How To Cope When Dad's Away
My husband is stationed in Iraq, and I'm home with our two young children. I try my best to understand what he's going through there, but this time is hard for me, too. I don't feel like he understands what I am going through here, suddenly being a single mom. I'm very frustrated! Can you help?
Rick Hanson answers
The first thing I would like to say is that just about everyone really, deeply appreciates what your husband is going through in Iraq and the sacrifices he is making -- and also that many, many people appreciate what you and your children are going through as well.
With great respect, I can offer a few thoughts about how you -- and perhaps other women whose husbands are in the military -- can cope at this time.
First, it's so important to take the best possible care of yourself in general. Motherhood is wonderfully fulfilling, but it's also wonderfully demanding and stressful even under the best of circumstances. And now, with the full load of responsibilities falling on your shoulders alone, and without the emotional support of a partner -- when you are de facto a single mother -- raising a family is more stressful than ever. Plus you've got to be worried about your husband, and missing him and lonely.
So be sure to do the everyday, simple, practical things that will help replenish you and prevent you from running on empty. Things like having protein with every meal, taking good vitamins, arranging for more help from friends and family, scheduling regular exercise, and taking little breaks (even a minute at a time) to make sure the needle of your personal stress meter stays out of the red zone. (For lots of other ideas about how to feel less stressed and stay energetic and healthy, please see our book, Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships).
Second, regarding you and your husband, remember that simply expressing how it is for you is not itself complaining -- and that there is no competition for who has worked the hardest or suffered the most over the past year! So I'd suggest starting with being a good listener yourself for whatever he wants to tell you, giving him empathy and understanding and letting the focus stay on him -- but as you know better than I, many men in the armed forces do not want to tell family members much about their experiences, and it's important to respect that desire. It that's the case, you will still have made the effort.
Next, if you anticipate some resistance to hearing what you, in turn, have to say (or write or email . . . ) about your own experiences stateside with your little children, start with laying a foundation. Let him know about the easy, light, funny things first. Emphasize how you are coping, the things that are going well. Give him the good news, which will be very welcome to him.
Then, if need be, make the point that it's important in a strong marriage for partners to understand each other, and to WANT to know how it is for each other. Let him know that you simply want to feel understood as a way to feel close to him, because he's precious to you and your children. You don't want him to solve your problems or make them his own; you know that he's got enough on his plate already! And you are coping with your situation and perfectly capable of handling it.
You want empathy and caring, not Mr. Fix-It. Stress that you are only sharing your experience, and not complaining about him in any way, shape, or form. Explicitly or implicitly, make it very clear that he is not implicated in your difficulties, he's not the culprit in any way.
If you are in a live conversation, perhaps when he returns, you might also want to tell him a time limit on how much listening you want from him. Men sometimes fear that they are going to get dragged into a kind of black hole morass of endless listening, when in fact their partner just wants 10 minutes of their genuine attention. So by saying something like, "I just need to vent for 10 minutes here," you will help him be a better listener.
When you do talk, be careful to anticipate and avoid any ways he might feel you are implicitly criticizing him in what you say. Try to stay with your own experience -- your feelings, wishes, and innermost thoughts -- rather than go off on complicated stories that might lose him. Recognize that men often feel they are being a good listener when they challenge the speaker; if this happens, try not to get defensive, but to focus on describing your own inner world (rather than justifying it) . . . about which you are the world's greatest expert.
If things seem like they are starting to go off the rails (like he gets defensive or downplays your own difficulties), go back to square one: Couples need to understand the experiences each of them is having, and not disrespect them, minimize them, or make them out to be some sort of character flaw. You are simply sharing your experience, and not asking him to fix it. You know that he is not to blame for your experience. You are asking for time-limited attention on his part, not an open-ended entanglement. You appreciate him hearing you out. It benefits his children for you to feel emotionally supported and thus less stressed, and to see their parents talking comfortably together.
And as a woman, feeling that your mate is close to you emotionally is a key to you wanting to feel close to him physically; frankly, for many guys (me included) realizing this fact helps them realize that being a good listener is enlightened self-interest!
I wish you and your husband and your family the very, very best.