Military families live a long distance relationship lifestyle many others can’t relate to. It includes frequent moves, the inability to discuss their work, and deployments. But there actually is a subset of families around the world who do have something in common with the men and women who serve our country and they are called super commuter couples.
A super commuter is someone who travels 90 miles or more to their job and they could be a flight attendant, a consultant, or a sales rep whose territory takes them on the road several days each month. It also might be someone whose long commute has him or her on the road early in the morning and home late at night. The common denominator is that they have limited time at home with their family. When I started writing my book Super Commuter Couples: Staying Together When A Job Keeps You Apart, I felt it was imperative that I interview military couples to find out how they manage the separations they experience and what I found was a wealth of information.
“A long-distance relationship (LDR) (or long-distance romantic relationship (LDRR)) is an intimate relationship between partners who are geographically isolated from one another. Partners in LDRs face geographic separation and lack of face-to-face contact.”– Wikipedia
Reuniting: It’s harder than you would expect
I spoke with a couple who both served in the Navy, the wife of an Air Force serviceman, and the wife of a reservist. All of them agreed, without a doubt, that the initial re-entry into the family after a separation can be very stressful on everyone involved. The kids and spouse at home have their routines and systems for doing things while the serviceperson is away. When they return home, whether from weeks of work-ups or a yearlong deployment, a few things can happen. One, they may have a different parenting style that clashes with their spouse. Or, depending on how much time has passed, the children may have moved into a new developmental stage and it can take some time to reconnect with the kids. Or, the commuter may not know how to help or where they fit into the family. The harsh reality that their family does fine without them there can be hard for some to deal with. If you add in fighting or lack of intimacy, the commuter may start to feel like it’s better to be away and then start to pull away emotionally.
Communication: What to say
First, talk about each other’s frustrations. Ignoring the issue is an approach that can damage a relationship as does blame and shame. The phrase “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” can certainly apply here. Instead of saying, “You never help me with anything.”, can you instead say, “I could really use some help with the dishes. Could you please load the dishwasher?” Why can this be hard to do? The spouse at home would like them to just do it, to not have to ask. In my therapy practice I often hear this type of dynamic and what sometimes happens is the commuter will happily help out where needed, but the spouse criticizes how they are doing it. Criticism can quickly lead to a fight or the attitude of “why bother?” and the commuter pulls away emotionally. I include in my book a list of questions for readers to answer and one of them is: “If your partner agreed to take over a chore or responsibility, could you let him or her do it as he or she wished to do it or does it have to be done your way?” The Gottman’s, fellow therapists who are known for their research on marriages, identified what they call the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are 4 indicators in a relationship with a strong correlation to divorce, a 93% rate when all are present, and criticism is one of them. So, when you and the commuter are reunited, can you ask for help using “I” statements?
Another strategy to guard against conflict is to discuss how each of you prefers to handle the so-called re-entry period. Does the commuter like to be greeted with hugs and fanfare or do they prefer some quiet time to decompress from their journey home? Maybe the spouse at home schedules a massage soon after reuniting to give him or her a chance to relax and recharge while the commuter spends time with the kids. One thing to keep in mind is that these preferences might change over time and that adds to the importance of keeping the lines of communication open.
How are the children affected by long distance relationships
I get asked all of the time about the impact on children of having a super commuter parent and so I asked my military interviewees what strategies they have for helping the kids stay connected to a parent who is away. The attitude they had was that these separations are part of what you sign up for when you choose to serve in the military and therefore, it is the reality of daily life. It is the norm of their families. The most common advice was that you need to be proactive and at the top of the list was to have a network of support whether that is friends, family, or neighbors. The very structure of military bases is conducive to this, but not so much for civilians so if you are in a super commuter relationship, it is very important to get comfortable asking for help, especially if you have children. Many of the super commuters I interviewed agreed and emphasized that while you might not even know what you’ll need help with, identifying in advance who is around to call when you do makes life much less stressful.
Is there a teenager in your neighborhood who can watch your kids for a few hours while you focus on household tasks or have a night out with friends? Or, can a parent take your child to an afterschool activity one day a week? These suggestions focus on lowering the stress of the parent, which then allows them to be more present with their children. Some other military suggestions I found more directly related to the children are ones that super commuter families can try as well. One idea is to take a jar and fill it with kiss-shaped candies, one for each day the parent is away. The children get to eat one per day until the “jar full of kisses” is empty, that last one symbolizing mom or dad is on their way home. In addition, if the kids ask, “When is dad coming home?”, it’s easy to count the remaining candies and see. Depending on the age of the children, time can be a tricky concept and this is one way to make it more understandable.
Another way to keep the parent close is called a Hug a Hero doll. You can make a stuffed doll with a photo of the parent’s face on it for the child to snuggle with and you can even add in a device that enables the parent record a 10 second message to the child. Something my family did when my husband first started super commuting was to keep a daily journal of what happened each day and then the kids went over it with him when he was home on the weekends. The small details of the week can easily get missed, especially when daily phone calls aren’t realistic. This is a great way to keep the commuter connected and creates a regularly scheduled, special time for them with the kids. I discussed additional ideas and similarities between super commuters and military families as a guest on the podcast Positive Parenting for Military Families.
Quality vs. Quantity
A final point I’d like to stress is that whether you or your spouse is away from home due to job demands or home everyday at 5pm, the key to parenting is being present when you are with the children. I remind super commuter families that their time together is about quality not quantity, so can you take the type of family vacation that gives you time to reconnect? Can you plan a family game night with the rule that no phones or iPads are allowed? Can the commuter schedule time with each child to really focus on catching up? It doesn’t have to be elaborate! It could be a bike ride or time building LEGO creations. What is important it that the child knows you are making time to be with them.
Super commuters are on the rise and the dynamic of being physically apart from family is a challenge that can be manageable. Military families have been faced with it for decades and offer some great advice on how to stay connected to the children and reconnect as partners. Focusing on how you communicate and making sure that you express both your wishes and frustrations are important parts of making a relationship stronger, especially when time together is limited.
The majority of responsibilities falling to the person left at home is the norm in super commuter relationships, so being able to build a network of support and to ask for help when you need it are also important strategies that military bases implemented years ago. And finally, kids are resilient, especially when they know that even though a loved one is away they can still stay connected and will have quality time with them when they are home. Veterans Day is a holiday created to honor those who serve our country. I would like to thank them for their service and also thank them and their families for being role models for super commuter families who find themselves in a long distance relationship.