In the past ten years my private practice of couple therapy has changed in dramatic ways. One of these changes has to do with the frequency with which I treat couples struggling with the fall-out from frequent geographical separations related to work travel. Fridays, which used to be my lightest clinical day, has become my busiest day in the office.
Why the change? Many of the couples I now see on Friday have not seen eachother all week. The breadwinner leaves on Sunday night for a business destination, usually New York City, and returns on Thursday night exhausted by the plane travel and the demands of his or her workplace. Meanwhile the stay at home partner, who may or may not be working outside the home, has been struggling all week to keep the kids in place and the household intact. The weekends that follow are usually stressful and unsatisfying. Each adult feels unappreciated, overwhelmed and misunderstood. They easily trigger one another creating a toxic environment. They often come to my office in one last ditch effort to save their relationship before making a visit to the divorce lawyer.
What in the world does this phenomenon have to do with the enormously successful (and compelling) movie “American Sniper” starring Bradley Cooper and directed by Clint Eastwood? Alot it turns out. “American Sniper” tells the story of Chris Kyle, a famed U.S. Navy SEAL sniper who does four tours of duty in Iraq. During his time in the military, Kyle’s wife, Taya Renae, is home raising their children. The “tale within the tale” of this powerful movie is the story of Kyle’s marriage and the strain that his multiple prolonged separations have on their family.
Like many combat soldiers, Kyle appears distant to his spouse when he is home, haunted by what he has experienced in the theater of war. His wife, meanwhile, feels increasingly isolated and cut off, at one time telling her husband bitterly that she is making her memories alone of their children growing up. The more she complains about her isolation and need for more intimacy, the more her husband withdraws. And of course the more he withdraws, the more she feels isolated and frustrated. The cycle gets so bad that at one point Taya implies that perhaps they should stay apart.
The film contains many poignant episodes where the couple attempts to connect via telephone, he from the battlefield and she either from home or, in one powerful scene, leaving the doctor’s office with the news that their unborn child is a boy while he is in the midst of a potentially deadly fire fight. Kyle’s cell phone falls to the ground, still on, while he is being shot at. It is heartbreaking to witness Taya listen helplessly (and tearfully) to the battle, terrified that her husband may be killed at any moment.
I hope the reader understands that the situation in Kyle’s family is more intense and challenging than the ones I usually treat in my office. No work stress can compare to the horrors of war. However, the tension that occurs in a partnership when one member of the couple leaves the family every week for work is simlar to what we see in the movie. Luckily, Kyle and Taya have the chance to repair their relationship once Kyle finally returns home from Iraq for good, having settled scores with an enemy sniper named “Mustafa”. In the throes of PTSD, he receives excellent counsel from a Veteran Affairs psychiatrist who encourages him to help wounded veterans in the VA hospital. The “treatment” is successful and Kyle and Taya reconcile and re-build a happy relationship before he is tragically killed by a veteran he is trying to help.
Unlike Kyle and Taya, however, financial pressures keep many couples stuck on the merry-go-round of coping with repetitive, weekly geographical separation. Sometimes the choice becomes stark — like Taya, the stay at home spouse will issue the following ultimatum to their traveling partner: “you either leave that crazy job or we should divorce.” What is a couple therapist to do? How can I help?
The way back together begins with awareness. The couple first is educated that that the fighting between them has to do with emotional security and connection not money per se or division of labor. Underneath the bickering over household matters, both partners are hurting emotionally. This emotional geography needs to be travelled in the safe environment of my office. I encourage each partner to talk about their most vulnerable feelings: isolation, fear and anger. I then explore the way they behave toward eachother in response to these emotions.
Usually these surface behaviors — nagging, complaining, tuning out — push the couple further apart rather than bring them together. Their behaviors create what Sue Johnson, master therapist, author, educator and founder of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, refers to as the “cycle of disconnection”. Johnson points out wisely that it is this cycle, not the other person, that is the enemy.
Once the couple identifies and recognizes this cycle, learning how to observe it like they might a increasingly contentious tennis match, they can temporarily disengage when it starts to happen. This “time-out” allows them to “self-regulate” (soothe) their emotions and then come back and have the “right” conversation, one that has to do with vulnerable feelings rather than accusations and blame. For more information about how attachment issues impact couples and how to create cycles of connection rather than disconnection, I encourage my clients to read Johnson’s outstanding book entitled “Hold Me Tight”.
Geographically challenged couples also need help staying engaged during the week while they are apart. A nightly phone call or daily E-mail with new information can be beneficial. Most couples need to stay informed with what is going on in each other’s world during their separation. Such conversations go best if they begin with a specific appreciation of the partner. Other conversation starters could be: “What was the best and worst thing that happened to you today? What happened that was funny? What happened that was challenging?” The conversation might then turn to questions such as “What do you need from me right now?” and “What will you need from me when we re-unite”?
At the time of re-entry, couples need some time to reconnect. It is important to note that entrances and exits are very important in family life. If one returns (or leaves) home without acknowledgment, things can turn sour on a dime. Of course, it goes without saying that it is beneficial if partners allocate time to be together without the children during the weekends. Such date nights should be reserved for having fun rather than for critique.
Cycles of disconnection impact many couples not just those on a regular schedule of geographical distance. Our jobs outside the home can still take us away from our family, physically, emotionally and spiritually. These same techniques apply to these situations.
Chris Kyle was a brave soldier and devoted family man who deserved a better fate. Couples who commit to working out their differences and learning from their mistakes also need to be commended for their bravery. While not quite a war zone, marriage can, at times, feel like one. The same traits of courage, self-regulation and focus that allow soldiers to fight successfully are also of great value in committed relationships!