Surviving on the Road Without Your Significant Other

by Keith Savage · 37 comments

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It’s an image that continues to appear unbidden in my mind’s eye. We’re driving to the airport. Somehow I’m looking in through the windshield at Sarah and myself, light flickering over our faces. Muscles stand rigidly along my jaw line. Everything is muted, soundless. Then inside the terminal. Me with my bags, Sarah with her purse. Our eyes dart left and right, up and down. And then I’m on the other side of security dazedly waving at Sarah standing still, watching me. Maybe we share some secret, meaningful gesture. Then. We drift apart with wet eyes greeting the first seconds of 30 days apart.

In all of the travel blogs I read and with all of the travel bloggers I interact, I have yet to find someone attempting the same plan that I am: leaving a spouse or significant other for a month at a time to travel and repeating this three to four times per year. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it is unquestionably the most worrisome aspect of the Traveling Savage mission for me (and believe me, there’s plenty to worry about) and the one our families are most concerned about as well. How will our marriage hold up? Won’t you miss each other? And on and on.

That I would even consider undertaking such a quest must convey to you the importance both of us put on it. This is no secret difficulty waiting to spring upon me that I will curse after the trip wondering how I didn’t anticipate it. No, this is a nauseatingly obvious obstacle, a heart-straining hardship staring me down from 15 million seconds away.

How will I survive on the road without Sarah? Survival, in this sense, is a metaphor for our hearts, our relationship. Mentally, this type of trip requires a kind of identity management. I can’t go to Argentina for a month and live the same way I did back home. Not only is it not possible, it would be damaging to the project’s goals. On the road I need to make sure I’m at my most outgoing, confident, observant, and friendly. These “muscles” need to be in tip-top shape. I’m a planner by nature, and while I’m trying to embrace spontaneity this is not an issue I can leave to chance.

No, I’m getting tactical on this.

The Time Period

The amount of time I plan to be gone is the most important factor. If this were a weekend or even week-long trip, I wouldn’t be writing this post. One month is a different story. The month I spend in a destination will be a kind of cultural investigation that requires time for me to find opportunities, stories, and people. Some of the time is needed to simply internalize my surroundings. At opposite ends of the fulcrum I have “place time” and “face time” (with Sarah). If either one gets out of whack, the plan fails. I’m happy to start with a month and reassess after a trip or two. Anything more than six weeks feels like dangerous territory for our relationship. Anything less than three weeks feels like it won’t be effective for the venture.

The Technology

Our communication options are truly ridiculous. Not long ago I remember buying international calling cards and hitting up phone booths for scant three-minute conversations. Now I can video chat in my hand with the recent announcement of iPhone4’s FaceTime feature. We are seriously considering the jump. The iPhone4 can even be tethered to my laptop for an internet connection wherever I go. Expensive? Yes. Google Chat, Skype, FaceTime – we have a plethora of options to keep us in contact when needed. The trick with all of this technology is to not overuse it or spend the collective time of days searching for wifi hotspots and internet cafes.

The Talisman

I’m not talking about carrying around a saint’s old tooth or dessicated eyelid. If you’re familiar with Zane Lamprey’s stuffed monkey, Pleepleus, you’re familiar with my idea for a talisman. A talisman is a physical object into which you impart meaning. The physical nature of a talisman may seem outmoded in the age of instantaneous communication, but there’s a kind of power in the physical reminder of someone. A talisman could be a stuffed animal, a picture, a necklace, or any thing that represents another thing. It’s on Sarah’s to do list to give me a talisman for my travels.

The Trust

There’s not much to be said for this most important element. You simply need to trust in each other. All the common worries flicker through our minds: what if she meets someone else? What if HE meets someone else? Etc. Etc. Only your shared past has the power to banish these unwanted ruminations. Truthfully, if we didn’t believe in our shared trust, this plan wouldn’t have hatched.

Have you struck out on your own and left someone important behind? How did you get through it? Was it worth it? How was the return home?

Original photo by Eric Vondy via Flickr under Creative Commons

AndiNo Gravatar June 30, 2010 at 8:32 AM

I hope Sarah might be able to join you on some of your trips? Wow, a month several times a year is HUGE, but I agree, as long as the trust and love is there, you’ll be fine. You HAVE to follow your heart, otherwise Sarah won’t be getting her best husband.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 30, 2010 at 9:02 AM

Yes, we’re hoping to unite at least a few times while I’m on the road. We think it’s important to continue experiencing adventures together. The plan is to do four months on the road a year, but we’ll see how it goes in practice. We might need to dial it back – it just depends on how we react. I really like that last sentence in your comment. Thanks Andi!

