Couples: Alone again—unnaturally



That describes my husband and me—the public image and, better yet, the private reality.

So why were we separated nine months last year? Why eight months in store this year? Why, subtracting it all up, has nearly half of our five-year marriage been spent apart? Or together, depending on the number of eggs frying at the time.

The reason: career choices. My husband is a career naval officer who, by definition, spends long periods at sea.

We’re not the only ones in this boat. We keep company with many other couples married not only to each other but to careers that have one or both literally coming and gone. Getting it together while being apart for months at a stretch requires, it is agreed, careful preparation and, once underway, continuous fine-tuning.

“But you knew what you were getting into when you married” is the invariable comment. Yes, but: Pre-wedding fantasy rarely corresponds with the living-through.

What follows is what has worked for me, but first, an axiom: A prerequisite for marriage featuring independent living is an independent life. Having established beforehand what you’re all about—whether focused on career, cause, or children—is the only thing that gets you through those first hours when you’ve just said goodbye for six months. An agenda of lunches and tennis will not suffice. A sense of purpose helps. For me, it’s career.

Even with the fullest of lives, however, the prospect of being apart for half a year can loom like an emotional black hole, especially if you like each other. I suspect the closer the marriage, the more difficult the separation. It’s tough to compensate for the hand on the cheek and choral readings of the newspaper.

Doing so is basically a matter of mind over emotion. Thus, the terms you use are critical. I “prevail” and “sublimate like mad” while my husband “charges ahead.”

Before the goodbyes, burning issues should be settled, not tabled. One such issue is the separation itself. Discussing the inevitable feelings of abandonment and loneliness is as important as arranging for power of attorney and updated wills. Likewise, chores best completed by the imminently departed should be. Otherwise, count on it, if something can go wrong, it will—immediately after departure.

As the ship sails out of sight, I appoint myself the guardian of my own health, education, and welfare. And am I ever a nag. “Yes, it’s okay to dine straight from the refrigerator. But no lounging through weekends in a nightgown. And no drinking alone.”

To maintain the complementary interaction of our marriage, I consciously take on some of my husband’s characteristics. Our balance when we’re together is a result of his equilibrium and my pendulum. When he’s away, I monitor my swings with advice he’d likely give (“Easy now, perfectionist”). These various voices sometimes have me responding aloud, but my neighbors understand.

If never before, moderation in all things now, especially perspective. I do not count the days, except the week before homecoming. I cannot relate to, but I can be mightily depressed by, 11 days down and 265 to go. I aim instead for our week-long rendezvous scheduled midway in the separation, divide the entire period into first and second halves, and save. As a movie junkie, I plan a movie for Sunday afternoon, always the week’s dead spot for me.

Women in this situation should beware the wolves. Ye shall know them when they call and say, “Helloisyourhusbandstillawayhowaboutlunch?” (It’s nice, however, to lunch occasionally with a baritone voice. An impeccably safe one, that is.)

Communication, since we cannot phone, means reviving the art of letter writing. Its dividend, if the letters survive all the interim handling, is a lasting record of sentiment. That record should also recount the bad day with the good. Otherwise, if you’re floundering but your spouse thinks you’re fine, the encouraging word you need won’t be coming, which makes for a fitful reunion. In general, a stiff upper lip to the world but a talkative one to your spouse.

Friends will bring you out of yourself, if only because, being human they naturally center more on their lives than yours. An occasional SOS (“I’m wobbly, could we talk?”) will raise a response, but endless moaning becomes tiresome, to them and ultimately you. Besides, what you truly want from friends is friendship, not pity or hushed voices.

But no doubt about it, an all-out kvetch is cathartic, especially if conducted with a similarly situated friend. Like the time another Navy wife and I buried our hands in barbecued spareribs and bleated for hours. An emotional sauna. By all means, though, if the separation has you dead in the water, get professional counseling.

If much of the foregoing has a negative cast, it’s because prevailing over long separations is difficult. The most that can be said for them is that you learn about endurance. At the very least, you can load on the garlic.

Oh, but the homecoming! Bessie Smith makes way for Bach on a thousand-pipe organ. Being together again is grand—and bumps along like a first date—as emotions thaw and defenses relax. Dinners go back on the table.

Settled in once again, we cherish the daily-ness, that “great enemy of marriage,” as George Bernard Shaw saw it. Facing yet another separation, we reengage our issues. We tend to avoid silliness and arguments; they come back to rattle. Television, parties, puttering—anything that keeps us from talking is eliminated.

And about that eight-month separation coming up….? My husband is taking his ship to dry-dock, not to sea, and I’m packing my bags to join him.

I’ll give up the garlic. No doubt about it.

Carla Seaquist is a free-lance writer.