When Your Spouse Travels For Business: 16 Crucial Ways To Swim Rather Than Sink.
At 40000 feet, my parenting burden disappeared, while my wife’s suddenly doubled in weight. As the plane punched a hole in the atmosphere, I left another hole behind in my family.
I just got back from a second weeklong trip in a short time, leaving my wife to fend for herself and 5 kids. Like her, they really missed me – not only emotionally but also practically.
She’s not alone. Maybe you have a partner who travels for business, maybe many times a year, or even many times a month.
Getting and keeping work may necessitate this frequent travel, but research has concluded that you’re three times more likely to experience a psychological stress disorder than those whose spouses stay put. And what most people don’t realize is that it’s not just a spouse’s departure that’s problematic, it’s their return (more about this later).
Most concerning is that separation alters relationships, often damaging them in the process. Many marriages and families take months to recover from business travel. Some I know have even ended in divorce. Absence might make the hearts grow fonder, but more commonly it makes hearts fracture.
How to cope, and how to minimize damages as the staying spouse is the question I grapple with in this post. (In my next post, I will gear my advice for the travelling spouse.)
For answers, I asked Julie, and a whole bunch of parents whose spouses travel. I have distilled their top insights and tips below.
BEFORE THEY TRAVEL
1. Own your spouse’s travel.
Ask your spouse to not make the decision to travel without consulting you first. If you feel resentful about your spouse’s traveling, the two of you need to sit down together and discuss it. It’s almost impossible to support your spouse’s travel when you had no say in it.
Once you decide to accept a certain trip, or a pattern of travel, accept it with a good attitude. Guard against making them feel guilty for being gone. Saying, “I miss you” is fine, but “I wish you wouldn’t go…” is cruel.
Where possible, agree on the optimal length of these trips. For some couples shorter trips are better, but most times travelling less frequently and for longer is better than more frequent, shorter trips.
2. Prepare the ranks before they leave.
Try to plan ahead so that you’re faced with the least amount of admin while going it alone. If possible, get the fridge and pantry full of food and pre-prepared meals, fill your petrol tank and don’t overcrowd your diary with unnecessary appointments before they leave. Try to set some money aside for your own personal sanity – perhaps it’s for some take-away dinners, or a meal at the Spur for the kids, or a glass of red wine and a chocolate for yourself (Julie deems this very crucial every night – whether I’m away or not).
3. Fortify your faithfulness to each other.
Let’s not be naïve. Your travelling spouse may be tempted to compromise sexually. And you – without your spouse nearby – may be more vulnerable to receiving illegitimate emotional support from someone yourself. Reaffirm your commitment to each other, and your commitment to avoid any compromising situations. If you have worries or concerns, voice them. However, this is not a chance to be overly suspicious – if you can’t trust your spouse, then the traveling is not your problem! There is something more foundational that is flawed. Very practically, shoot for sizzling sex the day before your spouse leaves. Sexual satisfaction in a marriage is one great way to affair-proof it.
WHILE THEY TRAVEL
4. Stay in touch, but be realistic about these moments of contact.
In most locations, technology like FaceTime makes communication possible. The main goals of talking should be to minimize emotional detachment between your spouse and you, your spouse and the kids, your spouse and family life. Chatting daily is great, but be realistic. Some days (with irregular work hours and time zone differences) contact may not be possible. With kids wanting to chat, try select times that suit them (even if they don’t suit the travelling parent) – just before school (too rushed) or bed (too tired) are usually not great times for kids to chat. On all days and all times, carry your cell phone with you, fully charged,
5. Stay tender toward your spouse.
Marriage is not designed for separation. In an ideal world the two of you should be together everyday. Being physically separated should be painful. The temptation is to freeze the person out in self-protection. This may reduce the pain, but it will also threaten the bond. When the spouse calls or when they return, the self-protective distance won’t suddenly abate. If you want to protect your marriage, rather feel the pain than protect yourself from it.
6. Drop your standards.
Sure, keeping the kids in routine may reduce emotional meltdowns all round, but your spouse’s departure will probably shake things up a bit. Resistance is futile. It might mean meal times changing, or your vulnerable-feeling child sleeping in your bed. Don’t be OCD – push your mind into the chill zone. Tell yourself messy is okay. Eating less healthy is okay (cheerios for dinner instead of a normal balanced meal once in a while won’t kill anybody). Getting less done is okay. Reflecting less is okay. It’s just for a time. Blessed are the flexible, for they won’t be broken.
