By Jamie Farish-Williford
“Who’s married in the room?” Only two hands went up. The teacher looked at me and my wife and simply commented, “this is going to be hard. Buckle up.” It was the wisest advice I had heard at this physician assistant orientation.
My wife is on the road to becoming a physician assistant (P.A.). For those of you who’ve never experienced a P.A. program, let me enlighten. It is a two-year program that involves a year of class work study, followed by another year of six-week rotations. While dealing with the insanity of classmates in group projects, working with paid actors whose sole role is to aid you in giving them prostate exams, and learning from neurologists who teach with brain “gunk” in their hair, becoming a P.A. can be a hard and rigorous time for anyone.
The difficulty is magnified if you’re married. And even more so if you are married and separated during the schooling.
That’s where we are. My wife and I married in 2010 and went from the honeymoon to having to live separately while she began the P.A. program and I began my career in the ministry. She is now in her 21st month of this process, and, while we currently live under one roof, we were forced to live apart for the majority of those first months.
During this time, she and I learned some important lessons. We wish we could say these were lessons that came naturally and helped us avoid conflict, but, like so many, our lessons come from hindsight. So, if I may, here are seven of our biggest lessons about how to survive being married while living apart.
1. GET OUT OF BACHELOR/BACHELORETTE MODE
When the separation begins, we quickly remember how we used to live before we were married. Maybe we left dishes in the sink. Maybe our apartments were littered with dirty clothes. Maybe we don’t remember the last time we vacuumed. It’s so easy to regress into single mode. But, you’re not single. You’re simply living apart. And that means, we have to work harder to keep things how they would normally be. When we’re responsible with our homes and keeping things clean, we find that it provides better quality time when your spouse/partner is with you. Plus, it’s always nicer coming home to a house or apartment that has been taken care of.
2. CONNECT, CONNECT, CONNECT
If you’re able, strive to connect with each other at least once a week. Because of distance, we can forget that there is someone who is connected to us. Whether connecting means having a date night or a midway meet-up spot or a Skype date, commit one night to be yours and your partner’s. Protect that night. Secure it away. Let your friends and family know you’re not available that night at all.
3. GET TO KNOW WHAT’S MEANINGFUL TO YOUR PARTNER
My wife loves getting gifts in the mail. It’s never about the gift or the expense of it, but rather, the thought that went into picking something out, wrapping it, and then mailing it to her. Am I good at this? Not as much as I’d like to be. But maybe your partner prefers words of love over gifts. Maybe a letter would be best. Whatever it is, take the time to talk and learn what his or her “love language” is. This will help you target what’s most meaningful for your partner and yourself.
4. BE GOOD TO YOURSELF
Eat healthy. Exercise. Whether it’s church, yoga, meditation, hiking, painting, or all of the above, be holistically healthy. Encourage your partner to do the same. How many times have you ever fought about something, realizing that it’s partly to do with the unhappiness you feel about yourself? When we’re not in tune with ourselves, we compensate by taking it out on others. In counseling others, I tell people that our negative actions are the weeds in our lives. But weeds are only visible from the surface; it’s the stuff underneath the soil that is the real problem. Until we take care of those “roots,” we’ll never be the person we really want to be.
5. CELEBRATE WINS, SYMPATHIZE WITH LOSSES
If your partner has a great day at work, celebrate with him or her. Congratulate him or her on that test. Party over good grades or successes. Listen and be on his or her side when he or she is upset or gets put in that group or feels humiliated on clinical rotations or in the classroom or at work. You’re not there, so obviously you’re not in the thick of it like your partner is. Don’t listen to fix, unless you’re asked to. Listen to listen! Reassure. Comfort. Bring a smile. Be an oasis in the desert of academia, medical school, work, etc.
6. DON’T GO TO BED ANGRY
If you have a fight, fight it out. Don’t dodge it, put it off, sweep it under the rug, or think it’ll go away. Our work, school, ministry, and life are affected when we are fighting with our partners. Fight fair and get to the root of what’s going on. Whether it’s about sex, money, tidiness, or whatever, fight fair and work through it. Don’t let things build and build and then dump them on the other person.
7. KNOW AND BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF
You’re living apart from your spouse. You’re not able to wake up to them, feel their kiss, or even hug them. This takes a toll. When we don’t connect with our partners, we’re going to have the desire to flirt or be flirted with. The desire is not a bad thing, but we must be totally honest with ourselves. Know yourself. Be careful about the environments you put yourself in. Communicate with your partner when you feel “not desired.” When we realize our needs and open that channel for communication, good things can happen. When we close it off, we make ourselves vulnerable.
Being separated casts an illusion that our lives will always be lived apart. But this is just a season. So may we all who are in this season cultivate seeds of wisdom, honesty, and trust that will produce greater results when we are all living with our partners again.