The Work Trip is Back – What does this mean for couples
It was recently reported that business travel in the US is back to pre-pandemic levels. This may be great for airlines and hotels (less good for the environment) but here I’m interested in what it means for couple relationships, as when one of them takes a work trip it can throw up all sorts of tensions and issues that if I was working with a couple we’d take some time to look at and try to understand. These were areas I was familiar with from pre-pandemic times but the issue of the work trip went a bit quiet when travel stopped. In recent months I’ve heard a bit more about some of these tensions from couples and so I’m going to set out here some of the conflicts I can see flaring up around work trips.
The day before
Couples report snappiness the day before a trip or difficult goodbyes and sometimes this can be a sign of anxiety about the trip building. Perhaps it’s anxiety about the trip itself and the work that may be involved, or anxiety about being apart, or concern about how someone is going to manage on their own. It may take a conversation to explore each other’s feelings about the upcoming trip without judgement or feeling the need to reassure – just to listen and acknowledge to each other.
Why don’t you ever call?! (Or can’t you tell I’m busy)
Even without a time zone difference it can be hard for a couple to get in sync to catch up when one person is away. And sure enough if the person who is working calls when their partner is involved in the complexities of childcare at home it might be a phone call that is more about letting the person away get a feel of what’s difficult rather than a genuine opportunity to catch up. Is it possible to do a cold shoulder on the telephone? If there are resentments brewing then maybe there will be an attempt at that, which might feel unreasonable to the person on the end of it.
There may be completely different expectations about how much to keep in touch and different ideas of what constitutes a phone call – one person may be up for a long and friendly chat and the other less available or less able to speak that way on the phone.
This is all starting to sound like a minefield, and I think it is a bit. Getting on the front foot of these sorts of issues might mean conversations in advance about how realistic it actually will be to keep in touch and what might be possible. It might be that difficult feelings go on hold until there is a return..which is often why there can be arguments just at the point a couple get back together, which can feel really confusing…
Why is it so hard now the trip is over?
Arguments on the point of return are what one of my former supervisors referred to as the classic “doorstep row”. What is it about coming back together after a distance that can stir up difficult feelings?
There can be different aspects to this. The feelings that have been held onto and managed while the couple were apart – like missing each other, or feeling a bit left holding the difficulties of their role, or feeling frustrated that they couldn’t get hold of their partner – can all rise to the surface when they now come back together and need expression.
There is also the different worlds they’ve been living in. Say one person has been stuck in a conference hotel all week and the other has been at home doing the ins and outs of domestic life. They may have different perceptions of what the other one has actually been doing, there may be envious feelings about what each has been doing, there may be feelings of resentment that perhaps one person is having an easier time than the other, there may be insecurities that have been stirred up about being apart. One thing I’ve noticed with parents is that understandably there is a lot of focus on how the children (particularly young children) might manage with their parent away and so all the expression of feeling is about mum or dad being home which can mean that the parents themselves have less opportunity to express to each other their feelings about being apart. This may have to wait but is important to make space for.
Where have you put the keys?!
The transition back into each other’s worlds can feel hard. We talk about relationships being hard work and there are different aspects to that but at the heart of what is hard work is the having to relate to each other, of having to think about each other and of having to build in not just one mind but two. When a couple spend time apart, there is less need to do that and there is more independence possible. They can eat whatever they like, tidy up or not in whatever way that sees fit, leave the keys wherever works for them – or insert whatever thing it is – without having to take into account their partner so much. So when their partner returns home it can be a bit of a transition to have to go back into the hard work of having to relate again! Everyone will have their own different thresholds and ideas about this, about how hard or easy they find independence or togetherness, and it can take a couple a while to get to know this about each other.
I really need a rest
For parents one of the things that can be very difficult about the return after a work trip is that both of them feel they’ve had an exhausting week. One may be jetlagged, the other may be worn out from being up with their baby every night. This can be hugely disappointing and frustrating to find that neither of them has anything in the tank. The first time this happens it might be hard to foresee this coming but it may be really helpful to plan ahead and think about what support to get at the end of a difficult week like this or how to create a support plan for each other by having an agreement about taking turns to rest.
Conflict in all these areas may feel difficult and unwelcome but is in my experience part of the landscape of these “comings and goings”, a subject I focus on in detail as the fourth argument in my book Five Arguments All Couples Need to Have [insert link to Amazon]. Indeed, these kinds of conflicts might get stirred up by any kind of “coming and going” a couple has to manage, whether that’s a trip away, a night out socialising, or even someone sitting next to their partner on their phone. As I say in that chapter, these comings and goings in relationships are “natural tides” that can wash up unexpected emotions and expose unknown sensitivities to which couples may need to find ways to respond.
What is really important is to find a way to repair the conflicts. This repairing work, where a couple make time to talk about their argument after the event and about what felt so painful or difficult for them can create its own intimacy, having a “re-pairing” effect if both can feel more understood by each other. Perhaps it will be really valuable for someone to be able to express how difficult their week felt on their own; perhaps there can be learning about how difficult someone finds it to speak on the phone and in this exchange of the more sensitive feelings there can be a potential for intimacy.
Tips on managing work trips:
- Make time before the trip to tune in and listen to how each is feeling about it, without feeling that you need to reassure each other – just make the space to acknowledge what they are feeling. It may be hard to hear that your partner is sad that you’re going away but it’s valuable information that can feel connecting before you say goodbye
- Try to have a conversation before the trip about what’s realistic in terms of keeping in touch
- Acknowledge the roles each have played during the trip and be curious with each other about how that was
- Keep a compassionate mindset – this is often a tricky area and differences of feeling are quite understandable
- Think in advance about how you can get support if you are parents in the days after a trip whether that’s to catch up on sleep or to catch up with each other