June 2009 Your relationships
"We're living apart together" The challenge of long distance marriages
We’re living apart, together!
What’s it like to have a husband who spends weeks or months away working? Brenda Steffen offers advice to wives who are home alone
I often get strange looks from people when I tell them I don’t see my husband for months at a time. As soon as I tell them he is a sailor, most assume he is in the Navy and they put me in the ranks of Army Wives.
When I correct them and explain that Gideon’s a commercial sailor, I get even stranger looks. If my husband’s not serving his country, then why would he choose to work three months at sea, with six weeks at home in between?
Many are horrified – they can’t imagine life without their spouse coming home every night to dinner.
Others are intrigued. “I’d like three months without my husband!” they joke.
But for many families worldwide, it’s no joke. It’s how they earn their income.
Husbands who work away from home for extended periods of time are more common than many of us think. In addition to those involved in the military and seafaring trades, truckers, fisherman, firefighters, business travellers and pastors are all often gone from home longer than the 9-5 office worker.
I knew what I got myself into when I married a sailor. We spent a considerable amount of time apart during the five years we dated, and before I got married, I consulted with a number of sailors’ wives. Cindi Byers was one of them. Married for 24 years to Jamie, she saw her husband an average of two months every year.
Like me, Cindi knew she would spend time apart from her husband before they got married.
Cindi coped with the distance long before the Internet, Skype and even mobile phones were everyday methods of communication, but it wasn’t easy. Letters were their only method of communication.
On rare occasions Jamie did get to call his wife. But, as Cindi says, it was risky. “Once we were disconnected in the middle of the conversation as the line was unplugged for the ship to sail.”
I can relate – even with today’s modern technology, we often lose the phone connection. It is frustrating, especially when I’m right in the middle of telling Gideon something important. Satellite phone calls are not cheap either.
Besides communication, there are other frustrations to deal with. It can be difficult to feel like a ‘housewife’ if your husband isn’t at home. But, as Cindi told me, it’s important to keep your husband in touch with happenings at home – and to make him a part of the decision making process wherever possible.
Cindi also advised, “Try to understand that his role as husband is strained and difficult as well in this situation.”
This is easier said than done. Sometimes it’s much easier to vent our frustration about all of the things that went wrong with our day, rather than seeing that our husbands may have had a terrible day at their ‘office’.
Women who marry sailors expect time apart while husbands are at sea, as do most military wives. But what if your husband needs to leave home without much warning? This may be the case if a relative becomes ill and needs your spouse to look after him or her, or if your husband is called away to business for even a few weeks out of the year.
David had been married for five and a half years when he unexpectedly re-enlisted in the military. Unlike Cindi and Jamie, David and his wife, Sarah, didn’t spend much time apart while dating – they had a relatively short courtship and engagement. So Sarah’s first response when she heard David would be going to Kuwait and Iraq for one year, was: “Wow . . . is this really happening to us?”
She turned to God for strength and asked, “What are you going to do with this?”
Modern technology meant that Sarah and David could keep in better touch than army wives of yesteryear. While David did go on extended missions where Sarah wouldn’t hear from him, they had a satellite internet feed which David’s deployed unit shared, so they got to e-mail and web chat almost daily.
Although Sarah missed her husband, she took advantage of the time she had to do things without him. She said she enjoyed her evenings alone – she would sit out to watch the sunset, or curl up with a good book, rather than sitting in front of the TV.
Cindi, on the other hand, said the only thing she looked forward to with Jamie leaving was to hear how God was working and what he was doing with and around Jamie. “That made the sacrifice worth it,” Cindi says.
Undoubtedly, this also keeps me afloat during the hardest days while Gideon is at sea. If I know that he is able to be a light in an otherwise dark industry, it makes me not only proud of him, but also reminds me to pray for him.
Jobs away from home are often just as mentally and emotionally taxing as they are physically draining. Don’t give your man reason to doubt your own support of him – he needs to feel it, even from a distance.
Sarah said she supported her husband through lots of care packages, sermon DVDs and notes from church. Once David returned home, he said the reassurance of her faithfulness meant the most. Sarah says, “It’s sad how many of the guys experienced infidelity while they are deployed.”
Having children is an area Gideon and I have yet to navigate. A mother of four, Cindi definitely has experience in this arena. She got involved with playgroups for her children, which enabled her to connect with other mums while Jamie was away. She also took advantage of a mother’s morning-out group.
