followed as a result of geographical separation, and how technology, particularly the cell phone, engendered new ways of experiencing closeness and intimacy. It described a ‘space of imagined communion’ created by cell-phone mediated communication. The study yielded data on the crucial role played by mobile phones in the lives of transnational families as illustrated by a community where both constant contact and travelling for work were established cultural norms. The women talked about using technology to ‘bring home’ to their husbands, as well as ‘bringing their husbands home’ to themselves and their families through the transmission of voice. The study delves into parenting from afar, and the dynamics of discipline and familial closeness, as well as the implications of providing emotional support and having difficult conversations over the phone for the family, with particular emphasis on the women (Galam, 2012).
As advancements in technology grew, allowing for more types of technology-based communication, several studies went back to their earlier questions of interdependence. Research conducted by Lindemann (2017), showed high levels of interdependence between couples in long distance and commuter marriages, despite their highly individualized structure. The researcher interviewing these couples noted that the use of communication technologies facilitated inter-reliance to a great extent, as they allow for a couple to be in touch at any time, virtually. This then enabled the reliance to extend beyond emotional support to financial and logistical domains as well. Clear contrasts were drawn with earlier studies on non-cohabiting couples from the 1970s and 1980s, when respondents did not have the same abilities as they do now – to access and make use of technologies such as video chat, text, and instant messaging (Lindemann, 2017).
To better understand how communication affects relationships and intimacy in the contemporary world, researchers from the United States and Hong Kong teamed up to investigate the various factors that affect how technology facilitates relationship communication. Jiang and Hancock (2013) studied the effects of behavioural adaptation and idealization on intimacy between couples separated by geographical distance. They categorized the communication mediums on the basis of cue multiplicity (the extent to which a medium can convey multiple cues relevant to the interaction such as verbal expressions, voice inflection, facial expression, and body gestures), synchronicity (the degree to which communication can occur instantaneously), and a third dimension, mobility, or portability (the utility of the medium during physical travel). All of these focus on communication time, quality, and potential, which are shown to be extremely relevant to the development, maintenance, and enhancement of intimacy. This study provided a more dynamic analysis of daily romantic interactions than was previously available and helped draw conclusions about how concurrent cognitive and communication processes operate differently in different media (Jiang & Hancock, 2013).
In summation, there exists a large body of research on how individuals in long distance and commuter marriages have communicated and sustained emotional intimacy despite physical separation at different points of time in the past across the domains of psychology, sociology, and communication studies. While the insights from these studies have provided in-depth understandings of communication styles and technology preferences, there are some areas where further research is required.
There are two major gaps in the existing research that this paper can contribute towards filling. These are the context and the time periods studied. In terms of context, the majority of published and peer-reviewed research in this field focuses on individuals residing in relatively developed, western countries. There is little to no information on commuter or long-distance marriages within or relevant to India – be it among residents or Non-resident Indians (NRIs). India has a collectivist, family-centric culture, which is likely to have a different outlook and set of perceptions when it comes to the functionality and structural norms generally associated with marriage. By interviewing individuals from or based out of India, these unique perspectives can be brought to light, to contribute to existing knowledge on the subject.
In terms of time periods studied, there are no comparative studies done on couples who have used different kinds of technology to communicate. While it can be inferred that not having to pay for sending text messages is likely to result in an increase in the frequency of communication, there is minimal knowledge of how exactly this impacts the quality and content of the communication, or the emotional intimacy between the two parties involved. In addition, there are no studies, longitudinal or otherwise, that question how access to different technologies has affected the same couples over time. Asking questions of this nature could provide insight into how changing technologies are learned and consequently incorporated into one’s lifestyle, and the consequences of this adoption as well. This study seeks to bridge these gaps, by focusing on individuals from India who have been in commuter or long-distance marriage arrangements for enough time to have witnessed significant changes in communication technology that is available to them.
