The Rockwood Files: Burned on Re-entry

When a spouse is traveling for work, he might as well be on Mars. Because he’s too far away to help. Oh sure, the traveler is there for emotional support via cell phone, but that doesn’t help get the kids fed, bathed and corralled into bed at night. It doesn’t get the laundry folded or the dishwasher unloaded. That responsibility falls to the gatekeeper back on Planet Home who’s scrambling to get it all done while wishing for the traveler’s safe return.

But coming home is not necessarily easy – for the gatekeeper or the traveler.

When the traveler is away, the gatekeeper must find a way to do everything solo. She takes on extra duties and constructs a new routine. She slips into a one-woman rhythm that gets everything done, and her 14-hour day buzzes with constant hands-on activity.

Similarly, the traveler also adapts to a new agenda. Suddenly he’s in airports and stuck with layovers or delays – sitting still sometimes for hours, waiting and watching. Then he’s in an endless blur of meetings. He spends the night in hotel rooms where it doesn’t matter if things are messy, and he eats in restaurants where no one expects him to wash dishes.

For both the gatekeeper and the traveler, inertia sets in. They each get used to doing things the way they do them. But when the traveler returns home, that same inertia can make worlds collide and tempers flare.

The gatekeeper assumes the traveler will jump right in and handle some of the domestic duties she has been skillfully covering while he was away. While she buzzes around the house feeding kids, checking homework, paying bills and folding towels, she notices something shocking and completely maddening – he’s sitting still. He’s oblivious to the whirlwind of work going on around him, and she thinks her head might explode if he sits there one more minute.

On the other hand, the traveler is trying to navigate a tricky trajectory of re-entry into the domestic atmosphere. He’s decompressing from the trip and relishing the comforts of home. And he’s trying to fit back into a rhythm and routine that he’s been away from for several days – one that his spouse has taken over in his absence. Often he feels safer staying out of her way rather than risking doing something wrong.

Let’s just be honest. Sometimes we gatekeepers say that what we want is for our partner to pitch in and help. But what we really want is a clone of ourselves to help out in precisely the way we want things done. If the offered assistance isn’t exactly right, then we push it aside, do it ourselves and feel overburdened.

That being said, there’s a crucial rule that all travelers would be well-served to memorize: “Home is not another airport.” In other words, if you see your spouse buzzing around juggling chores, don’t sit there and watch. Jump in and say four simple words: “How can I help?”

When that traveler heeds the aforementioned rule and does his part, there’s a second equally important rule that any smart gatekeeper must remember: “Never, ever rebuff or critique a person who gets up to help you just because they don’t make grilled cheese sandwiches the same way you do. Get out of the way. You married a human, not a clone.”

If both the traveler and the gatekeeper honor those two basic rules, they soon find themselves settling back into a comfortable orbit with each other. They feel recharged by the reunion, and they avoid a big supernova of a fight. It’s not rocket science.