A couple of weeks ago I sat at the kitchen counter in my friends home. She was describing this recent "ships passing in the night" thing that was going on between her and her husband. It's brand new to them. She's not sure what to do about it but knows that she doesn't like it and doesn't want it to continue. I was practicing my very best active listening skills and sipping a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. That's when she sprung it on me: "How do you guys avoid this? What do you do?"
I paused for a long moment, letting the silence fill up the space behind that series of questions. The ships in the night thing is well within the continuum of normal for us. We met when we were each working on a PhD so we've always given each other a wide berth for work. This includes months in separate locations to accommodate special training, externships and distal rotations. I remember with vivid clarity those long stretches during internship and residency when my husband was on night float. One morning I was on my way to work and he was on his way home. We stopped our cars, which were headed in opposite directions, to lock eyes for a few minutes. It was the only time I saw him awake and in person during that entire month-long rotation.
Even now that he's "out", a word that, when used in this context, makes him sound more like an ex-convict than a high-achieving professional, we still have weeks when we just don't see each other in any meaningful way. I can't tell you how often it happens that some decision or another is hanging in the balance but I need to discuss it with him first. I dread the call, "Well, haven't you talked to Tim yet? It's been three days!" because then I have to try to explain something that really isn't easy to convince most people of:
DAYS can pass before I have a face-to-face conversation with my husband because of his work schedule
I'M OK WITH IT.
Unthinkable, right? Well, I look at it this way:
For one thing, this is the life we chose. Long hours, working holidays, being on-call...it's not like somebody all of a sudden sprung it on us. We knew what we were in for. It sucks slightly more in reality to be alone on a holiday than it does when it's only conceptual but we still can't really complain.
For another thing, like any other modern couple, we've pushed the envelope. We've discovered our personal edge when it comes to apartness. It's shifted a bit over time as our circumstances have changed but our edge is pretty constant.
For a long time I held the attitude that when one partner is working their ass off then maybe it is better if both parties are so engrossed in their own work lives that the absence of the other isn't so glaring. You probably have a higher tolerance for apartness when you're really into your own thing. Now that we have kids the tune has changed a bit such that our crazy-making threshold is lower. Tim considered a couple other interesting specialties but made his choice so that he would know his kids and they would know him. My career has slowed down because for our family it really feels right to have at least one of us at home more than they are at work to captain the ship on a daily basis cause those little people can't do it themselves.
In that long moment when I was constructing a response to my friend I realized that I needed to be careful to not diminish her concerns. It's not a who-has-it-worst contest. Rather our conversation helped me remember something important: Everyone has a limit. On that day in that kitchen my friend had found hers. Tim and I are familiar with ours. We take great care to make adjustments so as to not get too close again.