27 comments on “In Which an Expat Aid Worker Talks Long Distance Relationships

  1. Thanks, this was great. It’s good to have it written down in a way that can be shared with my (new to dating EAWs and really confused by the whole thing) bf. And yes, a home perspective would be great.

    • Thanks Laura. Yes, there should be a written guide to dating EAWs- not only does it involve the whole LDR thing, but also the whole EAW thing (hence the need for SEAWL). In fact, we should probably come with government health warnings hung by a tag from our ears (Federal Warning- Do Not Remove) advising the mental health risks of such, and possibly requiring prospective partners to sign a disclaimer indicating they understand the risks they are undertaking. Perhaps an HRI-affiliate needs to design a training package for prospective partners of EAWs- something RedR could deliver on our behalf?

      And jokes aside, lots of luck to you and your befuddled b/f – I know where you’re sitting! 🙂

      I will definitely see about encouraging the view from the home-front.

  2. Fantastic post. Now, for someone to write a post where both parties are working in development/ aid/ disaster relief, away from home and each other.

    • Yeah now THERE’S a category that needs serious help- two people screwed up enough to be EAWs AND dating each other…

      I’ve known it to happen- and for it to work. Reckon it’s a challenge though! More common is the approach that for 2-3 years 1 partner focuses on their career and the other does consultancy for a bit, and then they switch over. I actually like that model- it limits time apart but makes sure both parties get their fix of EAW meaningfulness.

  3. Great post, and lots of sensible advice. Good luck to both of you. As the one who does most of the travelling, I can relate (tho I don’t actually work in the same field). It took ages for me to convince my significant other that I needed to hear from him in some way every single day – just to be assured that he was alive and well. Often talking is impossible, so a text or email is fine – as long as I hear *something* – otherwise I’m so distracted by worry I can hardly think, let alone work. It’s a small thing, and sounds a bit OCD, but makes a huge difference to my well-being when I’m away. I also agree with the 3 weeks is ok, 6 weeks is really stretching it – not sure how I’d manage a longer separation.

    • Thanks Viv- and yes, I’m like you, if I don’t get at least one SMS or something in a day, my anxiety levels go right up, and like you I struggle to focus. Not OCD at all- I hope! 🙂

  4. Love this, and you do know I’m going to make it a “series” on Modern Love Long Distance right? As in, there’s enough material in this one post for three separate posts. Hope you’re OK with it be serialized and re-posted because, frankly, I’m more telling you that’s what’s going to happen than asking. Yeah.

    • Hah hah- you’re most welcome to do so! It was shared freely, share the love further. I’m sincerely hoping that you’re shortly going to be announcing that your next project is to publish a guide to relationships in the EAW world, as, judging by the fact that this post has had a little under 1,000 hits in the 2 hours since I posted it, there’s something of a demand for commentary in this particular aspect of our existence. Seems to have hit a nerve… 🙂

  5. I did all this for several years, several years ago and almost lost a marriage over it. Sooner or later, something has to come first. And what comes second, will be second, and there will be an enduring cost to that.

    • Absolutely right Phil- couldn’t agree more. My wife and I both share the same priorities- I’m out here alone for reasons beyond our control- the fam is supposed to be with me, and God willing they yet will be. In the meantime, we find ourselves in this limbo. We don’t plan for it to be a regular feature & are trying to cut it out as much as we possibly can. Neither of us plan to put our relationship in jeopardy over the long-term for this- not worth it.

  6. Great post. Glad you hammered home the point of communication. I learned the importance of that when a year away from my partner. I found the distance can be frustrating, but it opens up lines and forms of communication that would have never existed. In many ways we are better off for it.

    • It definitely tests a relationship- and shows where your commitments lie! It also makes you appreciate being together more (assuming the relationship survives that long! A lot don’t…). I have to say, I’d probably argue that the bad outweigh the good fairly substantially- overall I think distance is damaging for a relationship- but it’s important to pull out as much positive as you can, and there is certainly some to be found as you say. Thanks for your comments as always Tom.

  7. Another aspect of any return to a family is slipping back into a parenting role.
    Suddenly for the children, one parent has become two and it can be a bumpy 24 hours or so until everyone has found their places again.
    Don’t be surprised if children, although excited about a parents return are nevertheless resentful of their authority at first. The returning parent has to be understanding and ease gently back into that role if they have been away a while.

    • Very true- although I think in some cases the re-entry is as much a challenge for the parent who has remained behind. They have had all the responsibility, the authority, the challenges and the discipline while the other has been away. Suddenly, the returning parent steps back in and can expect everything to be as it was before they left, when in fact during their absence, the dynamic- and the parenting role of the one at home- has shifted, and time (and grace) are required for it to move back into a balance where both parents take on their roles in partnership once more.

  8. You claim to be “a little clueless in the relationship department” but this post reflects some serious wisdom — earned, no doubt, through difficult experience!

    Thank you for sharing such an intimate glimpse into the struggles of long-distance relationships. To your extremely comprehensive and helpful pointers on how to mitigate the risks posed by frequent travel when you’re in a serious relationship I would add: know what your partner’s [or your kids’!] primary “love language” is, and plan ways that you can “speak this language” to him/her when you are away. The idea of 5 primary love languages, or ways in which we prefer to express love and have love expressed to us, was developed by Dr. Gary Chapman. Though he is a Christian pastor, this model is not based on religion, and is applicable to all relationships — including parent-child relationships.