The participants in this study were seven married women who currently are or have been in long-distance or commuter marriage arrangements for a minimum of five years, between 1980 and 2018. The sampling method used was snowball sampling, with a few respondents providing references for other potential participants, who were then approached to be a part of the study. Of the seven women, three were in commuter marriages, three were in long-distance marriages, and one had experienced both arrangements over the course of her marriage and was in a commuter arrangement at the time of this study. In each marriage, the ‘primary’ familial residence was where the woman resided either with their children or parents or both, and the separation was due to the man’s profession or career-related commitments. In each case, the husband was employed by an organization, i.e. they held a corporate job as opposed to being an entrepreneur running their own business. Four out of the seven women had professional engagements of their own, whereas the other three were homemakers. All seven women as well as their husbands were English-speaking, college-educated adults, belonging to the upper-middle class of urban India. Given their socio-economic position, each of them had and continue to have access to various types of communication technologies.
As this was an exploratory study, the data was collected through semi-structured interviews with seven women. These interviews were conducted either in person or over the phone, depending on availability of the respondents, with only the researcher and the woman present. In two cases, the researcher was also able to speak to the women’s husbands, after the interview with the woman was completed. This provided greater insight and another perspective on the situations already described by one of the partners. The interviews were recorded with the participants’ consent and then transcribed and analysed qualitatively, through the process of thematic analysis using chunking and coding techniques. The questions were categorized into five broad areas – the background of the marriage, the nature of the long-distance/commuter situation, descriptions of the communication (frequency, content, etc.), the specific technology used, and the general impact of technology on the relationship. These also facilitated a conversation about the barriers to communication that each couple faced, as well as a detailed analysis of the advantages and disadvantages, and the lifestyle changes brought in by each kind of technology used.
Positionality of the Researcher
The starting point for this research project began from the researcher’s own experience as a child of parents who were in a commuter marriage for many years. As the sampling method was snowball sampling, the researcher’s parents greatly assisted in helping the researcher get in touch with potential respondents. As a result, many of the respondents were neighbours, family friends, and friends of friends of the researcher’s family. This prior familiarity with the respondents aided the researcher in asking questions that were of a personal nature, as the respondents were comfortable sharing this kind of information. Keeping in mind this positionality, the researcher took care to ensure that the familiarity did not in any way impact the objectivity of the analysis of the data collected.
Findings and Analysis
All of the women who were interviewed had been married for at least ten years at the time of the interview, and had experienced a long-distance or commuter marriage arrangement for at least five years. Based on this timeline, each of them had used at least three or more different types of technology to communicate. While the circumstances of their marriages differed, they all described similar barriers to communication and challenges posed by geographical separation as described by Gross (1980), and Gerstel & Gross (1982). Aside from these factors, they also described the various difficulties with technology, such as poor connection, high expenses, and overall inconvenience. The capabilities and difficulties of each type of communication pattern mentioned by the women can be summarised in the following table:
|Year(s)||Type of communication||Description|
|Late 1980s, late 1990s, early 2000s (early few years of each couple’s marriage, or while courting before marriage)||Letters (handwritten)||Can be lengthy, no limit, ‘heartfelt’, asynchronous, would take weeks to reach and get a response.|
|1980s-2010||Regular phone call/ SMS||International calling was expensive; getting a dial tone used to be difficult pre-2000; connection was not always good; support from employers (e.g. getting access to a phone, having phone bills covered) not guaranteed.|
|2006-2012||Voice-over-internet technology||Less expensive, but required stable internet connection and Wi-Fi; had to be on a computer; banned in some countries (e.g. UAE), poor connection in others; internet access was also poor (dial-up connections).|
|2010-2014||(Computer-based technologies)Skype, Facebook Messenger||Allowed video for the first time, but had to be on a computer or a laptop, not portable; dependent on stable internet connection from both sides.|
|2010-2014||(Phone-based technologies)Instant text messaging & using the internet – social media apps (e.g. WhatsApp, Messenger, Hangouts) on early smartphones, in tandem with the introduction of 3G in India||Allowed one to send pictures and videos easily, as well as instant text messages; synchronous, cheaper than phone calls, and could be from a computer or a smartphone; required internet connection; Wi-Fi restricted to the home, and data packs may be expensive, so not preferred for frequent use; useful in emergencies and “less urgent” updates and conversation.|
|2014-present||Smartphone technology and affordable 4G, (Text, image sharing, social media posting and video calls over FaceTime, WhatsApp, etc.)||Allowed easy video and voice calling at extremely affordable rates, instantaneous sharing of pictures, videos and voice notes, strong connection, portable and user-friendly device, completely synchronous.|
Different Experiences of Marriage
The women’s experiences differed in many ways based on the nature of their marriages. While the separation arrangements were primarily for husbands’ professional situations, these differed with the kinds of careers they had. While most of the respondents had spent a few years living at a shared residence post-marriage before the work-related separation began, a few were physically separated right from the beginning. The women with husbands in the Army or the Navy were aware that distance would be a factor, even before they got married, whereas couples who faced the separation later in their marriage, had not planned for it. Each couple had different reasons for making this choice – some being the other spouse’s job, the dependency of other family members on the couple (for instance, parents), an unwillingness to uproot their children, or for convenience of one spouse to stay in a city where there was a support structure in place. As mentioned in the methodology section, half of the respondents were in commuter marriages, where their husbands had travel rotations of shorter durations, whereas the other half were in long-distance marriages, with far longer durations of separation.
