DANCING THROUGH TRANSITIONS: The adjustments and readjustments of having a husband that travels
My husband and I worked for sixteen years as church planters in rural South America. The church was based out of our home, as was his veterinary ministry, and I home-schooled the kids there as well. We truly lived and worked together in every area of life.
Then we made a move to the USA, which was not “home” to either of us. Not only was his leadership position not mine, but he also traveled a huge amount, often leaving me to cope with three tempestuous teenagers. Furthermore, I was battling depression, which obviously did not help me cope with this season of life.
The gambit of emotions that I experienced during that time were confusing and isolating. I quickly learned to carry the burden alone, rather than be viewed as emotionally crippled. After a couple of years, I did find friends who struggled with and faced the same challenges, with the same responses. They were a life-line for me.
I analyzed my responses and read whatever I could find to help me figure out if they were normal. I discovered that there is a very typical range of responses to a husband that travels a lot, and that helped me to understand my reactions and see them as okay. However, it would have helped so much not to have to discover all these things first-hand.
I would like to share a few of the every-trip-adjustments I went through as the spouse that “stayed home”. I share as a woman, with a woman’s emotions and mindset. While I recognize that it is not always the husband that travels, I cannot speak to how a husband handles his wife’s trips.
- Grief – For the first couple of years, every trip was accompanied by an impending sense of doom, that my husband would not come back. I had to work through a period of grieving for him before he left, which in itself placed a huge strain on our relationship. I was sad before he left and even struggled after his departure.
- Taking over – The last couple of days before a trip were busy with preparations for him being away, and for me to take up the responsibilities that were usually his, on top of my own. For the next period of time, the buck would stop with me.
- Pulling away – All the adjustments taking place made me begin to shut down emotionally and physically, pulling away from my husband. I always reached a point where I just wished he would get on the plane and leave; stop drawing out the pain. This was very confusing for me – grieving and wishing him gone, all at once.
- Single parent – Suddenly being the only parent of teens was tough. I had to be mom and dad, as well as teacher. (I still have a letter that I wrote to my kids, telling them their mom just quit her job! Maybe every mom wants to quit at some point but being alone was definitely what precipitated that level of desperation for me.)
- Isolation – I sympathize with widows and divorcees. The transition from being part of a couple to being single is enormous. While I only experienced this to a very small degree, as my husband was still out there somewhere, this was part of my stress. I felt very isolated and alone when he was away, especially if I was unable to communicate with him – which happened often!
- Separate worlds – It was hard to be in completely different worlds. I would never be part of those weeks, which turned into years over the next 10 years, that he was away. The places he visited and the people he met were part of his world, not mine. He obviously missed out on a lot of things at home as well.
- Fear – Many women fear that their husbands will stray on trips away. This particular fear was not an issue to me, but I did pray for him to remain strong to resist temptation in whatever form it presented itself.
- Relief – The sense of relief that I experienced on his return was immense. I felt like I had been holding my breath while he was gone
- Handing over – There was always a battle waging in this area. Part of me wanted to dump all responsibility back on him as he got off the plane. The other part of me was reluctant to relinquish it at all, as I rather relished my self-importance. This was always a dance, and the time frame would vary from trip to trip.
- Re-connection – Reconnection on a heart level sometime took days. If another trip was coming within a short time, there was almost not enough time to reconnect anddisengage again, so it was easier not to try. This was probably the most stressful aspect of the whole thing, and the hardest to understand.
- Relinquishing my independence – I grew in my capabilities and independence while he was traveling.After a brief chance to indulge in “me time”, I returned to thinking of myself last. I begrudged that and tended to blame my husband.
As organizations, there are some things we can do to help support the wives of those who need to travel extensively. While the organization cannot do all these things, they could certainly facilitate and help both spouses to understand the dynamics and encourage them to find ways to work through the issues.
- Limit travel – The first thing we could do is work at limiting the amount of travel our executives need to engage in and provide tangible accountability in this area. Perhaps we could appoint or recruit people to help them figure out what travel is necessary and what is sustainable for their family. There are huge ramifications to marriage, but also to kids and their relationship with their traveling parent.
- Define what is normal – It was a huge relief to discover that my responses actually lie well within the range of normal. Helping spouses anticipate and talk about their experiences normalizes the situation for everyone.
- Provide support groups and debriefing – Knowing there are people we can talk to about what we are experiencing is helpful. A safe place to unload the burdens and emotions we perhaps feel ashamed of is invaluable. We debrief our missionaries after long periods away from home, but that might be needed in this situation, even for just the first few trips.
- Provide accessibility – Technology has moved a long way since we started this journey. It was important to me to have instant access to my husband, so he made sure he had a cell phone number that I could call anytime. He would interrupt a meeting if I called, just to make sure there was not an emergency. Then we could schedule a time to talk. This was an addition expense that was well worth it!
These are a few suggestions for spouses to work on:
- Open communication – Learning to talk about what we experience as our spouses come and go is important. As we grew in our understanding of what we needed from each other, and could communicate our needs and frustrations, it was so much easier to navigate the waters of a continuous travel schedule.
- Keep up to date – If we were not able to talk every day, we emailed “newsy” notes about how our day had gone, to keep connected to one another’s lives and feelings.This communication had to be honest, even when it was not pretty. This made it possible for me to be part of his trip, and he did not lose chunks of home life.
- Margin – We worked at creating some margin when he returned from a trip, so that we could have some time to reestablish connection with one another.
In conclusion, no two transitions are the same, so we always do this “dance” of sensing how the other one is doing. Sometimes I need to wait days before unloading all the responsibilities. And sometimes, despite jet-lag, he has to shoulder things right away. As we are attentive to and understanding of each other, the dance becomes a thing of beauty and joy.
So, learn how to dance!