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Staying Connected When Your Spouse Is Away

How to make sure absence really does make your heart grow fonder.

"Got your backpacks?" I shouted above the clamor of five children in the car as they prepared to go to school.





Yes! And Um

"Um? Did I hear an Um?" I glared at my seventh-grade son, Philip, "Go get it!"

He scrambled out of the car to get his homework. Meanwhile, the others fought over who got to talk to Dad first when he called that night from Nevada, where he was on military duty flying his Stealth F-117. I silently wondered how being assigned to Las Vegas constituted "serving your country." He'd be gone 30 days.

I began to back the Suburban out of the garage when I heard a sickening scrape of metal on metal.

"Mom! Stop!"

"You hit the garage door!"

Sure enough, it fell off the tracks and landed on the back of the car. "Who left the garage door partially open?" I asked. "The automatic door lifts it up all the way and someone purposefully stopped it before it was fully raised!"

Suddenly, the whole car became oddly quiet.

"Um … Mama?" Jonathan, our eight year old said. "Papa said that when the weather's hot like this we need to leave the garage door partly open. Since Papa's gone, I'm doing his job and I left it partly open."

Only 29 days to go.

Any spouse of a frequent traveler will tell you that it seems as soon as he leaves, children get sick, the washer breaks down, or a distracted mom will absentmindedly plow through a partially opened garage door. (We've purchased two garage doors in the past year.)

But the greatest challenge to frequent absences is how to keep our hearts connected when we're apart. Whether through long stints in the military or frequent overnight business trips, time away from home can lead to distance in a relationship if the couple doesn't proactively seek to keep their marriage protected.

For these couples, here are some ways to keep close—even when you're far away.

Before the Trip

Watch out for fireworks. Part of "Pre-separation" syndrome is that people begin to separate themselves emotionally for what lies ahead. Look for tensions to be high and be on guard for potential fireworks over little things. Simply being aware of these emotions and potential disagreements can go a long way toward diffusing the situation. Karen Evenson and her husband, who's traveled frequently for 15 years, would fight about the laundry before he'd leave on trips. "I'd get so angry because he'd throw his underwear anywhere but in the hamper!" Karen says. "We'd get into arguments about it and he'd leave the house on a sour note. Then I'd spend the time we were apart feeling guilty and miserable. I finally discovered where he puts his underwear really doesn't matter. And that discovery has made for better partings."

Notes-to-go and other sundries. Send a bundle of notes with your spouse. Hide them in a suitcase, a jacket pocket, or even in his spare shoes. Madeline, an airline pilot's wife, slipped a note and a piece of lingerie into her husband's toiletry bag and told him, "Don't forget to brush your teeth!"

Leave surprises with friends. If you're the spouse who travels, leave letters and gifts with friends who'll distribute them to your partner. Or order flowers to be delivered on key dates. This forethought means more thoughts will be coming your way! Tom Wickre, who went on a military tour for a year, left money with friends to purchase flowers, stationary, and books for his wife, Patti. "When those presents were delivered," Patti says, "I felt so special. The fact that Tom planned ahead meant as much as the presents! And they really helped me feel connected to him."

Family photos. Get two copies of a family photo and frame them. One goes with the traveler and one stays home. I take one when I travel on business and show it to people—especially men who are a bit too friendly, despite seeing my wedding ring. (There's nothing like a photo of five children and a fighter pilot husband to scare them away.) Then I place the photo in the hotel room as a reminder of two things: (1) my actions today will affect our family tomorrow, and (2) there's someone who loves me at home and is counting on me. When I'm home and my husband, Bob, travels, I like to place the "home" photo by the TV as a further reminder to watch shows that will positively feed my mind and spirit.

Videotaping memories. Jody Dale, an Army chaplain's wife says, "About a week before my husband, Garry, went to Somalia, we gathered as a family in the kids' bedrooms and Garry read stories to them while I ran the video camera. I captured their faces, the pre-bedtime prayers, and even some of the songs they sang with their daddy. We watched the video while he was gone and still do, occasionally. Each time we watch, it makes us thankful he came home."

While Gone

Prayer and devotions. Commit to pray at the same time each night while you're apart. You'll be joined spiritually and those prayers will guide you and keep you. Anne, a businessman's wife, said, "We do the same Bible study while he's traveling and share our answers when he returns." Bob and I end each on-the-road phone call with him reciting Numbers 6:24: "The Lord bless you and keep you." And I answer with Numbers 6:25: "The Lord make his face to shine upon you."

Keep in touch. Proverbs 25:25 says, "Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a distant land." Letters and e-mail are great opportunities to connect. But a word of warning: Re-read everything before you send it, especially if you're venting or feeling sad when you write. This kind of correspondence tends to be one-dimensional and will often communicate a tone or message that you may regret once you're in a better frame of mind. Remember to be honest and yet keep your notes as positive as possible. Allison Warner, whose husband, Jason, is stationed in Kosovo, says this: "One important thing I've learned is to vent to other people or to God instead of to Jake. While sometimes this is hard to do, it's strengthened our relationship."