Factors Affecting Communication Patterns
The support systems the women had (or lack thereof) aside from their husbands played a role in how urgently they communicated with each other. For example, one of the women explained that when she got married and was living in a country away from home, she would call her husband multiple times a day, regardless of the cost, simply because there was no one else she could talk to in the country. On the other hand, another woman who had lived with her husband’s family just after marriage, in the same city as her own family, said that she “managed absolutely fine by herself”, speaking to him only once a week, as was feasible and affordable. Couples who had spent a few years together before the distance separation had an ‘adjustment’ period, where they spent a lot of time communicating at an erratic, inconsistent frequency to work out the logistical issues as well as emotionally cope with having to live apart for the first time in their marriage. It took all of them a period of adjustment before they settled into a routine. In contrast, couples who were separated right from when they were married settled into a routine relatively early in their marriage, which they continued to adapt based on changing social factors and technology.
Duration of separation
While some spouses only had to stay apart for a week or two at a time, others were away for six to eight months at a stretch. The women who spent more than a month apart from their husbands at a time claimed to be comfortable talking about ‘practically anything’ over the phone, or through communication media in general, whereas couples who had the ‘luxury of being able to see each other frequently’ differentiated strongly between the nature of in-person and over-technology communication. These match Bergen’s (2010) findings, on how commuter wives personally felt about the importance of mediated communication. One of the women explained this in an extremely articulate fashion – segregating communication into ‘transactional’ and ‘emotional’. In her situation, her husband would travel for four to five days every week. She explained that the content of conversations while her husband was away were just general updates on everything they were doing, and discussions regarding ‘logistical things’, such as scheduling appointments for the children, any work or repairs that the house required, physical health, etc. These were short, goal-oriented conversations that could not wait, and would also not take focus away from their individual daily lives and activities. On the other hand, they preferred having longer, more emotion-based conversations when they could spend time together in person. These could be discussions about family issues, parenting, feelings, or even arguments. While the other women did not express this same sentiment as clearly, the way they described the content of their conversations was similar – conversations over technology were based on the need of the hour. If a concern was not urgent, or could be time-consuming, it could wait to be done in person. Govaerts and Dixon (1988) had noted this difference between emotional and logistical/ financial support in their commentary on parallel communication leading to greater marital satisfaction as well.
Choice of technology
There was a clear correlation between duration of separation and attitudes toward technology that could be observed across all of the women interviewed. For couples in long-distance marriages, the primary goal for investing in new technology was to enhance communication between partners, which later carried over into their individual work or social habits. Conversely, the couples in commuter marriages who knew they could just talk in person relatively frequently, were less enthusiastic about adopting new technology. They adopted it once it became a mainstream phenomenon but would not go out of their way to explore and experiment. For them, technology had to add some value to their shared communication system, but not at the risk of affecting their individual routines. For example, the couple that had experienced both long-distance and commuter arrangements in equal measure chose to adopt video calling because it suited their system of spending half an hour chatting every morning over coffee. The woman who was able to meet her husband once a week did not prefer using video call, as she and her husband both tended to multitask while speaking, and phone communication was simply less of a hassle to manage.
