The nature of Humanitarian work often requires that OCHA Staff work permanently in the field, deploy on short and long term field assignments, and rotate between duty stations. This can necessitate a separation from our partners and/or families for varying lengths of time. Subsequently, and often inadvertently, creating a long-distance relationship which can become complex and challenging; particularly if we are unaware of some of the pitfalls.
Relationships can be complicated
Some relationships end under these conditions, or develop unhealthy patterns. However, successful long distance relationships are possible. Many OCHA staff travel or live far from their loved ones, yet still have solid and healthy relationships.
I am working in South Sudan, but my family is in the capital, so I only see them once a month. It is very challenging and has caused me a lot of stress and money on telephone bills. ~OCHA National Staff member
Talking with colleagues in different missions who have experienced long distance relationships, we have discovered that there are lots of things that we can do (or should refrain from doing) to maintain relationships with our loved ones. In this article we share several of the strategies which have worked for our colleagues, as well as some further resources which you might find useful.
Without trust, honesty and the investment of time, the commitment decreases
Commitment and trust
It came up over and over again that commitment, trust, honesty and time are crucial in any long-distance relationship. Without trust, honesty and the investment of time, the commitment decreases and the relationship is in for a rocky ride.
Obviously, trust and honesty requires being truthful about what you do and where you have been. This also helps build emotional closeness despite the physical distance between you.
Knowing the routines and activities of your loved ones can help you feel closer to each other, and keeping each other informed of your friendships with others and the events that occur in your personal life is a great way of keeping your relationships alive and healthy.
I am working in HQ, but due to work demands I sometimes have to travel on mission and I am absent from home for up to 12 weeks. I am blessed to have a supporting and understanding partner who takes care of our teenage children. ~OCHA colleague
Keep working together
While apart, make as many decisions as possible together and stay involved with your life at home as much as possible. Consider scheduling regular times to “check-in” on the status of your relationship and talk about your future together. Work together on something that you are both invested in. Remember the birthday of your partner and other important dates in your relationship. Sharing and working towards these moments helps to keep motivation and energy high.
Accept changes in the relationship
Knowing the routines and activities of your loved ones also can help you feel closer to each other. Remember to ask about your partner’s daily issues and concerns so you can share and support each other.
Send photos of yourself in your environment and describe to your family how you live and work. Tell your family where you keep photos of them, i.e. office, home, etc. Consider creating a family website where everyone can post photos and news (Facebook may be too public for this purpose). This could include family calendar and photos.
It is important to make concerted efforts with your loved ones to keep a healthy relationship. Accept changes in the relationship and be flexible enough to discuss them. While having an understanding family is helpful, life does not ‘pause’ while we are away. We have to continue to invest in relationships back home, making time for them despite the physical distance.
I speak to my wife in France every morning before I start my work and it has helped to set my day ~OCHA International staff member working in Africa
Make time for the relationship
Reserve a special time to speak with your partner. Make sure that you are not in hurry or obligated to cut off conversations abruptly. And never end the conversation in anger. If possible, try to keep certain regularity in the time of your call. Your partner will expect your call and this maintains trust. Avoid the temptation to be over-controlling – we must be flexible to the fact that sometimes life which is in close proximity to us will get in the way of scheduled calls.
Use technology such as Skype, Facetime, Viber to communicate and have free video chats with your family. Talk as often as you can; the length and content of the exchange are not nearly as important as the frequency, but do not be intrusive. We have to strike a balance between home life and life in the moment.
Deal with your own stress every day so that you do not ‘take out all your frustrations’ on your partner. Some people find it is helpful to develop a network of friends and meaningful activities outside of work. Certainly you should take a few deep breaths to calm yourself and let go of work stress – then focus on your life together before you contact them.
Keep in touch
It is important to remember there are other ways to keep in touch, particularly in places where the internet connection may not be perfect. Do things together besides the usual phone or Skype call, such as watching a movie or reading the same book. Send hand-written letters. Sometimes doing things the old way is more romantic and shows you really care.
a long distance relationship can survive the obstacles
If you cannot travel home very often, try to find a compromise and meet half-way. Set aside time to discuss ‘hot topics” or resolve conflicts during your R&R, and make sure you disconnect from work when you are on leave.
You could also consider giving a loved person a personal object of yours.
I gave my personal chain to my wife, so when she misses me, she can hold onto something that belongs to me. ~OCHA staff member, Philippines.
However, don’t try to compensate for your absence with materials gifts. It is always a big mistake to try to buy the love of your partner. Give them what they need most – yourself and your love.
Couples who keep a good amount of intimacy in their conversations and make efforts to feel close despite the distance are the ones that maintain healthy relationships. With the right amount of effort and interest on both sides, a long distance relationship can survive the obstacles.
It has been difficult, for the past 3 years I’ve been working in country and our marriage has suffered many ups and downs, but we are committed to the relationship. ~OCHA International staff member
OCHA Staff Welfare provides a neutral and confidential space to help you better deal with issues related to long-distance relationships or working far from home.