Long Distance Relationships: Keeping the Home Fires Burning

This was originally written just before my husband returned from a 14 week stint overseas and recently appeared as a guest post on Wanderlust, as a twin to Morealtitue’s wonderful post: In Which an Expat Talks Long Distance Relationships. It received such lovely responses that I wished to share it here also.

Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Original artwork by UK Artist Natasha Newton

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

I put my husband on a plane to Ethiopia over thirteen weeks ago. This is our longest stint apart yet, never ever to be repeated. He has missed our second wedding anniversary, Christmas, the new year, his birthday, the birthdays of most of his family and the Mayan End of the World. (This was the sort of event I would have really liked my husband around for, as you may have gathered, he is handy in a disaster.) He arrives back the day after Valentines Day. So we miss that too. Yes, there is a strong theme of missing here.


Morealtitude asked me to write something on maintaining a relationship long distance from the perspective of the home-front. Ultimately, there isn’t anything unique about our general situation, as demonstrated by the 2000+ hits Morealtitude’s last post generated in the first few days of its release. Long distance relationships are as ancient and common as our need to hunt, gather and go to war. Recently I read Charles Frazier’s, Cold Mountain; an achingly beautifully tale of two lonely hearts living through a separation during the American civil war. Phew. It hurt. The mutual throb of longing, the challenges for the vulnerable Ada, left to fend for herself with no food, no money, no knowledge on how to run her farm, waiting, watching the horizon. The struggles, snares and wistful yearning on the long road home from war for Inman. No way to connect. Hoping. Longing. Striving. Both finding a way, but not without significant struggle and grief. We are lightweights comparatively, but some of those feelings are universal. Despite the fact that we have more props than ever to manage separation from our loved ones, being apart is still fraught with challenges.

There is just nothing that can replace the physical presence of your dearest one.

In saying this, I actually really enjoy my own company. I’ve lived and traveled alone and my dad traveled extensively whilst I was growing up. And, while these experiences have helped in equipping me to survive our time apart, I love hanging out with my husband. I really really don’t like it when he’s gone.

As was mentioned, we find that any time apart under 2 weeks can be deemed as somewhat healthy and manageable. Beyond that, forget it. Five weeks out from sharing life with my numero uno compadre, love and life mate, we’re seriously stretched. Maintaining contact with Morealtitude at odd hours of day or writing lengthy emails gets difficult to fit in with the demands of doing everything. A disconnect sets in. My legs officially turn to jelly from exhaustion. All the meals in the freezer mysteriously disappear. My old friend, adrenaline abandons me and I crumple into a weary little shell of a person, rather than the otherwise required ‘Mama Extraordinaire’ persona.

I was a solo parent for 4.5 years, so I thought I would take slipping back into this over-functioning space on occasion in my stride. Not so. The issue being that as a family we establish a healthy rhythm and interdependence with each-other and when MoreAltitude boards a plane, we wave goodbye to both him and our rhythm. I handle the initial shift with relative ease, however our daughter does not. Suffice to say, having children and needing to maintain a long distance relationship makes things much trickier to manage. Morealtitude and I never had the luxury of courting each other without the additional needs of a little person in the mix, so I can only speak from this perspective.

I must say, I have great admiration for my own mother, as she brought up four children, whilst my dad travelled regularly, loving (and hating) his various international adventures. My Mum was the stabilizing influence in our family. I credit her with any semblance of sanity or consistency I may possess as an adult. It has also become very clear to me that she played this irreplaceable supportive role to my dad’s travel at great cost to herself.

However, there was also a cost for my dad. In order to provide for us, he missed out on milestones and cuddles and the comfort of home cooked meals with his family around him. He slept poorly on lumpy pillows, in stark hotel rooms or with strangers and had to power on, despite a weekly scratchy phone call with his wife saying she had no money for groceries or that the children were sick. Not being able to physically be there for your family in a crisis is a very frustrating, even heartbreaking thing for a functioning loving adult to deal with. Dad always came through though. Always. He was ultimately motivated by his love for his family.