Another respondent in a commuter marriage also expressed her feelings about technology-based conversations creating the problem of miscommunication – emotions cannot adequately be conveyed over text message and trying to do so can lead to misunderstandings and problems in a relationship. Similarly, one of the women who lived alone, without family support in a long-distance marriage saw instant communication as a slight problem, as it increased her dependence on her husband when it came to decision making. She no longer made decisions by herself as confidently as she used to, but tended to text him for the slightest issues.
Individual preferences aside, it was observed that couples who spent longer duration of time apart were more likely to be as up to date with technology as possible. As soon as a new technology with the potential to improve communication entered the market, these couples immediately adopted it. They invested in dial-up connections as soon as they were available, experimented with every voice-over-internet application, had the best landlines in the market, owned the very first smartphones, and were the first to make use of features like video calling or the ability to send pictures. These priorities were directly reflected in each couple’s approach to technology itself. The theory proposed by Jiang and Hancock’s (2013) detailed analysis of the factors that determine the type of technology (cue multiplicity, synchronicity, and mobility), and the corresponding effects on intimacy (communication time, quality, and potential) was further validated through these women’s descriptions of how technology aided their relationship.
Impact of technology use over time
All women interviewed mentioned that the greatest difficulty posed by distance was an inability for their husbands to be involved in family life. They also mentioned that this was consistently mitigated, bit by bit, with every new communication technology that could be incorporated into their lifestyle. Each woman detailed the transition from using international calls to voice-over-internet-phones to Skype and FaceTime and now to present-day options such as WhatsApp. They recalled the experiences of having to “wait 30 minutes to even get a dial tone” in the 1990s, and contrasted those with the ease with which instant audio-visual connection can be accessed with a tap of a phone screen today. In terms of the benefits of technological changes, each and every couple felt that the ‘ease’ factor in technology was incredibly helpful.
Despite mentioning a clear preference for more advanced technology, all women mentioned feeling nostalgic about the past, which some of them even described as “the good old days.” They all talked about how at different stages of their life and marriage, there was a certain amount of excitement that accompanied the anticipated arrival of a rare phone call or letter. Three of the respondents fondly referred to letters as tangible objects of memory that could be taken out and reread multiple times, which is impossible with telephonic conversations. Some of the respondents also explicitly brought up the idea of ‘stages of a marriage’, despite there not being a question on the topic at all. When asked about their feelings about letter writing or texting, a common response was that they had different content to share when they were younger, and newly married. Regardless of whether they had had a love marriage or an arranged marriage, they all described their earlier years of marriage as a time when they were still getting to know each other. Couples who were living together during this time stated that they did this best in person, whereas couples who had been living apart right from the start did it through long letters or emails. None of the respondents reported engaging in extensive, text-heavy communication (either through handwritten letters, emails, or text messages) after the first few years of their marriage.
Rather than just a shift towards different technology, this also indicated a change in their relationship, which one of the women summarized as “After 20 years of marriage together, there’s not really anything new to get to know about each other – so what would I write in long texts?” Her husband later responded to this by stating that after the ‘formative’ years, the focus of the conversation itself shifts. Another respondent commented that “the letters and long messages are just a different stage of life, which we’ve grown from now.” Galam’s (2012) research amongst the Filipino seafarers’ community suggested women interviewed had similar ideas.
Regardless of personal feelings towards technology, individual temperament and lifestyle choices, the ability to feel involved, or involve the other in their lives, given that the other person was ‘just a push of a button away’ made an immense difference to how the women felt in their relationships. The fact that technology became and continues to become increasingly more feasible and affordable was described as helpful by every respondent. Multiplicity, synchronicity, and mobility were all major factors in determining the ‘best-suited’ technology for each couple’s needs. The ability to instantly connect in case of an emergency, or whenever they wanted, overtook the habits and comfort of using any outdated technology that only allowed for asynchronous communication. Aside from being able to feel more involved, they were also able to “better” communicate with each other.