7. Know when to wear the pants.
With your spouse away, you’re left to make many decisions. Agree beforehand with your spouse what category of decisions are yours to make apart from consulting with them. As a rule of thumb, long-range and larger decisions need consultation, while smaller day-to-day choices can be made by the one who is on-site. For example, although Julie usually plans our kids’ birthday parties, she waited to chat with me regarding the actual date and venue she had planned. Although I was thousands of miles away, it made me feel a little closer (and more a part of) the big events ahead for us.
8. Get closer to your kids.
Many a stay-behind spouse says that, in spite of all the craziness, they and their kids get really close (mutual suffering perhaps?) and sometimes they even miss that intense connection once everything is back to normal. One way to get closer to your child that will also help them to cope better: regularly decompress them by finding out how they’re doing, and then listening with caring empathy, rather than a trite attempt to fix them.
9. Overlay the emptiness with good times.
Having mom or dad away is very hard for kids. Try distract them with all kinds of special things. One mother tells me how, with hubby away, her and her kids would have meals on the jungle-gym, picnics on the lawn, and sleep inside a tent in the lounge. Also cousins and friends would come round every few days.
10. Enlist help where possible.
If someone offers help, swallow your pride and give them a list of options. Perhaps they can bring a meal, give your child a lift, or take your child on an outing. If no one offers, spit out your fear of rejection, and ask friends, family or people in your faith-community to help. Most people love the chance to help – they just need to know how.
11. Sympathize with your spouse.
Business travel is not a holiday. Eating alone in restaurants or entertaining clients may seem glamorous but it’s a lot of work, and it takes courage. When you’re married, having the whole table or bed to yourself is lonely. A hotel cleaning service is nice, but not nearly as nice as a goodnight kiss. Waiting in airports and flying in planes is exciting the first 5 times you do it, but thereafter it’s soul-numbing. You at least have proximity to the kids and a support system. As one friend puts it: ‘We are in the same boat. We’re just at opposite ends of a very, very, large canoe.’ And even if your spouse is enjoying some perks – eating out, uninterrupted sleep, enjoying lovely scenery or a different culture – remember that you love them and should want them to be happy!
I don’t know if you pray, but one person I spoke to tells me that she coped with years of business-related separations from her husband with the help of prayer. She says, ‘I leaned heavily on God’s grace. He was with us through it all, I was always aware of the extra peace and strength that he gave me. I also found that one of the best ways to feel connected to my spouse is by praying for them.’
13. Reframe the pain.
Okay I might sound stoic, but the stoics are right about this. Never waste pain by wishing it away. It’s always better to see pain as useful rather than meaningless. Rather accept pain and use it as an opportunity to learn and grow. See the discomfort and pressure of separation and an increased load as a blessing in disguise. As you do, it just may make you a better person – and consequently strengthen your marriage and parenting.
WHEN THEY RETURN
14. Coach the kids to be more excited about the parent than the presents.
Presents are a great way to communicate that the traveller was thinking of those who stayed behind. But getting presents with every trip is a potential pitfall if parents are traveling regularly. Sometimes our kids are more excited to see our suitcases than us! It’s important for the on-site parent to coach them. The day before I returned, Fynn told me via a Whatsapp call, ‘I love you daddy – even if you don’t bring a present’. I don’t know if he really meant it, but it felt good anyway.
15. Help the returning parent to find their feet.
Your spouse may feel like a visitor in your own home. Schedules may be different than before, the family ‘rules’ may have changed and you may not even feel needed anymore.
Despite their best efforts to return fresh and focused, they are likely coming back a bit broken. Cut them some slack and let them spend what little resources they have reconnecting with you and the kids. Also, it’s best to not make them discipline the children in the first day or two – the bridge of relationship needs to be restored between them and the kids, before they start driving the heavy trucks of correction and challenge across them.
16. Give yourself and the family time to find your feet.
When the spouse left initially, there was a disruption to family life. Then it normalized. When they return, the family experiences a second disruption before it re-normalizes. Making the situation even more tricky, emotions are destabilized. In the case of the two weary parents, they run low. In the case of the over-excited kids, they run high. When you anticipate the difficulty of your spouse’s re-entry, it empowers you to adjust your expectations and delay your yearning for family unity a few days longer, even though you’re all back under the same roof.
So that’s what the staying spouse needs to know and do, but what about the travelling spouse? In my next post I will speak to them. It is titled: ‘When Business Travel Takes You From Your Family: 15 Things You Must Do’. (If you haven’t already, maybe like The Dad Dude on Facebook to not miss it, and to get it hot off the press.)
Also published on Medium.