“I’ll be back! I’ll miss you!” These words have a familiar ring to many couples in ministry today. The world is shrinking and needs and expectations for travel are perhaps greater than ever.
Long periods of separation from family were an expected part of the lives of global workers of other eras. Adoniram Judson of Burma went on a voyage once, expecting to return home fairly soon, but didn’t get back for two years. A theology was developed around the idea that when separation from family was necessary for ministry, couples were following in Jesus’ steps and glorifying God.
In our modern era of improved travel and communications, there are huge practical improvements. On the other hand, in terms of human response, we resonate with what the older global workers reported in their journals and biographies. Their honest admissions of loneliness and loss are timely for us.
I spent fifteen years in Cyprus where my husband was working in the International Office of Interserve, first as Area Director and then as International Director. Our four children were growing up during these years, while Jim traveled a great deal. My role was mostly to stay home with the kids. I’ve run the whole range of responses, from almost being run over by the experience to learning to handle the separation as a constructive part of life.
It helps to think through several issues.
Coping with crises
“Oh, just when I need him, he’s not here!” It seems that crises always develop when husband or Dad is away. Mothers of younger children are especially vulnerable. Certain times of the day – perhaps bedtimes or mealtimes – are more difficult and managing alone is just more difficult. For others, it may be car or equipment problems or personnel relationships or visa/registration issues. Why do these come up when alone?
Over a period of time I learned several coping skills – different ones than my husband would have used, but they worked for me. On the one hand, it’s important to keep continuity for children, but on the other hand, we developed our own little routines, turning ‘short-cuts’ into something fun. I had to decide that taking care of kids’ emotional needs was more important than how I coped practically. Now, looking back some of these crises do have an element of humor and have become part of our family folklore of ‘Mom stories’.
Get practical help that is needed without feeling guilty! In many countries, household help is still relatively inexpensive and available. It makes a huge difference to struggling mothers. Get acquainted with other resources in your community. Non-critical and understanding help from other team members is invaluable. Understanding older women have blessed me with their stories of difficulties and survival. Eventually, as families grow, the young woman becomes a specialist herself in coping and growing through the difficulties of family separations.
In healthy marriages, both spouses give and support each other and offer objectivity, understanding, their own humor, and shared memories. On a tangible level, these benefits are missing when the spouse is gone. Communication at least helps to minimize what is gone. Here is where we are much more fortunate than the women who have lived before our generation. No amount of email can help some practical problems, but even with these, the ability to discuss the situation with a husband on the road may help.
Communications is improving all the time, all over the world. Global workers and their agencies need to see communication costs as an integral part of ministry and encourage couples to use these resources to the fullest, phoning or emailing often. This is cost-effective and certainly helped us to stay on the field all through our kids’ high school years.
Developing different interests
Couples differ greatly in their approaches to developing different interests. For some it is liberating for both and enriches the relationship to develop separate outlets; others build their relationship by sharing many interests in common. Travel then complicates natural patterns. The woman who primarily stays at home is likely to forge much stronger ties in the community and church; when her husband returns, he may feel left out.
Discuss this openly and examine the dynamics objectively. Travel naturally pulls a couple apart, so it is important to deliberately develop some shared interests and friends. Jim used to arrive home ‘peopled out’ and needed a time of withdrawal, so we had to work towards a balance in this area.
Handling kids’ feelings
As a general rule, if mother is handling dad’s travels well, children will also adjust. But each child is different; be aware of how they are individually handling the process, at various stages in their lives. Send a note to school to tell teachers when dad is traveling. Make sure there are enjoyable aspects to time when dad is away and another set of fun times when dad returns.
Don’t save discipline for when dad returns. E-mail or phone communication is helpful for advice, but mom needs to handle the situation as it happens. Each homecoming should be a special time of celebration, with completed school or other projects, reports on what all has been missed, a little some small thing pulled from a suitcase.
Kids need a way to talk about their feelings. Wives need to be able to express emotions to themselves, the Lord, and trusted friends, and in the same way kids need to grow in their ability to express a range of feelings appropriately. It’s okay to be angry if a parent misses the school play or a birthday – he needs to know that dad really wishes he could have been there. Mom can coach dad to make sure he isn’t missing things just because he is physically absent and work together to find some ways to demonstrate love and caring.