ShawnNo Gravatar June 14, 2010 at 4:12 PM

Well everyone has different perceptions of the element of time, but one month really is not that long. However, for a person to travel long term ( 3-5 years) it is best to surrender all attachments, it just makes everything easier.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 30, 2010 at 9:00 AM

I agree that the “length” of time is a function of an individual’s perception. I think you’ve been in eastern Europe for many years now. Is that right? I’ve never been parted from my wife for more than a few days so by comparison a month is quite long.

SonyaNo Gravatar June 12, 2010 at 5:54 PM

What an insightful post on relationships and traveling! It’s so interesting how every relationship is so different. What can work for one couple doesn’t necessarily work for the next.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 13, 2010 at 9:58 PM

Hi Sonya. I think that’s why I’m anxious about it. No one has walked down your exact path before you.

floretaNo Gravatar June 12, 2010 at 9:02 AM

Chris from The Art of Nonconformity blog travels extensively while leaving his wife back in Portland! It seems to work out though.. not sure how.

The last time I came to the Philippines about 6 years ago, I was in a new relationship. Hadn’t even been dating for a month! But already it was “serious”.. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have tied myself down when I was traveling but I was true to him. One thing that helped was he gave me a hardbound moleskin journal to write on that I could share to him when I got back. I wrote every day about my experiences. Knowing he would get to read it made me feel closer to him already. And he did give me a talisman too.. some smallish stuffed animal with his cologne sprayed on it.. ha.

Hope that helps.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 13, 2010 at 9:57 PM

That is such a great idea! I think I’ll try to keep a journal for Sarah to read when I return.

AkilaNo Gravatar June 12, 2010 at 3:56 AM

When we first started dating, I spent a summer in Spain while Patrick stayed at home. While I was in law school, I worked for a summer in a different city than Patrick. And, in our careers, we often had trips that would keep us apart. Frankly, it sucked and was a huge motivation in us quitting those jobs. We didn’t like being away from each other all the time.

That being said, as Maggie’s husband helped her, Patrick stood by me when I needed to travel away from him. That’s the key to a successful marriage: believing in each other and your love for one another. Good luck and I’ll be staying tuned to see how it goes.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 13, 2010 at 9:56 PM

Thanks Akila. It’s always nice to see love winning over distance. Glad it worked out for you two!

SuzyNo Gravatar June 12, 2010 at 3:33 AM

Thanks for sharing this Keith. I am in a similar situation (although not married), but if you have something strong to begin with, nothing will derail your relationship, not even 1 month away. Skype is a godsend.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 13, 2010 at 9:55 PM

I need to get Skype set up – I’ve never tried it. Is it still free to use?

Marissa TooheyNo Gravatar June 11, 2010 at 9:32 AM

Hi Keith, great post and one I can relate to as well. I’m about to move away from my partner to live in Vietnam for 6 – 12 months. All the doubts are natural, but I have confidence it can work as well. You have a lovely post to refer back to during the tough times now.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 11, 2010 at 10:45 AM

Hi Marissa – it might sound selfish, but I’m happy to see others on similar paths. Seems like everyone has a different motivation for such a trip, but that it ultimately boils down to self improvement/self growth in some shape or form. Thanks for the comment.

MaggieNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 6:02 PM

Timely post. I’m leaving my husband for a year to travel rtw. Last night I had a minor meltdown, wondering why the hell I’m doing this. It’s a concept that seemed fine eight months ago, when I was crafting this plan. Now it’s just becoming all too real.

I know we’re a strong couple and we’ll survive this, but wow — it’s incredibly difficult thinking about 365 days without him.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 10:22 PM

Wow, I’m a little speechless. I’m definitely going to check out your site to see how this plan came together. Well, that effectively makes my situation pale in comparison. Best of luck to you and yours on the trip.

MaggieNo Gravatar June 11, 2010 at 12:41 AM

One of these days I’m actually going to write a post about this!

Frankly, I’m surprised by how negative the reaction has been from people outside my relationship, especially considering how supportive my husband is. I’ve had quite a few comments about how selfish it is for me to leave him for a year, how stupid I am for doing this, etc. Then again, some people seem to be really good at judging other people’s marriages — no matter what the issue is — rather than focusing on their own lives.

I’m proud that my husband is my biggest cheerleader in this rtw venture. He understands that sometimes what’s best for an individual can ultimately be the best thing for the team.

KelseyNo Gravatar June 11, 2010 at 6:30 AM

“He understands that sometimes what’s best for an individual can ultimately be the best thing for the team.”

This is key. Ultimately, a relationship where one person feels that their needs are being ignored is not going to last. Sometimes, time apart can actually strengthen, rather than weaken, a relationship.

