Can spending too much time apart ruin a relationship? Or does absence really make the heart grow fonder? Army&You talks to spouses and partners of serving personnel about the ups and downs of long-distance relationships.
Spending a lot of time apart can put a strain on the strongest of couples. But for many spouses and partners of serving personnel, the challenges of long-distance relationships are part of everyday life. As the Army looks towards greater stability and the encouragement of homeownership, many families will continue to experience periods of separation whether by choice or necessity.
Laura Gray lives in Barnsley with Ava (6) and Stanley (3). Since 2003, her husband has been based 250 miles away with 3 Rifles in Edinburgh.
“We have lived this way for a while but we do miss Damian,” she says. “Being on your own with little adult company can be frustrating. And being a lone parent for the majority of the week is tiring.”
For Nikki and Chris Durnell coping with frequent, lengthy separations during their marriage has also presented problems. “Not being able to plan anything more than a couple of weeks in advance and going to social gatherings alone has been hard,” Nikki says.
The Army recognises that the professional demands placed on soldiers can impact their personal lives. Separation Allowances are available to eligible soldiers to compensate for the effects of long-distance relationships. Damian Gray, for example, receives “Get You Home (Travel)” to offset his commuting expenses. Others include:
Longer Separation Allowance (LSA) for personnel who experience separation beyond that compensated for within basic pay, for example, when the location of their duty makes it difficult to get home and back at weekends.
The Army Over 37 Provision supports those who serve unaccompanied later in their careers, by helping with the cost of settling their family in the UK and enabling them to serve at their duty station without financial penalty (eg free accommodation in a mess).
Contact housing provides a “meeting point” for couples and families, and is managed on a local basis through Army Welfare Offices.
“Separation Allowances can be complicated,” warns Caroline Mayne, AFF’s Allowances Specialist. “Eligibility is determined by a soldier’s Personal Status Category (Pstat Cat) and whether s/he is Involuntarily or Voluntarily Separated. Where mistakes are made by a soldier not declaring or knowing their PStat Cat, this can result in a claw back of allowances to which they were not entitled.”
For advice on Separation Allowances, your soldier should consult their Regimental Admin Office and ensure chain of command is informed of any change in personal circumstances.
Whilst practical help is of course welcome, emotional support – available through organisations like Relate – can be of equal importance to struggling couples.
Relate Counsellor Christine Northam says: “Relate might recommend seeing a counsellor together, so the couple can get an objective view and be supported to think [how] they could improve their relationship.”
Reuniting couples should be wary of putting themselves under too much pressure. Homecoming can be an anti-climax and it takes time to readjust to being together, so “some tension is entirely normal” says Christine.
Hayley and Alec Walton were married in 2008 but have only lived together for the past two years. For them, being back together is sometimes just as difficult as being apart.
“At times Alec felt bewildered looking after the children, especially when they were babies. I then felt resentful as I’d be expecting to share the load at weekends. You never want to have cross words because you have such little time together. You tend to brush issues under the carpet, which can cause a bigger problem.”
Communication is crucial
Indeed, good communication is recognised as key to a happy, lasting relationship. Ashleigh Smith, whose partner is based away from home, believes physical distance can undermine this.
“Keeping in sync is very important,” she says, “It is so easy to get caught up in your own life and neglect constant contact – a conscious effort has to be made.”
Christine adds: “If the couple sees the need for energy and effort when it comes to communication, long distance relationships can work.”
Thankfully modern technology helps loved ones connect quickly and easily but, as Nikki says, webcam is a poor substitute. “Having a rant on Skype is just not the same as a big hug when you’ve had a bad day!”
Long-distance relationships have their upsides, too. Couples who rarely see each other usually invest more in their relationship than those who are seldom separated.
Ashleigh says: “It keeps the spark alive. I see friends get complacent, whereas my partner and I really love our time together.”
Hayley agrees: “You appreciate each other more. Alec [gets] a real break from the Army, as he is physically distant from his place of work. I also like the fact I have less washing!”
Most couples agree that whilst being apart isn’t easy, the positives of long distance love far outweigh the negatives.
“The children get quality time with their dad and have established a great relationship with their grandparents,” says Laura.
Nikki adds: “If we can get through two years of being apart so much, anything going forward won’t be a challenge!”
Relate’s top tips for managing long-distance relationships:
- Speak regularly
- Plan what you will do when you next see each other
- Be realistic about the pressure you’re both under – and acknowledge it
- Be open and honest with each other about your separate lives.