Living apart has always been part of the expat experience. It may be just during the transition process, when one spouse stays behind to pack up or see out the school year, or because the assignment is short, in a location not suitable for families or something ties one partner to the home location , for example a job or a sick relative. These days short term assignments are on the rise, largely due to a desire to cut costs, but also because companies have recognized that uprooting families can cause a lot of problems. But living apart also creates problems.
I’ve had a fair bit of personal experience. At one time my husband worked as a consultant and would be away on overseas trips of anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks at a stretch. He spent a year working in a neighbouring country, flying home only for weekends. He spent another year working 7 time zones away, coming home for a short vacation every 3 months. We hated being apart, but at the time it was the best decision for the family.
So what tips can I give on how to survive, and even thrive?
1. Set an end date, or at least a review date. We didn’t do this when he was consulting and I realize now it was a mistake, we just let it creep up on us. But as time went on and the trips became longer and longer, I knew that for us it couldn’t go on indefinitely. For the subsequent assignments we mutually agreed upfront that they would last no longer than a year. When things got tough, knowing it would end eventually was a big comfort.
2. Keep in regular contact. These days with email, VoIP, text messaging, etc there’s no excuse for not being in touch on a daily basis. It needn’t be for long, but we found it’s the little details of life that keep the family connections strong. It snowed today, you’ll never guess who phoned this afternoon, Billy got an A in science. Make sure your children are involved as well.
3. Keep busy. Sitting at home alone only leads to depression. Going to events where you’d normally go as a couple is hard, but make the effort. If you don’t have activities you do on your own already, take something up, preferably something that involves being with people, like a class, a health club or volunteer work. This applies not just to the spouse at home, but also to the one who’s away. For guys it’s easy to fall into the trap of heading off to a bar after work, but that’s really not a good option. If it’s just not practical, then at least find something to do that’s not work related. My husband used one of his years away to build a hobby related website.
4. Eat. It’s easy to opt for fast food if you’re on your own. If you don’t want to cook in the evenings, then try and eat a healthy lunch out and have some light, easy to prepare snacks at home – soup, fruit and the fixings for sandwiches.
5. Exercise. If you’re depressed, lonely or bored, resist the temptation to just flop on the couch. A brisk walk is not only good exercise it’s also a huge mood booster. Even if the weather looks gloomy, I find it always seems brighter once I step outdoors. Walk to work if you can, walk to the store, walk the dog.
6. Get help. Particularly the spouse left at home can feel overwhelmed by the responsibility, particularly if there are children, and this often leads to resentment. Why isn’t he/she here to help? Do try and budget for some assistance, whether it’s cleaning, babysitting or a gardening service.
I’ve met many expats who have made living apart a way of life. For a handful it seems to have worked, but I must say I’ve also seen a lot of divorces. For most people I think it puts a serious strain on a relationship. Although making a life for yourself while you’re separated from your partner is important, in time there’s a strong risk you’ll start to drift apart. Even regular visits home bring their own stresses. We always found there was a settling-in period of a few days when my husband felt like an intruder in his own home. And again we’d find there’d be a distance between us as the time approached for his next departure, perhaps a defence mechanism against the painful goodbye, and we’d end up snapping at each other. So I’ll end by repeating my first piece of advice – set an end date, or at least a review date. Is a job really more important that your relationship?