May 21, 2018
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Things to learn from living apart

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

Readers were surprised to learn last week that after Dustin’s yearlong deployment, the military assigned him elsewhere, and together as a family, we decided that the boys and I will stay behind. We will maintain an apartment in one city, a house in the other, and commute on weekends.

Some readers questioned our decision:

“Why would anyone with young children voluntarily live apart from them?”

“That’s a great way to end up divorced.”

Others reported feeling empowered by our choices:

“Good for you for finding a way to follow both of your dreams.”

“Real love doesn’t know time or distance.”

These conflicting reactions reinforce my original message: my peer group is a transitional generation, sandwiched between our parents, many of whom wouldn’t have considered anything except keeping the family together, and a new crop of young adults who think following a husband is horribly outdated.

Last week, I made the point that the military, by way of its inability to keep up with cultural fluctuations, creates situations where couples have to compromise and live creatively. But the bottom line is that the compromise my husband and I have made is more a symptom of changing familial roles than it is a reflection of the military’s long history of frequent moves. If what’s considered a “woman’s role” and what’s considered a “man’s role” hadn’t changed, the military’s move-every-two-years system would not be a problem.

Which means that other, civilian marriages are going through their own evolution, too. Who comes home to make dinner? Who takes off work when the kids are sick? Perhaps even civilian couples have faced the possibility of living temporarily in separate cities for the sake of a career.

These are new dilemmas in some respects but not in others. The idea of couples being separated by distance, for instance, is nothing new — Dustin’s grandmother didn’t see her husband for many years during World War II — but the notion that fathers have to be intimately involved in their children’s day-to-day lives is. Remember the 1950s dad who came home from work, patted his kids on the head and then settled into his chair with the newspaper?

In our own situation, Dustin and I have taken all that we know about relationships and distance, changing gender roles and expectations, and we’ve tried to fashion something new and meaningful for our family until we can all be under the same roof again.

Here are some of my favorite findings so far.

There are many different ways to be absent

I can’t stress this enough. Having a spouse physically present is nice, but having a spouse emotionally present is even better.

There are plenty of couples who co-exist. We’ve all seen them. Maybe we’ve even been that couple at times, but we usually don’t want to be. Yet, if we place “physical togetherness” as the ultimate goal, “co-existing” can sometimes be a very real and unfulfilling outcome.

The same applies to parents. Being physically present does not necessarily guarantee that a father is mentally and emotionally present as well. Being present — truly present — whether through the miles or not, takes commitment and effort.

Quality time is more important than quantity of time

Considering last year’s deployment, by the time Dustin is done with his current tour of duty, we will have had very little time together. Already, however, we’ve had more quality time together than I can remember in years. Every weekend counts. Every meal counts. And we do not pass up the opportunity to be together.

I mentioned this to a civilian friend, and she said, “I can’t remember the last time my husband and I focused on quality time together.”

I know she isn’t alone.

Love does not allow “out of sight, out of mind”

When things get tough, Dustin reminds me, if the only thing holding our marriage together is being physically in each other’s presence, then we have bigger problems. He’s right. Love and commitment doesn’t stop when he walks out the door. If it did, being in the same house wouldn’t fix anything.

Absence really does build appreciation

It’s easy to put things off. It’s even easier to forget what you have. But when you say goodbye to your husband every Sunday, you can’t help but wake up Monday morning thinking of all the things you miss about him.

So you spend long hours on the phone together, just talking. And you realize, if he was on the opposite couch, you probably would have watched television together in silence instead.

Then flowers appear on the doorstep. The card reads, “I miss you and can’t wait to see you this weekend.”

And all of the sudden, you feel like you are falling in love with your husband all over again.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at

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