Laughter is good medicine. Myra Hinote, whose husband, Clint, is a military pilot, keeps track of funny things the kids say to share with him. But sometimes the joke's on her: "After running errands, I drove up to the security gate at the Air Force base where we live and had to show the guard my identification pass. I was startled to hear him say, 'Well, ma'am, that's a nice credit card, but I need to see your id card!' I went home and sent Clint an e-mail about it. He was the first person I told. We had a great laugh!" Write down funny things that happen while your spouse is gone and share them upon his return. If you're looking for these humorous incidences, then you'll find your burden lightened in the process.

Four Don'ts

Don't have a negative attitude. It will hurt you, your kids, and everyone who's unfortunate enough to be around you!

Don't spend time alone with coworkers or friends of the opposite sex. Establish boundaries during this particularly vulnerable time.

Don't give in to impulsive buying. It will surely add up to big debts!

Don't turn down help. Accept people's offers to take you to lunch, go to their house for dinner, baby-sit your kids, or even bring you a casserole.

Homecoming & Reunions

Pace yourself. Don't zero in on a specific return date or time. Instead, remain flexible. Your spouse may call and announce a change in the arrival date because of flight delays, work requirements, or unexpected meetings. Remain cautiously optimistic and you won't be crushed by schedule changes.

Expect the unexpected. During separations, particularly longer ones, women tend to glamorize the reunion and it's rarely as wonderful as it was in our minds. Plan to make it special, but realize it may not go off exactly the way you wanted—-but that can be all right, too. You don't have to do all the things you've planned in the first day he's back.

Adjustment back into the family routine can be a challenge for both spouses. One has been in charge at home while the other has been responsible only for one person. Be prepared to make adjustments. The traveling spouse needs to give the home-bound spouse time and room to move from independence back into interdependence. It's best to turn over areas of responsibility slowly. While the traveler may feel as if he's just sitting on the sidelines for the first few days, sometimes that's the best place for him to be as "normalcy" returns to your reunited household.

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then it's because those hearts have been prepared, nurtured, and protected by a couple who care enough about their marriage to do their best. By taking positive steps before, during, and after times of being apart, you can keep your marriage healthy and full—despite frequent separations.

Ellie Kay, an MP regular contributor, financial expert, author, and a regular on CNBC's "Power Lunch" program, lives with her family in New Mexico. Her upcoming book, Heroes at Home—Celebrating the American Military Family (Bethany House) will be available in November 2002.

Worth Fighting (and Waiting) for

I already received the long-awaited phone call for today. So what do I do now?

I wait. I pray. I wait some more. That's what a soldier's wife does.

My husband of one month is in the Army. He was in the military throughout the three years we dated, so I got used to the lifestyle—sort of.

Our premarital counselor advised me to go on with life and make the most of the times when we're together, as well as the times when we're apart. After all, separation's just part of the deal when you fall in love with a soldier. "Consider the separating and coming back together process normal rather than being apart or being together as normal," he said.

It sounded wise at the time. I kept replaying the counselor's words in my mind as I neared the airport yesterday to drop off my husband for a three-week mission. But once his face disappeared behind the revolving doors, the counselor's comforting words lost their impact. Three weeks is a lot of time to make the most of it by yourself! What happens if he leaves for three months or a year? There's no training for that.

As any military wife will agree, we fight a different kind of battle back home when our soldier's on a mission in the Middle East, Europe, South America, or some other "classified" location. Much like a soldier, we quickly must learn how to numb our feelings when our soldier's on a mission, when we're fighting our battles in "the field of operations" known as "home" and "work." And, like a soldier, we shed our military "garb" when the battle pauses for a time, when he returns to the homefront again.

I've never known anything different than being apart in our relationship, so the two of us have had a chance to work out a separation "system." We started out in a two-year long-distance "dating" relationship, which included seven months of separation while he was in Bosnia. We won that war through prayer, e-mail, letters, and occasional phone calls.

Today I'm entering day 2 of a 17-day trip to, well, I have no idea where he is. Each day is much of the same. I get up, eat, go to work. Sometime during the morning I'll write him an e-mail, each one ending as an echo of the day before: "I miss you! I love you!" Those exclamation points just don't seem to capture all I want to communicate.

In the evening, I clean, shop, run errands, maybe go to a movie or the mall, see friends, and keep my cell phone handy just in case he gets a rare opportunity to call. I have this ache in my heart that I try to ignore. At times it rears its ugly head and takes all the joy away from the days when he's gone.

"Are you really sure you want to live like that?" a lot of people asked before we got married.

I responded, "Yes." Don't ask me where the answer came from, but I know the battles are worth it when we keep sight of what we're fighting for—a friendship, a marriage, and all we believe in.

I guess it's like asking a soldier if he's ready to give his life for his country. My husband wouldn't think twice about it. He endures bad hours, moderate pay, power struggles, danger, pain, and demanding commanders. Why? Because he knows it's worth it; the good he's doing and the sacrifices he's making far outweigh the bad he endures.

So tonight I sit with that sense of hope. It's the component of each day that brings a smile to my face. I'm proud of what my soldier does, and I know he's worth a few lonely nights of dining on a frozen dinner under the glow of the TV set.

—Krista Van Gorp-Carnet

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Connecting; Marriage; Spouse
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 2002
Posted September 30, 2008

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