When I married Jim, my husband of 35 years, I also married a suitcase. That's because Jim's first career, in the Coast Guard, included travel. Now, in a second career doing shipyard development, Jim meets with clients on every continent for long periods of time. I quickly discovered our marriage and life with our five children couldn't be placed on hold until Jim got back home.
Others struggle with the same lifestyle. According to airline figures, 48 percent of U.S. carriers' 1.4 million passengers are business travelers. The trucking industry's most frequent complaint from drivers is that they spend too much time away from home.
Because of Jim's frequent absences, our marriage challenges the biblical ideal of two people becoming one (Genesis 2:24). We've learned to rely on God and develop strategies to remain close. A great marriage, with frequent separations, takes effort. Here are some ways my husband and I stay connected.
The fine art of negotiation
Preparation makes our separations easier. Jim and I have worked out a budget we both understand: I pay the bills, but together we set spending and saving goals. Jim gives me his itinerary before departure, and I fill in a calendar for him with everyone's activities so we know what's happening in our separate worlds.
We plan ahead for momentous events that must be missed. When Jim cruised oceans, I mailed him special care packages. Once, when I was seven months pregnant, I sent him a balloon with a note, "Blow this up to discover how I'm doing." As he inflated the balloon, words grew, proclaiming, "I'm expanding."
Before Jim leaves on a business trip, we set rules for disciplining our five children. These include no sweets for complainers and early bedtime the following night for anyone who fails to go to bed on time. Also, activities with friends come only after chores are done and rooms are cleaned. Poor grades mean loss of phone privileges.
We've also established a network of friends who can help us out when one of us is out of town. During one separation, our kitchen sink overflowed and the oven broke. I called two men from Jim's Bible study, and they repaired everything.
Without continuous communication, however, all the advanced planning in the world can't keep a relationship strong. It's critical to keeping the family aware of what's happening while we're apart.
Those ties that bind
Jim and I want to feel each other's presence even when he's away, and we desire that our children sense his abiding love as well. So I've mailed audiotapes of our dinner conversations so Jim can hear the kids' daily news. I show family videos of Jim in his absence. Sometimes before trips, Jim records himself reading bedtime stories. Each evening, after tucking the children in, I turn on a tape for them, and they drift to sleep listening to Daddy.
Jim also writes notes to be given out as needed. Some may encourage a child after a bad day, while others express joy for a victory. I also encourage our kids to write about their day or a special event on the back of the note so Jim can read it upon his return.
My husband tries to link us to his travels. He saves chocolates and shampoos from each hotel he stays at to give to our kids and me. The postcards he sends and the snapshots he takes show us the places he's visited. He also buys foreign games to help us enjoy the different cultures he's experienced.
We even bought duplicate Bibles so Jim and I can read the same version whether or not we're together. Studying the same words from God helps us connect spiritually. I jot notes on my calendar at the end of each day about anything I want to remember to tell Jim, whether it's a joke, prayer request, message from friends or family, or a problem, even if resolved.
However, no matter how well I prepare, I find there are times of loneliness and frustration that are hard to handle.
To the emotional rescue!
I release some of my frustration over Jim being gone by listing things requiring his attention. My hang-ups become his "honey-do" list for when he gets home, things he can tackle to make my life easier! (In turn, I receive a "honey-do" list from him.)
Jackie, the spouse of another traveler, says, "I have no children and easily can begin to wallow in self-pity. I've found a pet and volunteer activities help me focus outward, and that makes all the difference."
I've developed an antenna that hears and identifies other "suitcase wives." I build camaraderie with these women, knowing we understand each other's lifestyle. We can release our feelings to each other when we feel down, trusting we have a supportive listener.
Separations also can increase fear. Pam's husband, Bob, a pilot, flew United Flight 93 two days before it crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and flew another United flight a day before someone stormed the cockpit door. One time, when she thought Bob's flight had crashed, she called the airline, held her breath, listened to pages turning, then heard, "No, he's not on that flight." Pam crumbled to the floor and thanked God. She notes that times apart help spouses treasure their moments together. Pam relies on her faith and finds sticking to a routine nurtures their children and her. Her routine includes a prayer of blessing for her spouse said throughout the day. It reminds her Bob's life is in God's hands.
Social activities help, too. I invite another family with an absent spouse to dinner or make lunch dates with friends. Sometimes I call a sympathetic friend or read my favorite Psalms. It's important to be a whole person, with friends and interests to enjoy separately. But my greatest emotional lifter is looking ahead to reuniting.
Reunited and it feels so . . . good?
A suitcase marriage also includes returning home and unpacking. When Jim walks through the door, we're individuals who've lived in two different worlds. We need to be as one again, and that's not always easy.
As the one holding down the proverbial fort, I'm often faced with cars in need of repair, sick children, broken plumbing, and a myriad small problems. My husband's battles include a grueling work schedule, a demanding boss, and travel nightmares.
During our first reunions, we discovered problems. I wanted Jim to come home, play with the kids, fix everything that had broken, and give me some of his time alone. Jim wanted to come home and sleep in peace, without any demands on his time. Our children wanted to play and have attention from both parents. Frustration quickly set in.
My friend Lynne considers control her biggest reunion problem. Money management and child-rearing methods can't be bounced around. She learned, through counseling, that her husband wanted to feel needed. Now she leaves big decisions for homecomings and sets up family meetings to discuss issues.
I've discovered that when Jim returns, my "honey-do" list shouldn't be first on the agenda. My world traveler needs solace, smiles, and a comfortable retreat when he returns. He needs a home, not an exciting hotel with maid service and full amenities. And I need to find joy and comfort in his arms and to feel special.
Being physically intimate may take time, too. It's better to ease back together with candlelight and music or back rubs before closer encounters. We've learned to prepare for reunions and adjust expectations. I slow down the pace the day before Jim is due back. I stop my busy schedule, prepare a meal, and dress up.
Jim relaxes as he flies or drives home. He listens to calming music, takes a nap, and sets aside business notes. The knowledge that we'll soon be in each other's presence fills our thoughts. When the door opens, we take a moment to look at the other person, then embrace. We've found most problems will survive another day.
With God's help, our marriage is being strengthened as we work to overcome the challenges of frequent separations. We understand firsthand Solomon's wisdom in Ecclesiastes 4:12: "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A chord of three strands is not quickly broken." With God as that all-important third strand in our marriage, Jim and I are finding absence can make the heart grow fonder.
Karen Whiting, the author of several books, including Family Devotional Builder (Hendrickson Publishers), lives with her family in Florida.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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