My husband also has such noble motivations. Although there are some serious questions emerging around the reality of continuing this line of work with the, at times, conflicting needs of a family. He is an amazing person and a wonderful husband. He puts us at the centre of everything he does. He is generous and caring and wise beyond his years in knowing how to nurture a family. His advice around maintaining long distance relationships is fabulous. He has taught me a lot. He is a brilliant communicator and despite whatever stresses he may be experiencing whilst in the field, he has an excellent ability to be present and understanding of whatever issues are occurring for me a million miles across the oceans. He still manages to be right there in spirit. Many times, I have felt the challenges on my side of the world are petty or mundane compared to fighting poverty or implementing medicine and food distributions. But Morealtitude is always genuinely interested, appreciative and validating of my experiences and will indulge them more so than I will let myself. This is marvelously helpful. I imagine it would be very easy to get resentful or feel insignificant if he could not do this. After all, challenges are challenges, no matter where you experience them.

And there are genuine challenges with being the one left behind. It can be difficult not to feel as though you are missing out on the adventure. Difficult at times not to detect pangs of resentment, when your life resembles your own version of the set of Groundhog Day. Particularly between the hours of 5-9pm when dinner needs cooking, the kid gets whiney and wants entertaining and feeding and attention and washing and, and, and. And there’s just you with your two hands, one in the sink, the other manning the stove; probably an additional foot artfully applying a band-aid. It becomes exasperating when your kid refuses to sleep alone for the 95th night in a row, but you know they will immediately right themselves upon your partner’s return. Doing those evening stretches alone night after night can be overwhelming and a more than a little lonely. I’m talking specifically about a loneliness that can only be quieted with adult company. That variety of loneliness tends to surface during those marathon evenings, or when an important decision just has to be made without the consultation or inclusion of your humanitarian husband who is in a 6 hour meeting with the United Nations several continents away. A very real exhaustion can set in from doing everything solo, where you had a partnership before.

I try and offset this by using the opportunity to invest more into my family and friendships. I find it easier to do this in summer than in the hibernation months of winter. I’ve been asking myself to watch that I’m not completely holding together all of the relationships my husband is absent from and unable to fully invest in, although my being anchored at home inadvertently maintains a connection and may help his return home to be a little more seamless. That is okay with me, but I have seen this dynamic become unhealthy when the traveling partner loses meaningful connection socially at home. I think this is a strong reason for jobs requiring extensive travel have an expirey date.

As time wares on, daily details can really get swallowed up by the miles between us. Details of which we would normally share or witness together can be vaporized by opposing schedules and time zones. We have to work hard to keep the intimacy from flailing – which we absolutely do.

So, you might ask, how exactly does one keep healthily connected to their crusading globe trotter and keep the home fires burning without getting resentful? A few thoughts…

  • Empathy: I’ve covered this one a fair bit already. Empathizing with what your significant other is experiencing is profoundly important in managing your relationship long-distance. Our communication centers around this. Honestly expressing, listening to, connecting with and validating each of the other’s experiences is vital. That is not to say that we don’t sometimes talk utter nonsense and laugh and joke. We just talk – or write. For the most part, words are really all we have. We keep building shared experiences this way. We do this on a daily basis. If I ever start feeling sorry for myself or resentful of the distance, I just think about the hard stuff my other half is experiencing and what he is sacrificing. And, if he is enjoying himself, I am grateful, because I like him and I want him to be happy. That usually sorts me out. We are in the same boat. We’re just at opposite ends of a very very large canoe. Oh and if you are the one away, try not to post your experiences on Facebook before you have had a chance to tell your partner what has happened. I’m talking specifically about pictures and captions like this, Morealtitude:
For those who noted my comments about flying in and out of Somalia on a jet with a shattered windshield, THIS is what I was referring to. Yes, at 22,000 feet. Thank you, UNHAS.

For those who noted my comments about flying in and out of Somalia on a jet with a shattered windshield, THIS is what I was referring to. Yes, at 22,000 feet. Thank you, UNHAS.

