My wife and I just celebrated our two-year wedding anniversary.
By celebrated, I mean, we shared a 25-minute Skype chat via grainy video, which had to be curtailed fairly promptly after staff started queuing outside my office door. It was a fairly frustrating experience for me, even moreso for my wife, if the expression in her voice was anything to go by as we hung up- and I don’t blame her.
This was certainly not how either of us envisaged sharing our second wedding anniversary, even a couple of months back. Being a full hemisphere apart, however, separated by oceans and continents and eight or nine time-zones, this is what it looks like. We haven’t seen each other for five weeks, won’t see each other for another four, and even worse, my step-daughter and I will be apart for several months.
It’s more than just the fact that we don’t get to communicate face-to-face. Which is, let me tell you, horrendous enough. The time difference is brutal. Finding windows in my work day that fit windows in her routine of managing our home and looking after our child tends to rob very much spontaneity. Because I’m out here sans famille, I’m fair game for the office here, which means the work piles up without my usual incentive for boundaries, and during the [oh so short] workday itself, I’m usually dashing from task to task- but the last thing I want to do is make my wife feel like I’m penciling her in to my schedule. Unfortunately, this is what it can feel like sometimes.
As well, rather than sharing a life, we now find ourselves separated by worlds and lifestyles. My wife carries the responsibility of both of us, doing the work of two people and keeping our life together at home. Meanwhile, I’m filling my days with almost nothing but work, in a continent she’s never visited, and periodically disappearing off to one of our project sites. I know that in the past, especially while on humanitarian missions, she’s struggled to reconcile the need to raise issues that she’s dealing with at home which she feels are mundane, while I have my hands full with so many more ‘important’ things in the field (not a true reflection, but I grasp her struggle).
My wife and I are no stranger to this dynamic. When we first got together, I worked for an NGO’s emergency response team and was deployable almost immediately, anywhere in the world, traveling about six months a year. Three weeks into our relationship, I was deployed at 48 hours’ notice to a typhoon response. I was gone three weeks, back three more, then deployed somewhere else for yet another three. Shortly afterwards, I stepped away from that particular role, recognizing that such travel was not conducive to the survival of a new relationship. That didn’t stop me being deployed for five weeks during our short engagement, to Niger- quite literally as far away from my then-fiancee as I possibly could have gone. I challenge you to try and plan a wedding on two different continents.
Somehow, she still married me.
I’ve been travelling less since the wedding. Generally my trips have been three weeks or less, a total of about three months a year. Absence is still a key dynamic in our relationship, though- and in that of my relationship with our daughter. In fact, it’s a feature of many expat aid workers- and other professions that travel frequently.
It’s not a new thing for me, either. While I hadn’t been in many relationships prior to getting married (in itself part due to the fact that I traveled so much; we’ll ignore the fact that I’m a little clueless in the relationship department), pretty much all the relationships I did have were impacted, one way or another, by travel and distance. When I was a child, my own father- former EAW turned UN HQ staffer- would travel regularly. I literally cannot remember a time in my life that hasn’t involved regularly being away from loved ones.
So that’s my credentials of dysfunctionality out of the way.
I think this post has been brewing for some time. Pretty much any EAW will come up against the Long Distance Relationship (LDR, not to be confused by my supply chain colleagues with a Loss/Damage Report, although there are times you could be forgiven for confusing the two…) at one point or another in their lives, especially if they make a career of aid, and don’t do the wise thing of spending a few years in the field and then getting a *normal* job at home. The aid industry is full of people who’ve not been able to make relationships work with their transient or high-travel lifestyle.
A few months ago, @devxroads shot me a message asking for my perspective on what it was like trying to be an aid worker and a family man- unfortunately I was rushed off my feet at the time and wasn’t blogging, and I feel bad I didn’t contribute to the conversation. More recently, my dear friend, fellow TCK and very talented writer Lisa Mckay (author of two excellent books, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and her memoir Love at the Speed of Email, about her own experiences of love, travel and EAWs) put out a question about managing long distance relationships, as part of an upcoming project of her own (that we are all very excited about), which also got me thinking.
So in brief, here are a few key pointers from MoreAltitude’s playbook on how to mitigate the risks posed by frequent travel when you’re in a serious relationship.
Let me stress that for a moment:
Communication. Communication. Communication.
As often as possible, through as many different means as possible, as much as you possibly can. Any relationship lives and dies on the quality of the communication between partners, but distance not only reduces the available windows to communicate, it also compromises the ability to communicate well, because several communication channels (proximity, physical touch, body language, even expression and tone) are compromised. Therefore you have to overcompensate.
On a good day, my wife and I will communicate via Skype (written chat), email, SMS, and still try and have at least one video or voice call on Skype somewhere in there as well. It may not happen like that every day- especially if I’m in the field- but the more we manage regular, several-times-a-day communication, the more we feel better connected, and the more we share in each other’s daily lives. Even just simple little messages about what’s going on for you right now are important and mean something to the other person.
