Commuter communication

With one spouse often flying abroad, the strain on the family and on the relationship can be taxing.

Israelis at airport 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israelis at airport 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I’ve been part of a long-term adventure that will soon end. For just under a decade, we’ve been a commuter family – a misnomer, given that for the most part hubby did all the traveling and I took care of the home front. But at long last, hubby is coming home to stay.
Commuting worked for our family, as it enabled us to remain in Israel yet allowed for work abroad. Though it is a difficult choice and is clearly not a solution for all families, it provided us, for a limited period, with the best of both worlds.
Commuting has an impact on both family and friends, so the more prepared you are, the easier it is to make it work. Whether your partner commutes, travels occasionally for business, or simply works very long hours, many of the same issues apply, and the commuting model can give you insight into how to combine work and family life successfully.
Achieving closeness while geographically separated takes tremendous energy but is well worth the effort.
How you spend your time apart from your partner and how you then communicate about it are essential aspects of your relationship. Is there competition and jealousy, or love, kindness and compassion? Do you work together on the same team, even if miles apart physically, or are you on different wavelengths even when in the same room?
The traveler and the one holding down the fort each have their own issues. The key to success is excellent communication both between the couple and between parent and child. For us, this meant that we rarely missed a day of speaking for anywhere from half an hour to several hours and exchanging several emails.
Interestingly enough, if you talk this often, you have no shortage of things to chat about; if you don’t talk or don’t talk often, you discover that when you do talk, you have little to say to each other.
The impact of the latter can be disastrous. With couples engaging in, on average, fewer than 20 minutes of conversation a day, one can see why so many couples are unhappy. It is hard work to stay connected. If you only share certain “safe topics” with your partner, the relationship may become constricted to the point that, with time, you have less in common worth sharing.
It is also essential that the traveling partner “talk” with the children. This can occur through email, chat, Facebook or even a prerecorded bedtime story, but the traveler needs to be a daily and positive presence within the family. This, too, takes time and planning, but is critical if everyone is to maximize a commuting lifestyle.
AS DIFFICULT as it may be when you are separated geographically, the return home can also be fraught with difficulty, anxiety or anger. Transitioning back into the household and reintegrating into the fabric of everyday life must be done with great sensitivity and caring. This is not always easy, especially when dealing with exhaustion, jet lag and outside work demands. Roles need to get renegotiated and tasks may get reassigned, if only for a few days. How you reconnect, make space for your partner and see things from their perspective when you have both had time apart and been living in two different worlds is critical.
Moving back into a coupled world requires gentle understanding and freely giving each other space. This is not easy when all you really want to do is drop the kids and run off for some “me” time, or to read the mail and have some quiet time before reintegrating back into the daily craziness of the family. The need to reconnect, yet not feel pressured, whether through a gentle walk or a quiet lunch together, poses a challenge.
Remember, from the traveler’s perspective, the house is perhaps noisy and chaotic, there is no time to breathe, conversations seem strange, boring or noninclusive.
From the other’s perspective, there may be a sense that your partner has been traveling the world, relaxing in top hotels and living the life of a swinging single while you have been lonely, in the trenches, and dealing with work and home pressures without a break.
The rhythmic dance of a couple may be off in every way possible: You may want to get out and socialize, while your partner may just want to stay home and “do nothing.” One may come home and drop clothes and bags everywhere, and the other may want to introduce order and sanity into the household. Giving each other space while meeting the challenge of reconnecting is essential, when you each feel overwhelmed and want alone time, knowing you need to cross into each other’s lives and reestablish intimacy.
All this occurs while you still have other needs to meet (those of family members, household responsibilities and job demands), and in your heart you may feel resentful that perhaps the other had it so much easier.
You must reconnect quickly, though, because before you know it you are dealing with another departure and the feeling of being alone again.
One of the most difficult aspects of commuting is dealing with the unexpected. Routine and structure make day-to-day life easier for both adults and children.
But what happens when you, your partner, your child or an elderly parent gets ill? How do you deal with car issues, a house problem, a change in flight or other scheduling issues? While you may feel you need three adults just to manage, you do learn to prioritize, worry about only the things you can actually change, and let go of the things you can’t control.
SO ASIDE from the advantages of continuing to have access to products from the old country, increased job satisfaction and perhaps having a bit more money with which to vacation, what else can one gain by commuting?
A key benefit is learning to put more energy into getting along in a relationship rather than fighting. You realize what is important in life and learn to make the most of your time together because you know that life is short and nothing can be taken for granted. It is no longer about who’s right, giving up or giving in, but rather working on the same team to resolve issues. In a healthy relationship, you’ve learned to be there for each other as companions. You are together by choice and not from fear. As you work together, you realize that the whole is definitely better than the sum of its parts. You express affection, laugh together, and appreciate your partner. And yes, whether you want it or not, you learn more about yourself, become more independent and self-sufficient.
So while I no longer have to fill the car with gas or take out the garbage, and have another person to feed more frequently, after almost one quarter of our marriage spent commuting, I am thrilled to welcome hubby home.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana. She has several articles published on the positive aspects of commuting, and her book, Life’s Journey: Exploring Relationships – Resolving Conflicts, has recently been published by Devora Publishers.