Both partners are needy by the time Dad comes home. I used to be so bone-weary from responsibility I could hardly walk by the end of a three week trip. Jim would arrive home tired, jet lagged, and sometimes sick. The situation calls for large doses of good will and an awareness of the dynamics involved. Try to make sure that both spouses have the opportunity to recover, taking turns with their needs until both are rested.
Celebrate the trip in some fashion. Jim was great at describing his trip in great detail, weaving it into a giant story which we vicariously enjoyed. Jim became very good at noticing things we would have enjoyed and then drawing us into his experiences later in our living room. We loved to help him unpack his suitcases as there might be a box of chocolates or a new t-shirt.
The fantasy is of a peaceful leave-taking and a lovely homecoming. This, however, usually belongs in a dream world! Somehow it is easier for family members to separate when there is a fight or some tension. And on homecoming, there are other adjustments to make. As happy as we are to see each other, we usually had some irrational altercation in the thirty-six hours surrounding leaving and returning, not what we wanted. The greatest difficulties in travel happen not in the trip itself, but in the transitions.
It was enormously freeing to realize these dynamics and to recognize them, using our senses of humor to say, “Ah, see we’re doing it again!” Most important, this is not personal, not a test of how spouses really feel about each other, but a dynamic of human nature. Learn from each incident and deliberately try to minimize other stresses surrounding this time period. No big parties the night before a three-week trip!
Each of us experiences loneliness differently. You will probably not have the same feelings and reactions as your husband. Learn how you best handle this one. Loneliness needs to be planned for. Some people journal; for some exercise is key; some need plenty of time spent with others. And some are able to use their solitude constructively. People also differ in which times of the day are the most difficult. Often spouses seem mismatched – this is okay. Missing each other comes in many forms.
Temptation for emotional/sexual attachments
To be forewarned in this area is to be prepared – partially! We are vulnerable in this area, whether or not we feel invincible. Many couples try to travel together as much as possible, a good solution. For others, this isn’t possible. Sexual/emotional temptation comes very subtly, in many forms.
Temptation will not go away by denying it and pushing it down. Be honest with yourself and with God and with an accountability partner or group. Leadership is full of temptations of all sorts; accountability will help to keep us honestly seeing our weaknesses.
Anger at God and/or spouse
I had agreed to Jim’s traveling ministry because we ourselves in earlier years had received excellent pastoral care from others who had traveled to see our fields. I knew its value and believed in it. But it was much more difficult than I had imagined and learning practical coping skills didn’t solve everything. I slipped into a mindset that because this was ‘God’s will’ and ‘in a good cause’ my needs were less important, even to God, than what was going on in Asia. I knew better but needed accepting, caring people with whom to work out the ugly bitterness that was taking root in my soul.
Part of the anger may stem from feelings of abandonment, usually from unresolved childhood issues. Deeper than loneliness, abandonment is wrapped around the lie that ‘he leaves me because he wants to’ or ‘I deserve to be left’ and feeds into a negative self-concept. Small expressions of criticism or frustration by a spouse are seized on as ‘proof’ of abandonment. These feelings are difficult to resolve until the root cause is dealt with, perhaps with a counselor or trusted friend.
The tensions around separation caused us to face our painful responses and brought us enormous growth as we honestly faced underlying issues. Separation became to us a vehicle of God’s grace and mercy in our lives.
Suggestions for a lifestyle of ministry separation:
1) Both spouses need to have a sense of call to this lifestyle. If not, explore why. If this is God’s will for you, He will lead you and your children through this process; no one is just ‘cannon fodder’ in God’s kingdom.
2) Resolve childhood and marriage issues. These will become exaggerated under this lifestyle. Use this time to become stronger individually and as a couple. Be aware of how this is affecting your children and support them as well.
3) Develop support resources, both practical and emotional. Who will I call on in a crisis? Accountability groups for both spouses are paramount.
4) COMMUNICATE! This needs to be part of our travel budgets as it is what makes it possible to stay in ministry and is over-all cost-effective. Find out what is appropriate to your situation and then develop the practical and financial resources to support it. Do it!
5) Both partners need to work on their own identities. One may have a more public ministry, but both spouses are equally valued by God and important to His Kingdom.
6) Read helpful literature – perhaps related to grief or transition. Use this time to develop insights into your situation.
Ministry will always involve separation from loved ones, for some more than for others. If this is God’s plan for you, embrace the tensions, learn from them and see them as God’s way of enriching you as a family.
View the original print magazine where this article was first published.