2. Spontaneity. If possible, try not to get locked into too much of a routine with communication. Sure, some of it is inevitable- especially where you have to make two busy lives overlap with massive time-zone differences. But just like a real relationship, when communication and interaction becomes routine, the relationship will suffer. Try and change the times, places and circumstances of chats and calls as much as you can, and where you can be spontaneous, do-so. Whatever happens, don’t let your significant other feel like they’ve become an entry in your daily task list.
3. Limit time apart. This is a total no-brainer too. This varies from couple to couple. For us, three weeks is our acceptable limit- and a lot of couples I know work by the three-week rule as well. I know my parents used it too, after one particularly gruelling 6-week trip by my Dad. It tends to strike a balance between what families can handle, and what people actually need to do their work overseas. Circumstances beyond our control have meant that A. and I are apart for longer this time, but we’ve generally been pretty good (one exception) at sticking to the three week thing. It’s for both our sakes- we generally find our coping ability matches pretty well. Ten days we can take in our stride. Things get painful around the 2 week mark, and by 2 ½ weeks we’re both pretty much done. We’ll push 3 if we have to, but we don’t like it.
This particular long-haul is just terrible.
4. Agree your boundaries ahead of time. Talk through how you’ll communicate before you separate, don’t expect to figure it out on the fly. Make sure you understand what your partner needs from you in terms of communication- and make sure you communicate your needs. Are you the sort of person that really needs to read a nice juicy email from your loved one every day? Does your partner need to hear from you at least once a day, even if you’re okay connecting every two or three days? Does your relationship really benefit from visual time on something like a Skype video call, or can you deal with a few days of seperation without it being a big deal? Sure, you’ll probably need to adjust your communication as you go along a bit, but make sure you’ve taken the time to communicate what you need, and learnt what your loved one needs from you in return- don’t let yourself make assumptions here. When I was growing up, my folks actually found it easier not to be regularly communicating. Dad would head out for ten days or two weeks, and rather than deal with the upsurge of emotion of trying to talk over a scratchy telephone line several times a week, my parents would go cold turkey until he got back. It worked for them. (Though since the advent of Skype, things have changed, and now they get regular link-ups whenever Dad travels).
5. Don’t leave stuff unsaid before you go away. And try not to bring up big issues the night before you go away. If there are any major issues in the relationship, distance is a sure way to make sure they bubble to the surface. Talk early and talk deep, and get things into as healthy a place as you can so you can both leave each other in a peaceful place, knowing that the relationship is as strong as you can make it. Make sure you keep talking about intimate, serious stuff while you’re apart- you mustn’t stick to trivialities or the relationship will become shallow- but any of the big contentious issues, try not to have to deal with them while you’re away, as distance facilitates miscommunication, hurt and damage.
Pro-tip: If you happened to have been involved in an extremely serious security incident on a previous field posting, the time to tell this to your new girlfriend is not the night before you deploy to another emergency response.
6. Don’t even think about a long distance relationship unless you already have rock-solid communication skills with your partner when you’re together, and can talk honestly and transparently about things.
7. Consider the practical implications for the person left behind. This is important, because for the person travelling, although there are hardships, it can often be easier to deal with the seperation due to busyness, and being stimulated by new surroundings. The person left behind is in the same old place, but with a big hole left by the traveller. If you’re living together, what extra work is the partner left behind going to have to cope with (especially if you have kids), and is there anything you can do to help with that or limit the load? What about finances? Does the person remaining behind have access to bank accounts, know which bills need paying, and everything else required to keep life ticking over while you’re gone?
8. Try and make the last day/night together special. Do something romantic, get away, go out together- something nice that will create a memory you can both hang on to while you’re apart, and give you something to look forward to when you come back. Involve kids in this process too if applicable- but always make sure the couple gets time alone together somewhere in there.
9. Ditto for the return. In that first few days to a week, make sure you spend some good quality time together as a couple doing something you both love. Again, with kids, involve them, but also make sure they get packed off to the grandparents (or something) for an afternoon or a night, and have some one-on-one reconnect time. It’s something to look forward to, and also something to help get the relationship back into ‘normal’ space.
10. Manage your goodbyes. Every couple is different, but try not to make goodbyes a traumatic emotional thing- it doesn’t actually help anybody, and can create a certain dread around the departure well ahead of time, as well as leave both parties carrying grief after they go. If you’re the sort of people who can hang out at the airport, have a meal together, say a gentle goodbye, and leave it at that, then great. Otherwise, if goodbyes invariably lead to floods of tears and great heartbreak, think about keeping it short and sweet- catch a cab and say a quick goodbye at the front door, or get dropped off on the curb of the departure terminal.
11. Manage your expectations. LDRs are tough. Difficult things will come up. At times, you will miscommunicate, irritate each other, even hurt each other, and it will be an effort to fix that over distance. Expect to struggle and to have negative feelings emerge. Expect your partner to struggle, and expect to be surprised by the things they struggle with, because they’re not you so their experience is going to be different. Expect these things to come up when it’s awkward to deal with them, for example when you’re rushed off your feet and the last thing you need to deal with right now is an emotional issue with your partner. And be prepared to drop everything and deal with it, because quite frankly, if this is your spouse or life partner we’re talking about, nothing you’re doing right now is as important as that relationship.