  • Maturity: Own your reactions. Ultimately your responses to the separation are only in your control. Do what you need to do to look after yourself. This might mean seeking extra support from family, friends or professionals. In doing this, look after your partner as well. Express your feelings, but don’t hurl them at your loved one as something they need to fix. Try not to blame or punish your partner or freeze them out while they are miles away – or in the same room for that matter. That stuff is really unfair and destructive.
  • Be Deliberately Active: Know what you need to get through, make plans, so you don’t slump into sad-feels and find it all too much. I like filling my house with people – our daughter is happiest when surrounded by energy, I also like to cook, so I try and hook up lots of dinners and visits in advance. We had a lovely friend staying with us this time and her company made a world of difference. Take the empty spaces and fill them with other things. Things you like. Get out. Exercise. See friends. Meet people. See a show. Do the art gallery. Be spontaneous. Take the kids to eat ice-cream on the beach. Then keep doing that stuff when your other half gets back, but include them. It’s a nice way to bust out of a rut and experience your hometown anew.
  • Be Flexible: Go with the flow. Some days, connection may not be possible. It just is. Save up your stories for when it happens. Similarly many of the routines that we establish with Morealtitude home just don’t work when he is gone, so we shake them up, mix them around. Things are a lot more fluid, including meals and bedtime. Our daughter sleeps in with me at nights. It drives me crazy, but not as crazy as having her scream and whimper half the night for weeks on end because she is scared and she misses her step-dad. I pick my battles.
  • Sleep: Obviously this is a corner stone of sanity. However, I have somehow found myself becoming a terrible sleeper when Morealtitude is away. When he is gone, I avoid bed because I am wired and anxious and struggle to wind down. I’ve found a few useful tools. These include completing a relaxation meditation – free from the internet and, my most recent find, audio books. These are calming, they slow my thoughts down and stimulate my imagination in a healthy way. The more I sleep, the better I cope. It’s not rocket science, but it gets mixed up when you’re apart and you need strategies to help make it happen.
  • Visit: If you can make it happen, it is incredibly useful to get out to the field and take part in your partner’s world. Obviously it is not possible on most trips. It has taken us over 3 years to make this happen with all the various pieces in play. Recently I visited Morealtitude in Ethiopia. The first hand insight I gleaned from this trip into his work and all of the various complexities he faces was invaluable. It has made a HUGE difference, as it has helped me gain a more balanced perspective of humanitarian work and our situation on the whole. I connected with my husband’s daily realities with all of my senses. In that 10 day trip, I witnessed the impact my husband was having on huge programs – which made the struggle of the previous 8 weeks worthwhile. I also saw the nuances of the aid industry. The questions. The two steps forward, three steps backward daily dance of humanitarian work. I ditched my first world guilt, as I realised that human suffering is human suffering, no matter where it occurs – this sounds obvious, but it was an important perspective shift for me. Just, if you can, DO IT!!

What about when they get back?

Of course you are beside yourself with excitement and relief to have them back. But, it can be a bit weird and take a bit of adjusting to. You’ve just spent the last X amount of weeks figuring out your own systems and making it all hang together without your partner and suddenly they are back ready to slot into all those spaces you’ve managed to fill. The systems you had together have been remodeled. I have friends who need to spend a couple of days in a stand-off-ish space until they readjust, as they feel a sort of resentment at having been ‘abandoned’. I personally don’t experience this, but I think it’s very understandable. My parents used to have a ripper fight after every trip. That is not our style of re-entry, but it shows it can be turbulent.

It just takes a few days to reconnect properly, there is probably jet lag and fatigue in the mix. We just try and be gentle and patient with each-other. And, yep, you guessed it. We keep communicating. The shift to having more modes of communication other than words at our disposal, is um, advantageous. We can give gifts, we can do stuff for and with each-other, we can say how much we appreciate what the other has done for us whilst we’ve been apart (recommended) and we can touch (highly recommended).

Dagnamit. It is so much better to have the full suite of expression available; to physically share spaces, dreams, doldrums, laughter and life.

So tell me, why do we do this apart thing again?