    For example, some people’s primary love language is “receiving gifts” so leaving small gifts for him/her to discover while you’re gone, or arranging for a gift to be delivered during your absence can mean the world. For those whose primary love language is “words of affirmation,” the “juicy emails” and compliments you wrote about will go a long way. If your partner’s love language is “quality time,” then the regular Skype calls will be critical.

    1. There’s a summary and a quiz to figure out your primary love language here:


    2. Here is a quiz on children’s love languages: http://crcpeninsula.org/Love_Languages_Children_Guiz.pdf )

    3. More info is in the book, The 5 Love Languages

    • Hi Shana,

      You’re absolutely right, he’s not as clueless as he makes out. He actually possesses more wisdom on relationships than any man I have ever met; which is why I married him!! There is always more to learn though. Always. :0)

      We are both familiar with the love language model of typology. My love languages are predominantly words of affirmation and quality time. The former is quite easy to address, the later becomes tricky with opposing time zones and schedules, but yes, thank the heavens for Skype. Obviously, the impossible one to address is physical touch. Both MoreAltitude and our daughter speak this one fluently and they both really ache when apart – although I have to say, after 5 weeks I think we are certainly all suffering over! Modern technology still hasn’t addressed that one.

      We eagerly await the invention of teleportation or just a job which allows us to live in the same place.

      Thanks for your interest! Hope this quashes your curiosity.

      Mrs MoreAltitude

    • Thanks Shana, appreciate this. As my wife points out, the love languages is something we as a family have taken time to learn about each other and plays into our communication dynamic apart as well as together- and yes, being a physical touch guy as well as quality time, makes the distance tough- for me and for the little one. It’s a really good resource though- we have appreciated having this insight into each others’ dynamics and needs, and I would recommend an understanding of the love languages for any couple, traveling or not- it’s an extremely helpful window on how we work.

      • I’m glad to hear that you, Mrs MoreAltitude, and your daughter have found the Love Languages model so helpful. I know that I have as well, in my marriage [to an expat aid worker] and with my two daughters.

        Best wishes to you in your continued journeys, and may more of your journeys be together rather than apart.

  9. Ahhhhhh fantastic post! Aid work is definitely a life-style choice, and I have learnt many similar lessons the hard way too. I’m no longer 100% field based but travel regularly with work, and before I leave for a trip my husband and I write ’emergency letters’ for eachother, to be opened at some point during the trip when the ‘missing’ gets too hard or when you’ve had a crap day and need an love injection 🙂 There’s something very romantic and special about opening a hand-written letter when you’re apart. Interesting to hear about your 3 week limit – it’s exactly the same for us. 1 week is quite exciting, 2 week is enough already and after 3 weeks apart and your heart is screaming for home and the misunderstandings start to creep in. I think that your post should form part of every pre-trip briefing pack – there’s currently lots of talk about security guidelines but not nearly enough about ‘well-being.’

    • Thanks Lucy. I LOVE your idea of emergency letters- that’s a super creative idea, and I’d love to hear some more creative ideas people have around managing the separation thing- it’s all tools we can put in our kit to maintain sanity and relationship.

      I have a feeling that the 3-week thing may be a bit of a universal threshold for a lot of people in our industry- I suspect for many it would be lower, but when you walk into this line of work you accept certain realities that affect your expectations. But I like your reflection that after 3 weeks the misunderstandings creep in- I think that’s very true- you lose some of the fluency in communication after a while, and it becomes an increasing struggle.

      You know, I fully agree about briefing packs and preparation. The organization I have been sent with in the past has been excellent at providing briefings for staff on longer-term (3-12 month +) deployments, a portion of which include personal care, work-life balance, and family/relationships, including packs with information, worksheets, advice, etc. So they definitely exist. I’m not sure who the best organizations are globally, but I know of a good one in the US, and another in Australia, both of which provide psychological/emotional support to aid workers deployed, that includes support for families. However it’s up to the individual agencies (or in some cases, individuals) to ensure that service and resource is made available.

  10. Wow! Wisdom beyond years shown here. As an itinerant evangelist for 12 years away to many times per annum I identify with every thing posted. I used to leave my suitcase open in the bedroom with the soiled clothes in the wash and ready to go back for my next departure. My lovely wife supported me and was amazing putting up with all the shortfalls in our relationship. This item you have written I would like to put in a book I have begun to write in regard to the Itinerant minister. Well done! We all miss you heaps!

    • Hi Keith & thanks for your kind words- of course you can use the material here in your book- you’d be most welcome. We can chat more about what that might look like. Missing you guys too!

  11. Pingback: Long Distance Relationships: Keeping the Home Fires Burning (Guest Post) « WanderLust

  12. Pingback: Long Distance Relationships: Keeping the Home Fires Burning | MadamInsideOut

  13. I think I really hate you. I looked for this as an answer to how to do the ‘aid work thing’ while maintainging a relationship/family. And there it is – a man, who has left his wife raising the kid. How incredibly disappointingly typical.

  14. What advise would you guys give to someone who is in a situation where the relationship has suffered as a result of Long Distance on how to make things right again. Everything that you suggested doing was ignored and communication broke down. Now there is only awkwardness. How can the partner who is staying back home win back his significant other?

  15. This is amazing. I’m so glad I found this as it has brought me so much comfort. I know I am not in the same situation as yourself and your partner, as my boyfriend and myself are just about “embark” on a similar lifestyle. We’re both young graduates, and listening to someone who has already faced the hurdles, makes it seems so much less daunting to myself – the person left “behind” in this instance. Thank you once again!

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