After 34 days on an oil rig, Alyson Lamb’s husband, Darryl Ingram, arrived home in Halifax to a simple request: “I need a full night of sleep.”
Lamb was juggling her full-time job as a hospital administrator with taking care of her three-year-old, who was potty training, and her 14-month-old, who was getting over a cold. No one was sleeping, and Lamb was beyond exhausted. Ingram would normally take a day or two to catch up on his own sleep upon arriving home, but when his wife made her needs clear, he packed himself and the kids up for a weekend at Grandpa’s, putting his wife’s wishes ahead of his own.
When one partner travels a lot for work, it can put a serious strain on a relationship already heaving under the everyday pressures of having young kids. Things that are hard for all couples—from communicating to sharing household duties to getting enough sleep—can be intensified when one parent is often away on the job. Gary Direnfeld, a Dundas, Ont., social worker and relationship counsellor, often sees the toll frequent work travel can have on his married patients: anger, animosity, bitterness and even infidelity. But that doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed if your partner travels. With a little empathy and a lot of communication—essentials for any marriage—the issues amplified by absences can be handled in a way that works for everyone.
Talk it out beforehand
How often will the travelling partner be away? For how long? To prevent simmering anger and resentment, the parent at home needs to be fully aware of—and on board with—the parameters of his or her partner’s work travel, says Debra Macleod, a Calgary mediator and relationship coach. If the non-travelling parent isn’t totally onside, it may help to understand why the work travel is important. For example, it might advance her partner’s career in a way nothing else can, or the job might pay a lot more than a position that doesn’t require travel. In some cases, it may be the only job available.
Don’t romanticize your partner’s life
If you’ve never travelled for work, it might seem pretty sweet. Expensed meals in upscale restaurants; clean, cozy hotel rooms; no kids to deal with—on paper, it sounds like heaven. But for the most part, work travel is, well, work. There’s almost never time to explore and enjoy the city like you normally would when on vacation, the work is often exhausting, and it can be painfully lonely.
Stephanie Clare’s husband frequently travels internationally for his job, leaving her to take care of their two boys, Declan, 4, and Ross, 6. Though he travels to incredible locales, such as Milan, London and Sydney, Australia, Clare knows the only sights he sees are the insides of office buildings—and that makes his absences easier to swallow. “He’s in a conference or in meetings for more of the day than not,” says the Vancouver mom. “Even a fancy dinner can be a chore for him because it’s really a business meeting—it’s never totally relaxed.”
Lamb admits she sometimes romanticizes Ingram’s month-long stays in Texas when she’s having a bad day. “There are times when I think he has it better because he comes home from work, cooks for himself, goes to bed and only has to worry about himself in the morning,” she says. But rather than letting resentment and jealousy build up, Lamb forces herself to remember how hard it is for him to be absent from family life. “He is away from these two little things he loves dearly—and misses a lot.”
And non-travelling spouses shouldn’t be made to feel like they have it easy because they get to enjoy the comforts of home. They need to feel recognized and valued for the hard work they do. “When spouses start to lose appreciation for the other’s role, they lose that sense of solidarity and start to get more competitive,” says Macleod.
Be OK with changing routines
When one partner is away, flexibility at home is key. Maybe you skip baths or order pizza more often than usual. It’s easy to judge when you’re the one who’s miles away on a business trip and not in the thick of it, but resist the urge. Being easygoing about what’s happening at home has been key to Ken Cuperus’s marriage. The Toronto-based TV writer is often away for months at a time while a show is in production, and when he comes home to find his family—wife Michelle, and kids Parker, 13, and Logan, 9—in totally different routines, his willingness to accept them goes a long way toward keeping the peace in his marriage. “They get into new systems when I’m away,” he says. “So if I see something new in place when I come home, I’m happy to work myself into it rather than try to disrupt it.”
Make time to talk every single day
Couples should try to connect once a day—even if it’s just a quick text chat (although Skype or FaceTime would be better). “Sometimes when we go away, we’re so lost in our business lives that we may not be tuned in to what’s going on at home, and we undermine our connection by not staying in touch,” says Direnfeld. Lamb agrees that a daily reconnection has been essential to her marriage: “There’s more of a breakdown in the relationship if we don’t take five or 10 minutes every day to just have some adult conversation.” No big surprise there—the same can probably be said for any marriage, whether there’s travel involved or not.
Consider the unexpected benefits
Some marriages actually do better when one partner travels frequently. According to Gary Direnfeld, a Dundas, Ont., social worker and counsellor, separation can act as a “distance regulator,” to the benefit of the relationship.
Debra Macleod, a Calgary mediator and relationship coach, agrees. “If a couple can do it right, they can keep that simmering attraction a lot stronger than the couple that’s crawling into bed with each other every single night.”
Tara Bentall King’s husband, Dan Wilton, is away up to 25 percent of the time, travelling for his career in finance. With a three- and five-year-old at home, Bentall King says she’d prefer her husband didn’t travel quite so much, but from a relationship perspective, she can definitely see the positives. “We get the opportunity to miss each other, so when we are together, our appreciation for each other goes up.”