Combatting the Strain of Time Spent Apart

by Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign

Spending time apart


A short separation can be a healthy thing for most couples. However, frequent separation can put a strain on a relationship.

Elaine cannot help but be affected by her husband's frequent business travel. “I feel I have to tiptoe around Joe prior to his trips and the same thing right after his return.”

Both would claim they have a happy marriage, in spite of the travel. Yet when he is home sometimes Elaine explodes at Joe “over the least little thing”. She is confused by her reactions.

It is obvious Elaine has bottled up many of her emotions. Before his departure she is afraid to bring up anything which may upset him or cause him worry. Her goal is to provide “calm” and “peace” and she makes sure the children do not stir up any trouble either. If anything upsets her she swallows it rather than risk his going away on a sour note.

Upon Joe's return, she expects to be cheerful and give a warm welcome regardless of her state of mind. Both expect to have a cosy time together after the time apart. Yet this does not always happen. Elaine has repressed her feelings to secure peace for Joe's sake. Yet when someone is holding something deep inside, the feelings do not go away. Eventually they build up and burst out, often triggered by a trivial, unrelated event.

In this couple's case, the question of whether Joe will extend his contract for another two years affects both of them. But they both claim they “never seem to have the time” to talk it out fully. There is an underlying expectation on both sides to avoid arguments; after all, they do not spend much time together and why spoil it?

Any mention by Elaine of the subject of Joe's contract gets an impatient response of “not now”. Elaine becomes frustrated and lets it out involuntarily in other ways. In one case, she lost her cool when he was 20 minutes late to meet her in town and they stopped speaking all afternoon. Thus, the effort of trying to avoid fights makes arguments and fights inevitable.

When there is tension between them, such couples tend to expect the next business trip to give each a chance to “cool off” and minor disputes to be forgotten. This leads to problems remaining unresolved while they wait for the next separation to provide the “cure”.

Frequent travel allows breaks for couples like Joe and Elaine. Yet at the same time it doesn't allow time to share, exchange or even disagree. While apart, they are unable to discuss each other's daily trials and tribulations like most couples would at the end of the day. Yet when Joe returns from a trip, it is almost impossible to backtrack and share a whole list of daily ups and downs with his wife.

Instead he chooses to report only a few anecdotes, gossip and general good news. Ironically, deep inside he feels his spouse does not understand the pressures he goes through. Thus, he too has pent-up feelings which sometimes cause him to lash out at Elaine.

Joe and Elaine have to recognize the travel has contributed uneasiness to the marriage. Joe cannot stop his travelling. But they can start acting more like a normal couple when they are together.

The first action is to drop the facade that Elaine cannot be herself before or after he leaves. Since Joe's travel schedule is unpredictable, couples like this cannot rely on “when he has time” to deal with each other. They need to schedule times together, just like real business appointments, both to discuss problems and to spend quality time with each other. Otherwise all they get is leftover time.

Secondly, they have to focus on specific issues they have put off discussing, such as Joe's contract. Joe has to share his plans while Elaine should express her anxiety without exaggerating or acting out.

Lastly is finding time to keep each other updated and openly share thoughts and feelings. After all, Joe works hard “to provide for the family”, so perhaps the goal to preserve the marriage needs to be the top task.

Dr. Cathy Tsang Feign, Hong Kong Psychologist

About The Author

Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.

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