My father was a naval officer and my mother a very independent and self-sufficient naval officer’s wife. She told me, “When your father would come home from a sea voyage there would be 24 hours of joy followed by at least a day of bad tempers.” She termed it the ‘second day blues’.
There are many couples that share a similar experience. The online resource, Circle Of Moms, even has a special section for mums with husbands that travel. Today, of course, there is also a growing population of husbands who might experience similar feelings when their wives travel for their work. So what might lie at the base of these homecoming hiccups? Is it just about generosity, or is there some other interplay between the one who goes out hunting and gathering and the one that holds the fort?
Not long ago, I was in the company of four very strong, very capable expat wives. One of our husbands was due home and the wife in question remarked
‘he missed the children’s chicken pox, he missed having to go and do the parent evenings, and now he expects me to be waiting for him with a smile on my face and my legs shaved?’
The next half hour was filled with a chorus of empathetic and mirthful moans of recognition. Of course we know we’re not being fair, but we all shared the sentiment that our spouses needed to earn their place back into the tribe.
So, when we add in the expat factor, we’re not just the partner who was ‘left behind’, we’re left behind in a foreign place, often without a social network, families or even work to fall back on. Robin Pascoe, one of the internationally renowned expat guru’s says in one of her YouTube lectures; “I know so many women who, (having) coped and coped while the men are away… lose it the minute their men come home.” While she was conducting interviews for her book A Moveable Marriage, she found many couples had similar issues; the travelling partner is not a part of the daily routine any more and when they do call from abroad to demonstrate their involvement, it is invariably at an inconvenient time for the rest of the family leading to discordance, frustration and misunderstanding.
From group dynamic theory we learn that whenever a group member leaves or returns, the group dynamics change. My friend, Alice, is part of her local church choir in Boston. Because she is married to a Swede, she divides her time between the U.S and Sweden so, whenever she’s been away for an extended period of time, she has to reintegrate into the choir group as she may have missed out on events and personal dramas. In a way, she feels as if somehow she has let them all down by not being loyal to the group with her time and commitment and is being ‘tested’ again to see if she can still belong to the tribe.
In the same way, a family unit is a group in its own right and so the same dynamics are likely to apply.
Exploring this topic with others, there seems to be a common experience that before the children came along, absences of the other partner were borne very differently; reunions used to be romantic and happy occasions.
For the one staying home, time apart would be an opportunity to socialize with friends or spend some quality time with our immediate families. But when children come along, a new group is born; a new tribe. And this little tribe develops its own rules and culture, including the role-division between the two partners.
Reactions to absences from the tribe
When an important member of the tribe leaves for a period of time, the whole tribe experiences a sense of loss. On the circleofmums forum there was a long thread about children acting out when one of their parents left for an extended time, putting an extra load of pressure on the one holding down the fort. Other children reacted by shutting out the travelling parent when they came home. A common way of dealing with this sense of loss is to (temporarily) fill up the absent person’s space. This ‘closing of the ranks’ has been described by some as an almost a purely energetic experience, like water flowing into an empty space to create a new equilibrium.
I myself would close the ranks by putting my husband’s toiletries away in a drawer until he returned; out of sight, out of mind and therefore not so desperately missed.
So the one that stays at home to look after the tribe experiences an increased workload, while at the same time creating a sort of bubble that allows him or her to be less in touch with feelings of loss. Consequently, when the traveller comes home, it takes time and effort to redirect the new tributary you’d created. While the traveller may feel like the tribe is freezing them out, what’s really happening is that, energetically, your space needs to be inhabited by you again. Some of us have more trouble giving up this ‘territory’ than others, and when the visit back is already overshadowed by the next trip away, it is sometimes easier to just keep the barriers in place. It’s not nice, but it does need to be recognized as part of a coping mechanism that makes it easier for the one at home to maintain self-sufficiency and independence.
In my parents’ day the only way they could stay in touch was through snail mail. News was inevitably always weeks late, but at the same time, there was a sense that they could digest and enjoy the other’s experience at their leisure. Today, we are more used to having on-demand contact via our various technological gadgets. This brings up the issue of differing needs when it comes to maintaining contact; some would happily let days go by without getting in touch, whilst others feel the need to connect on a daily basis. There is no right or wrong, there’s just their way and your way, and that means finding a compromise. Communication becomes even harder when there are different time zones involved and conversations can end up being very predictable or one-sided, reinforcing the sense that the traveller is having all the fun, while back home it is ‘same old, same old’ except with added stresses.
And yet the partner in the hotel room is probably feeling lonely, out of touch and yearning to be included and involved. But, as Robin Pascoe noted, back home the dinner rush is on and no one seems to have time.
Communication needs to be planned and negotiated, even though it may feel unromantic and lacking in spontaneity.
The travelling partner could help by showing respect for the daily routine and working around time zones, corporate dinners and meetings to ensure there is consistent communication at predictable times.
But what about the one who is away?
The travelling partner, in most cases, is not abroad to party. They are there for their work, which in itself providing for the tribe. My husband expressed that he felt just as taken for granted, in that respect, as I did for not being recognized in the excellent job I was doing at home. So, in addition to constantly shifting group dynamics, there is also the battle of self-pity taking place.
“All we want when we come home is an easy life, a quiet life… and then all hell breaks loose.”
It made me sad to realize that my husband has felt unwelcome and that he needs to ’earn’ his place back into the tribe. Sure, maybe he’s not a hunter dragging some venison off the plane from Findel with which to nourish his family, but his travels were part of his care-taking role and a little gratitude wouldn’t go amiss.
Respect and humility
As always, each half of the couple needs to be seen and respected for the importance of their contribution to the family. And each one of us needs perhaps to show a little humility and restraint in believing we had the tougher part of the deal.
So despite him having had a 1500 euro-a-head dinner with champagne and eight courses while you were sitting there nursing a baby with a 40 degree fever, remember: it was part of his job, which is ultimately benefiting the tribe.
Understanding the way both sides feel is a huge step towards avoiding the second day blues. And, when all else fails, why not apply the ingenious tactic employed by one of my young friends: meet up with your travelling partner for a few days before they’re due home while grandma looks after the children. That way you have a chance to reconnect, share stories, relax, rekindle and come home as a team.
Now I wish I’d have thought of that myself!
Copyright 2014: Lysanne Sizoo
Lysanne teaches the ‘Global identities’ workshop both in Stockholm and on her houseboat close to Amsterdam.
These articles are a composite of my personal, my colleagues’ and
clients’ experiences in order to protect recognition. All therapeutic
meetings are Turning Point are confidential, and specific content would
never be shared in a public forum.
Photo: Nicole Mason/unsplash