Each woman reported an increase in frequency of communication as technology became easier to use and cheaper. Even couples that limited their technology-based communication did this, and said that technology made conversations relating to logistics easier and faster, leaving more time and energy to connect emotionally. The phrases “less stress”, “peace of mind”, “not as concerned or worried” or alternatives to that effect appeared in all interviews. Contextualizing these studies in terms of the existing literature, the idea of parallel communication played an important role in the relationships. There was a clear correlation between interdependence and increased usage of technology-facilitated communication, even over short time spans, which essentially combines the findings of Govaert and Dixon (1998) with those of Lindemann (2017) and Jiang and Hancock (2013) in a present-day context.
Limitations & Scope for Further Research
While this study explored themes that have previously not been investigated, there were a few aspects in which the investigation was limited, especially when the lens of intersectionality is used to consider the chosen sample. All respondents were women from the upper middle class of urban India, meaning that their access to technology has been influenced by their socio-economic status. The mode and purpose of the use of technology they described cannot be understood without the broader social and cultural context of contemporary India, and the related social norms that dictate family dynamics, gender roles, sexuality, class struggle, caste-linked identity, financial independence, etc. While each of the seven women interviewed had a similar marital arrangement, these individual factors may not be similar or even comparable across all seven of them. It is important to acknowledge this given that marriage is deeply entrenched in the social, cultural, and religious norms of a community, and therefore heavily influenced by all these factors. Further, the experiences of women interviewed for the study may not be representative of every individual from the same socio-economic class.
In addition, this study focused primarily on women’s experiences and perceptions of their marriages and communication patterns, without considering that of their husbands, or other family members who spend time with or are dependent on the couple, such as their children. Future research can investigate these alternate perspectives to put together a more comprehensive picture of each marriage studied. With marital arrangements continuing to evolve and diversify with changes in social conditions, there is scope to study other kinds of marriages and compare these to those involving physical distance. The relevance of the findings in this research can be tested in settings such as marriage counselling and corporate partner support, where a couple or a spouse seeks assistance in dealing with physical separation. Alternatively, a large-scale study of this nature could provide valuable behavioural insights for market researchers in the technology industry. Conducting interviews with the same couples over time as they use different technologies, in a longitudinal format, would yield relevant insights for product development as well.
This study began by introducing the increasingly prevalent marital arrangements that involve physical separation around the world, as well as in the contemporary Indian context. Previous research has shown that the various challenges posed by long-distance and commuter marriages can be countered with more efficient and flexible communication, which technology has aided over time. Through semi-structured interviews with seven upper-middle class women from India who are part of such marriages, this paper aimed to explore how exactly technology affects communication, and how both the relationship and communication patterns shape each other.
A thematic analysis of the interviews showed certain experiences that were common to all seven women, as well as differences based on factors unique to each woman’s marriage. Overall, some patterns could be noted including a preference for technology that suited each couple’s lifestyle with as few difficulties as possible. Couples in commuter marriages were not particularly avid consumers of new technology, whereas those in long-distance marriages were more likely to constantly be searching for newer, more efficient technologies to aid their communication. On the topic of content of communication, couples in long-distance marriages or with very long durations of separations expressed comfort with having all kinds of conversation over phone or video call, whereas couples who were able to communicate face-to-face more frequently preferred to have “transactional” conversations or conversations relating to logistics over technology as and when required, but reserved emotional conversations and big decisions for in-person discussions. Many respondents also described changes in the nature of communication over the course of their marriage. For instance, there was more emphasis on ‘getting to know each other and figure things out’ at the beginning of the marriage, and less attention was paid to these topics as time progressed. The levels of interdependence and independence described also varied in relation to how much support the women were receiving from their family and immediate community, as well as how affordable and feasible frequently speaking to their husbands was. All seven women noted that technology would not replace in-person communication, but had certainly helped them deal with their physical separation. Issues such as involvement with family, general emotional closeness, and logistical support all became easier to tackle with each new development in communication technology used.
As this was an exploratory study, the sample is not representative; it is relatively small, and restricted to a narrow socio-economic section of contemporary India. Some other limitations include an absence of husbands’ and other family members’ perspectives, which may provide different insights, but were not the main focus of this study. Future research can build upon the themes highlighted, to investigate techniques used in marriage counselling and partner support. It is also relevant to innovators and developers seeking to better understand people’s needs with regards to technology usage. Finally, understanding communication dynamics and patterns today is important as the number of marital arrangements that face such barriers is only increasing by the day.
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