Parents often say, “wait until your father gets home . . . “ when they want to discipline their children. However, for wives on their own it can’t wait. Cindi admitted that she struggled in this area. However, she did have several close friends who acted as fatherly role models for the children while Jamie was gone.
Parenting problems aren’t always solved during the homecoming either. Larry, a sea-faring Captain, says his children used to cry and scream when he first returned home from work after a few months’ absence. It took longer than usual to build a fatherly bond with them, but now his wife leaves them at home when she takes Larry to the airport because they cry when he has to leave!
Homecomings can also be fraught with anxiety. Things often go wrong when the husband isn’t home: the refrigerator stops working, basements flood and children end up breaking an arm. . .
Chances are your husband will be proud of the way you handled these crises while he was gone. Some men, however, may not feel as needed once they see that everything ran smoothly at home without them.
Make sure you re-integrate your husband back into their role at home. Just as most men need a few minutes to de-stress when returning home from work in the evening, husbands who are gone for months at a time may need days, if not weeks, to clear their head. Give your husband the space he needs, but make him feel needed as well.
The old adage, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is often true. Men don’t show their emotions as often, but it’s likely that your husband missed you as much, if not more, than you missed him.
Make a point of being interested in what their experience was like. I worked onboard ships for several years, so I am fairly familiar with the lifestyle Gideon lives when he’s not with me. I still learn new things every time my husband comes home though – and he likes the fact that I’m actually interested in the kind of work he does.
Sarah said of her year apart from David, “We both gained a renewed perspective of our blessings, our priorities, and each other.”
People still question my marriage to Gideon. They tell me that once we have children he will need to find a land-based job. They say they could never do it.
And I remind them that they don’t have to. This lifestyle is not for everyone – but whether you have found yourself here by choice or by circumstance, remember that God is your rock. Throughout our marriage, my husband and I have continued to pray that people would see Jesus in and through our marriage – and that he alone is the glue that holds us together, even when we’re apart – even when I’m home alone.
The hardest thing for me about working at sea is the challenge to build relationships onboard. Each time I go to sea, I work on a different vessel, and often with a different crew. I need to gain the crew’s trust and to prove myself a hard worker. It’s not always easy working onboard as an officer – I’m constantly watched by the crew.
During my time away from home, I also think a lot about the safety of my wife. It’s always there in my mind, so I pray a lot for her protection. When we’re apart, I find it’s most helpful when communication lines are open and working. It helps a lot when I can send and receive e-mails, text messages and when my wife and I can talk over the phone regularly and without interruptions.
10 ways to cope with a long-distance marriage
* Leave your husband with positive thoughts and reassure him that you’ll be praying for him.
* Set expectations. I know my husband doesn’t write letters. I’ve learned to expect text messages, e-mails and phone calls, instead.
* Establish a routine. This is particularly important if you are counting the days until your husband returns.
* Seek support. Go to church, seek out single mums, find an online support group, and pray on a regular basis.
* Keep track of things that happened – whether it’s by sticky notes, a journal, or your PDA. This past summer, I made a mini-scrapbook full of photos, newspaper headlines and notes from my solo summer to show Gideon some of the highlights of what I experienced while he sailed.
* Catch up on work. I find that I can focus much more on photography, writing and hobbies when my husband is at sea. It also means that I am a much better wife and more focused on my family when Gideon is around, because I’ve caught up on various tasks.
* Be cautious of spending. I used to be my own independent financial advisor. Now, I’ve learned to shovel more money directly into savings accounts, rather than spending it.
* Be social. My husband is a bit of a hermit. So, while he’s at sea, I tend to be a social butterfly. He’s not going to come out to breakfast with four of my girlfriends and me in any case, so why not do these things while he’s gone? (This may be opposite in some cases – I met a Captain’s wife once who was glad to see her husband return to sea, because he was the social butterfly!)
* Do girlie stuff. While you may secretly enjoy watching the rugby game and Mythbusters with your hubby, now’s your chance to control the remote and catch up on the latest fashion show and reruns of Friends.
* Look your best when he does come home. There is an old-fashioned thought that housewives should at least tidy themselves up before their husband comes home (even if they can’t tidy the house in time!) This is equally, if not more, important when you’re husband is gone for weeks or months at a time.
Get more inspiring reading
You can order our printed INSPIRE magazine in bundles of 10 for your church. Get encouraged by stories of God at work in the UK and around the world – and it's great for giving away to those on the edge of church, too! Order FREE* for your church (*we welcome an annual donation towards our costs).