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 4:46 PM

It will be challenging, but it strikes me the situation is malleable. Perhaps Sarah can join you on an adventure? The strength in your relationship is already evident – even arriving at this point is difficult for other couples. Be proud of yourselves.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 10:21 PM

Yes, I actually meant to say that. She might join me here and there to cap off or begin trips. Kinda like a kickstart. That way she’ll also get to see some new places and we can make a mini vacation out of it. Thanks for the encouragement, Jeannie!

ClaireNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 5:09 AM

Definitely a tough spot, but I believe if the two of you are strong enough and confident enough in each other to agree on this venture in the first place, then the survival will just make your relationship that much sweeter. Tough? Without a doubt. Yet, you will figure it out as you go. If you both were not on the same page, and you didn’t have her support, then I believe you probably would be writing a different post in a couple months . But she is behind you though and you two will make it happen. Go Sarah! (ok and Keith 😉

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 10:24 PM

It’s true. If I had proposed this crazy scheme to Sarah and she responded with some form of “no way” then we wouldn’t have Traveling Savage 😉 I know there will be a dip as we proceed through this quest, but since we’ve started on this path we must see it through.

KelseyNo Gravatar June 9, 2010 at 9:55 PM

I actually have considerable experience dealing with traveling without your SO, maintaining long distance relationships, and all that stuff. If you want someone to chat with about logistics and tactics, let me know.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 10:19 PM

Thanks for the offer Kelsey. I may take you up on that as I get deeper into planning.

KelseyNo Gravatar June 11, 2010 at 6:27 AM

Sure thing! My boyfriend and I were separated for a year while I lived in Korea last year, and he lived in Washington DC, and I will be going to Mongolia for 3-6 months next year. My plan is similar to yours, though I plan on taking one 3-month trip per year, rather than three one-month trips. He’s totally fine with it, which is great. Both of us enjoy our personal time, so we see our time apart as good for personal development.

Outside of my current relationship, I also was once in a 4 year long distance relationship wherein I only saw my partner 3-4 times a year, and it wasn’t the distance that made us break up. So, I have a lot of experience with this. Let me know when the time comes, and I’ll do my best to help.

JoelNo Gravatar June 9, 2010 at 6:36 PM

I have no experience with this, personally, but I do have many people I work with who are consultants. They get shipped overseas to work on projects for 3 months, 6 months or longer.

They adjust, they communicate in all the ways you outline and they carry on, because that’s what their livelihood and lives demand.

I have not doubts you will achieve that same balance.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 2:10 PM

It’s true, many people (especially military personnel) have it much worse than I will. Thanks for the show of confidence, Joel.

PoiNo Gravatar June 9, 2010 at 2:35 PM

Of course it will be tough at times but like Ayngelina says the fact you are doing this obviously means your relationship is more than strong enough.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 11:53 AM

Thanks Poi.

JoAnnaNo Gravatar June 9, 2010 at 12:55 PM

It would be so hard to travel for a long period of time with my husband. He’s my best friend and favorite travel partner. But I also think it’s important to have time to travel on your own. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the few times I have traveled solo, and I have another major trip coming up in a couple months that I will also take on my own (2 weeks in Vietnam). For my husband and me, we both know how important it is that we are still individuals in a relationship together. Maintaining a sense of self identity is important in strengthening our relationship.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 11:23 AM

Your relationship sounds a lot like mine. And I agree about maintaining your sense of self. Too many relationships crumble when someone places more focus on the union than on the self.

ayngelinaNo Gravatar June 9, 2010 at 12:52 PM

I don’t envy your position, it will be difficult at times. But I think it’s amazing that you have a relationship where this is a possibility.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 10:56 AM

I know that you split up with your significant other prior to your jaunt. That must have been difficult as well. With a marriage, though, we’ve committed to make it work regardless of the obstacles that come our way.

Andy JaroszNo Gravatar June 9, 2010 at 11:53 AM

Powerful post Keith, and a really tough dilemma for you. I have total respect for your strength (both of you) to see such a plan through. I must admit, it’s that separation that, more than anything else, dissuades me from pursuing a travel writing career. It sound like you guys have a realistic grasp of what the challenges will be and how to deal with them. Best of luck – I’m sure you’ll be fine. Just be gracious when you get home and Sarah asks you to take her away on a vacation!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 10, 2010 at 10:55 AM

Thanks Andy, good advice. The pragmatic part of me doesn’t want to get too high on this plan yet. After all, we haven’t tried it and there’s the possibility that it will all fall to ruin. I’m keeping a positive attitude though. I really need that if we’re going to make this work.

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