Frequent Travel Takes Toll on Spouses

ByMelinda T. Willis

March 15, 2002 -- Chris Essex knows all about the resentment factor.

Her husband of 25 years is a million-mile flier on United Airlines. And it's not so much that she wishes she could be travelling with him — it's that she doesn't like it when he's away.

Essex may be something of an expert when it comes to coping with a traveling spouse, since she serves as co-director for the Center for Work and the Family in Rockville, Md., an organization that helps people bridge the gaps between life at work and life at home.

But like millions of other spouses whose partner's frequent business travel can leave behind an emotional and practical void, she still resents the extra burdens that with come with her husband's absence.

"It happened recently with my husband — he forgot something and he needed it FedExed to him," Essex explains. "For me the resentment factor was this instant flash point of 'That's not okay with me, because not only are you not here, which causes a loss of assistance — but now you require something from me to support you being away.'"

More people could be affected by the "resentment factor" than you might imagine.

Fourteen million Americans travel internationally on business each year, according to estimates by HTH Worldwide, a health insurance provider to international travelers. Five trips per year is the average, with an average stay of nearly two weeks.

And some experts say that the same problems may extend to the spouses of those who travel domestically each year. That's 34.2 million Americans, with the vast majority involving an overnight stay lasting an average of four nights, estimates the Travel Industry Association of America.

Ill Effects for Stay-at-home Spouse

In fact, the stress of spousal travel may actually be making some the stay-at-home partner sick.

Research into the effects of international travel on the spouse or partner has largely been anecdotal. But a recent study in the March issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine provides some documented proof that you don't need to be on the road to be weary.

The study, conducted by researchers from the World Bank, used medical insurance claims filed between 1997 and 1998 and found that spouses of frequent international business travelers were more likely to suffer mental health problems than spouses of non-travelers.

Spouses of travelers filed 16 percent more claims than did spouses of non-travelers. For psychological disorders as a whole, spouses of travelers were two times more likely to file claims than spouses of non-travelers.

And there was a tripling of claims for psychological stress related disorders among spouses of employees who traveled more than four times per year. Claims for treatment of skin and intestinal disorders were also higher compared to spouses of non-travelers.

While the actual percentage of people who felt bad enough to see a physician was small, it could be just the tip of the iceberg, since many of those feeling the effects of stress may not seek professional help, believes Dr. Lennart Dimberg, the study's lead author and senior occupational health specialist at the World Bank.

The Long and Short of It

"We're almost hardwired to dislike separation," explains Nadine Kaslow, professor and chief psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga. "Obviously as we get older, we get more used to tolerating separation. However, part of the reason you choose to be in a partnership is because you like being with somebody — being close to somebody."

And forming a committed partnership also means sharing routines, which frequent travel can easily disrupt.

"If your partner is away during the week and you're home with the kids, you do dinner a certain way," says Kaslow. "When your partner comes home typically you do dinner a different kind of way. The rules are different and the norms are different and it gets confusing."

Perhaps this helps explain the new study's finding that shorter, more frequent separations seemed to be more disruptive than long stays away. But both long and short separations can cause their fair share of problems.

"With short [trips], you don't get enough time to adjust — it's fits and starts," says Essex. "But the problem with long [trips] is not the time they are gone, it's the reentry. When they come back, there is this disruption of shifting back and reintegrating them back in."

While international travel has been the focus of the World Bank study on spouses, some experts say there is no reason to believe these findings could not be extended to frequent domestic travel.

"There's no question that there's lots of stress involved with frequent domestic travel," says Kaslow. "It's less easy to have immediate access to a person internationally, but separations are separations. Whether you're going across the ocean or not, you're still apart."

Surviving Separation

Because business travel is so prevalent in American life, experts say that people should find ways to cope with separation so that it doesn't become a problem.

"Just being aware of [potential problems] makes it a little less stressful in that you're not surprised by them every time," advises Essex.

For example, couples can engage in goodbye as well as reentry rituals to help ease transitions. Other rituals can be performed while one partner is away — such as leaving a love note for every day that a partner is traveling or arranging surprises like balloons or flowers that can be delivered to the home or hotel rooms.

And negotiation and a sense of partnership in making the decision to travel for work is key.

"If you are going to travel, how are you going to decide when it's not working for the relationship?" says Kaslow. "It doesn't work in couples where the spouse feels like the person is married to the job and not to the partner."

Frequent travel, while the cause of some relationship woes, need not be a deal breaker. Some couples can genuinely enjoy some time apart, because it gives them time to focus on things that they may not be able to when their partner is around.

"I like — and many couples like — having that separation time. So we ask couples, what do you like about the fact that your partner travels?" says Essex. "It's not all bad. It's not always about the negatives."