I was at dinner recently with a group of friends when one friend complained about how her husband’s frequent work travel was putting a strain on their relationship. Much of what she spoke about was very familiar to me as a couple’s therapist as I have heard countless couples describe the very same frustrations.
I described to her the dynamic that I see play out regularly in my office between spouses when one travels often to which she responded, “You just articulated in 5 minutes a dynamic that has been happening in my marriage for years that I have never been able to put words to and that I could never fully understand.”
The dance between couples when one spouse travels frequently for work:
The spouse who is at home feels, to varying degrees, overwhelmed by having all of the responsibility for the children and home while their partner is gone. Most will put their heads down and power through it, doing whatever is required of them to keep everything running smoothly at home.
Upon their spouse’s return, they often consciously or unconsciously feel like they can let out a deep breath and turn things over to their partner who is now home and able to help them; often with a certain set of expectations for what their spouse will now do, and how they will do it.
For the spouse who has been working, they are often tired and feel disconnected. For most people, traveling for work is not the glamorous vacation and “time to oneself” that the spouse at home often believes it to be. The spouse who has been traveling has had their own set of stressors to deal with, and often feel removed from what is happening at home, or not needed there. They miss their family. When they do try to step in to help, they don’t know the routines that have been established in their absence, or the long list of “to do’s” that have accumulated.
They are expected to step in and take over, but with very set expectations of how they should be taking over. And most fail, in the eyes of the spouse who has been at home running things. Simultaneously, they experience the resentment of the spouse who perceives that they have had it easy in comparison because they have not had all of the responsibilities at home to manage alone. They often feel that there is little to no empathy for how tiring and stressful work travel can be. Now both spouses feel isolated, disconnected and caught in a pattern of anger and resentment.
Thankfully, there is a way out of this pattern and there are things that spouses can do to lessen the strain that travel puts on a relationship.
Here are 5 steps to make your marriage work with a travelling spouse
1. Recognize that work travel is hard on everyone
It is not a contest for who has it harder. It is hard on both of you. Being able to voice your understanding of this to your partner goes a long way.
2. Be vocal about your needs
When the time of re-entry approaches, have a conversation with your spouse about what you each need from each other upon the traveling spouse’s return. If there are tasks that need to be accomplished, be specific about what they are.
3. Be collaborative and offer to help
Collaborate on how you each can get what you need. Approach this conversation from the perspective of what you can offer to the other to help them get their needs met.
4. Accept that there is not one right way to do things
Be flexible about how the help is provided. There is not one “right” way for things to be done, and if you are the spouse who has been holding down the fort, be open to the likelihood that your spouse will have a different way of doing things, and that is okay.
Acknowledge your partner’s efforts. Appreciate what each partner is doing for the family during work trips. Follow the above 4 steps for keeping the peace with your traveling spouse.