Don’t expect things just to drop back into the way they were when you left. It takes time to readjust and settle back in. While you were gone, your partner was busy living the life you left behind, and things have changed. They’ve had experiences, and so have you. Depending on how long you’ve been away, anything from a few days to a couple of weeks is normal, and during that time, communication together may be strained, time together may have some residual awkwardness (even if there’s a lot of relief and happiness at being back together again). Depending on the personalities involved, intimacy may need to be rebuilt. If you travel a lot, your ‘normal’ may be that constant change, limbo, and the regular hellos and goodbyes that, depending on your personalities, may work fine, or may mean that the relationship never really develops the foundations of intimacy it needs.
Utlimately, unless you’re the sort of couple who need time away from each other (and those exist too), LDRs are not fun, so expect them to suck.
12. For the person staying behind- mix up the routine a little. Nothing is as lonely as going through the same routine as before but without your significant other. If you can, fill some of that space with other social engagements. If you’ve got kids, think about changing the routine a little for all your sake- maybe have dinner in front of the television a little more often, or have them stay up a little later from time to time, eat out, or go away for a weekend. You don’t want changes to the routine to be disruptive to them, you want them to feel like life goes on, but you also want to compensate/distract from the absence of a parent, and also let them know, hey, things are a little different right now, it’s not normal, so don’t get used to it, and here’s a few things to make it a little better.
13. Think creatively. On this particular trip, we’ve asked a friend to come and live with the girls while they’re at home alone. It helps my wife feel safer in the house, gives her some adult company, and distracts the little one too. It’s been a great move and really reduced some of the pressures. If there’s someone (a good friend or a family member) who can be an additional part of life while you’re away, look into it. They may fill some of the gaps and ease the pain a little- or at least distract from it.
14. Kids make things a lot harder. You’re not just maintaining one long distance relationship, but two or more- each one its own distinct relationship that has to be supported. As adults we can cope with a lot- and we also have an element of choice and therefore control in things, which kids lack. Kids are resilient too, in fact they have remarkable bounce. They are also incredibly forgiving, even when you do put them through a hard time- but you must never take that for granted or exploit it. With a child, the dynamic changes, and spend very much time away- or regular time away- and that relationship will suffer quickly. The child may also be very unsettled which can put a lot of pressure on the parent left behind. We’ve really struggled with this dynamic in our family when I travel. Make sure in your communications arrangements you build in time to call when the child is present and awake, and it fits within the daily schedule. Granted, it makes things a lot more complicated- but there’s a lot more at stake, too.
15. For both parties, try and find the silver linings. What are the things that you can do by yourself that you enjoy, that maybe you don’t get as much time to do when you’re around your partner? It might be indulging in reading a book. It might be going out with your friends you don’t see much (equally true if you’re left at home, or if you’re the one travelling). It might be writing, or praying, or quiet time just pottering. Maybe watching dumb rom-coms or stupid action movies that your other doesn’t appreciate. But for each of you, try to make space in your apartness for those things, and give a bit of a positive angle to your separation, minimize the cost. It’s never a substitute for the other, but try and find the good spin.
16. Find as many things as you can to celebrate in your relationship as you can. Talk about your relationship, talk about your strengths together, congratulate each other as you pass milestones apart, and identify those areas that are going strong despite the distance.
17. Compliment each other. As often as you can. Say and write affirming, loving things about each other. Just because you’re apart, that doesn’t mean communicating those things to one another should stop. Make sure the other person knows you love them, and be specific about why. It’s so easy to forget that you’re loved when you’re a long way away, and a loving word from a distance from the person you care most about can make a huge difference to your day and keep that relationship sparking. If anything, this is even more important to focus on, because the normal little ways we might find when we’re sharing life together to tell each other “I love you”- in words or in actions- are missing, so you need to be very deliberate- and genuine- about doing this.
18. If you’re a regular traveler, try and stagger trips with as much time between them as possible. It’s very disruptive to be away for three weeks, back for two and away for another three. That time stable and together is essential for rebuilding intimacy, and if you leave again before you’ve reformed it, you’ll struggle to stay connected.
19. Did I mention “Communicate”?
20. Countdowns generally make the time go slower. Avoid them if humanly possible.
21. Long Distance Relationships suck. Avoid them if humanly possible.
A. and I are lucky. We married as a slightly older couple, with life experience behind us so we know our own characters, our needs, and how to relate maturely. We work hard at our communication, and even if things get difficult, we support each other and we make it through. Neither one of us enjoys being away from the other, and this is going to be a time apart we hope never to repeat. But for now, we just need to push through it, and we’ll make it work, because we’re determined to. We are deliberate about meeting each others’ needs over distance, and while we’ve got areas we need to grow in, we’re gentle with each other, love each other, and ultimately, can’t wait to see each other again.
Let me know your thoughts. What have I missed? Any other advice for couples who spend time apart on a regular basis? And should I try and talk @MadamInsideOut to guest-blog on her perspective on exactly what it’s like to be married to a travelling EAW? I’d love to know what you think or hear your experiences. Share them in the comments below. Thanks!