Randy and Kim* were dumbfounded when friends said they were worried about their marriage. They didn't think their troubles were so obvious.
But those well-meaning friends were right. After 27 years of marriage, Randy and Kim's relationship was strained — and it all had to do with Randy's travel schedule.
As a doctor, Randy traveled to regions of the country where populations don't have easy access to physicians. He worked in these underserved communities for several days — sometimes weeks — at a time. He came home between visits, but it wasn't enough.
Kim and Randy learned to live separately and independently, but along the way, they lost that sense of unity and togetherness that's critical for a marriage. Both knew that, because Randy was gone so much, he was missing important moments in his family's life. That made Randy feel guilty and Kim feel a little resentful.
They talked less and less. "Some of the reason is that his schedule is nuts and it's hard to find time alone to talk, even for 10 minutes," Kim says. But she admits her own guilt might play a role, too: "I have the comforts of home while he has to work day and night in a dumpy hospital, eating hospital food."
Reintegrating into family life can be difficult, too. For many traveling spouses, finding space and usefulness in their own families — families that had done just fine without them while they were away — can be challenging and dispiriting.
Randy and Kim knew they needed to make some big changes. But they had no idea where to begin. Let me offer some tips that they used to fix the troubles Randy's travels caused — tips that might help your relationship, too.
Don't romanticize your spouse's life
If you've never traveled for work, it might seem like a pretty sweet gig: expensed meals in upscale restaurants; clean, cozy hotel rooms; no carpools, sibling rivalry or dishes to deal with. 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 the experience can be painfully lonely.
For the traveling spouse, home can sound like heaven — forgetting all the day-to-day duties and stresses that come with homelife that the nontraveling spouse has to deal with all the time.
Don't argue about who does more or works harder or whose role is tougher. Your relationship isn't a competition about who has it worse.
When you're traveling, don't try to micromanage your spouse's schedule and routine. And when you come home and it isn't quite what you remember or like it to be, try to blend in instead of trying to disrupt what's working. Don't second-guess your spouse's decisions. "It's important that I fully trust in the competency of my wife in the areas that she oversees while I am away — such as finances, banking and other issues," Randy says.
Nontravelers have responsibilities, too. For instance, you should include your traveling spouse in decisions as much as you're able. And if you've agreed on a set of family rules — 8 p.m. bedtimes for the kids, for example — you should stick with those rules even when your spouse isn't there. And when your traveling spouse is home, try to help him or her integrate into daily routines.
Connect with your spouse every day
Don't fall victim to the "out of sight, out of mind" phenomenon. Marvelous technology can help you stay in touch: Use it. Skype or FaceTime with your husband or wife. Share pictures. Stay connected and keep communicating. In fact, overcommunicate: Keep your spouse in the loop about everything — how long you'll be gone, who you're with and what you're doing, what's up at home. By communicating these details, you're creating a greater level of safety and trust.
Communication means staying connected about your inner lives, too — not just the day-to-day operations of life. Target 10 minutes every day to connect on a deeper level. This is key for any couple, but especially those who spend significant time away from each other. Studies show that the happiest couples are those who talk frequently with each other about meaningful things. Just because you're having those conversations via email or phone doesn't make them less meaningful.
The first three months I worked at Focus on the Family were hard. I was away from my wife, Erin, and our family for weeks at a time until we all moved to Colorado. To stay connected, I asked Erin for phone dates. We set a time, and I called her to take her with me on a walk or to a restaurant for 30 minutes. We protected this time by not dealing with conflict issues or household responsibilities. We used this time just to connect emotionally and relationally.
Spend time together when you're both at home
Randy admits that he gets so used to doing things by himself that he often doesn't "recalibrate for group or couple activities" when he's home. Look for activities you can do together — ones that create unity, bonding and attachment.
Randy and Kim found that praying together was a wonderful opportunity to bond. "Kim and I [pray] together at least once a day out loud when we are home and we try to do it over the phone as much as possible," Randy says. "Nothing brings a couple closer than prayer."
When possible, travel together
"I think it's great when Kim comes on a gig with me," Randy says. "She gets to see and experience what I do, which gives her context for a conversation. She may meet people with whom I frequently interact. She gets to see my routine, and it emphasizes that it's not as glamorous as some may portray. And I get to 'come home' and see my wife waiting for me in the hotel room after a day at work on the road. That's the best feeling outside of being home."
Take care of yourselves
A good relationship with a traveling spouse isn't just about finding opportunities for togetherness. It's also about fostering mental and emotional health while apart. Make sure that the nontraveling spouse is getting time away from the kids and is spending some "friend" time with other adults to re-energize. Meanwhile, the traveling spouse should be sure to get rest, exercise and downtime.
Re-evaluate the need for travel
Is your spouse fully on board with the travel schedule? If not, then your marriage "team" is losing. Always prioritize your spouse and marriage above a job.
If frequent trips are creating constant headaches for the nontraveling spouse, figure out a way to fix the problems — hiring a lawn service, for instance, if the spouse is overwhelmed with yard work. But if the real issue is the absence itself — missing out on too many special moments, for instance, or watching the kids grow up from afar — then maybe it's time to find a new job or figure out a way to cut down on travel. Whatever the solution, make sure it's a win for both people.
Guard your marriage
Avoid relationships that could damage your marriage. Be careful how you cope with the loneliness of being away from your spouse. Connecting and emotionally investing with opposite-sex colleagues or friends can set you up for an affair.
It's been two years since Randy and Kim were confronted about their marriage. They have put into practice many of these suggestions. In fact, they gave me many of these suggestions. While their marriage isn't perfect — and what marriage is? — they really love the direction that their marriage is now headed. And when Randy heads off to another rural clinic, that means the world to both of them.Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books.
* Names have been changed.
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