MODULE SIX | Family Matters: Self Care for Family Members of Humanitarian Workers

PART FIVE | Thriving as a Couple

“Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing.” (Goethe)

Being part of a couple can bring great reward and great challenge. Every couple faces competing demands and obligations that come from balancing partner, work, friends, family, self, and sometimes children. When one or both partners are humanitarian workers, additional pressures (such as frequent or extended separation or uncertainty about the future because of short-term contracts) can also impact the relationship.

Social support is crucial for keeping people healthy, happy, and thriving. Your relationship with your partner or spouse is the single biggest piece of that social support puzzle. In this chapter we’ll look at characteristics of couples who are thriving and ways to care for your relationship.

One of the best things you can do to help yourself and your partner thrive is to nurture your relationship as a couple.

To think and discuss…

Don’t just think about these questions; discuss them with your partner! Communication is vital to thriving as a couple – time spent discussing these sorts of issues is never wasted.

  • What impact has humanitarian work had on your relationship – both positive and negative?
  • What do you see as the most significant challenges your humanitarian worker partner has to cope with?
  • What are some of the things you find most challenging about his/her involvement in humanitarian work?

Strength factors for thriving as a couple

While we all need social support, the specifics of what a happy and healthy couple look like can vary widely across cultures and couples. Keep in mind that most of the research and stories cited here come from a Western context and think carefully about what you feel applies to you.

While social support is universally important, the specifics of what happy and healthy relationships look like can vary widely across cultures and couples.

Research has a lot to say about the common characteristics of couples who are thriving in their relationship.11 These “strength factors” show up in at least three important areas:

  • How partners view their relationship;
  • How they meet challenges and deal with conflict; and
  • How they invest positively in each other and their relationship.

Having and using good communication skills is absolutely foundational. Below we’ve listed 15 other characteristics commonly found in couples who are thriving.

Having and using good communication skills is foundational to thriving as a couple.

Ways that thriving couples commonly view their relationship:

  • They view it as a serious, sacred, commitment – something to be protected and nourished.
  • They highly value the companionship and intimacy the relationship brings.
  • They trust one another.
  • They tend to remember the good things about their relationship and each other and don’t dwell on the bad.
  • They know that change, challenge, and conflict are a normal part of any relationship. They don’t fall prey to the misconceptions that it will be easy, or that a “good relationship” is always calm and peaceful.

Ways that thriving couples commonly meet challenges and deal with conflict:

  • They approach personality and opinion differences with respect and tolerance, and view them more as strengths that offer balance to the relationship than as threats.
  • They take a team approach to problem solving. In the face of challenges such as unemployment, health difficulties, and financial problems, they tend to look forward and focus more on possibility than blame.
  • They navigate times of high frustration and conflict by using a variety of conflict resolution skills. For example, they acknowledge their own contribution to a problem and manage their own emotions so that they neither fester and turn into resentment nor escalate to anger and aggression.
  • They look at mistakes and difficulties in the past and draw from them positive lessons for the future.
  • They seek outside help from family, friends, spiritual mentors or counselors when needed, rather than “going it alone.”

Ways that thriving couples invest positively in each other and their relationship:

  • They spend time together, especially in leisure and recreation. Interactive activities such as games, spending time outdoors, and mealtimes are the most beneficial way to spend time together. There is some benefit, but not much, to “parallel activities” where you are together but there is little interaction (e.g., watching TV).
  • They say positive things to each other. It takes about 5 positive messages to counteract every negative message.
  • They laugh together.
  • They create a shared identity as a couple by establishing some rituals and traditions, shared activities, and investing together in a broader network of friends and family.
  • They maintain some independence and a sense of their identity as individuals. They allow each other the freedom to have independent friendships and interests, which enable them to go outside the relationship and bring back energy and ideas to enrich the relationship.
Strength factors for thriving as a couple are related to how couples view their relationship, how they meet challenge and manage conflict, and how they invest positively in each other and their relationship.

To think and discuss…

  • In which of these three areas (how you view the relationship, meet challenge, and invest positively) do you think your relationship is naturally strongest? How and why?
  • Which of these three areas is your weakest? How and why?
  • Think of a couple you greatly respect. What are three things you admire about their relationship?
  • What are some strength factors for thriving that you would like to work on building or strengthening in your own relationship?

Caring for your relationship

Given the importance of your relationship and the challenges that can come when one or both of you are humanitarian workers, it is especially critical that you are intentional about caring for your partnership in ways that use and build up your strengths. There are many ways you can do that. Here are just a couple of suggestions to get you thinking.

  • Practice good self-care. The first part of being able to care for your relationship over time is at least some basic level of caring for yourself.
  • Do something fun and interactive together – play a game, go somewhere new, spend time outdoors.
  • Look for ways to say things that praise, encourage, and build up your partner.
  • Learn something new in an area of relative weakness, tension, or conflict. For example, buy a book about conflict resolution (or sex, money, or parenting) and read and discuss it together.
  • Talk. Talk over breakfast, or dinner. Talk on the couch at night. Talk in the car. Talk on the phone. Talk while going for a walk. Just talk! Stuck on what to talk about? Here are five ideas:
    • Buy a book or a game designed around questions to promote discussion.
    • Write down five questions you’d like to ask your partner.
    • Write down five questions you’d like your partner to ask you.
    • Use the questions in this module to spark conversations.
    • Discuss what you are both grateful for.

To think and discuss…

  • Research suggests that the two most common problems that destroy the foundations of relationships are poor communication and destructive fighting.** To which of these is your relationship currently most vulnerable?
  • Since self-care is foundational to being able to care for your relationship, how can your partner encourage you to take care of yourself? (Don’t forget to let them know ways in which they are already good at encouraging you to do this.)
  • How can you encourage your partner to take care of themselves?
  • What are three ways each of you really enjoy caring for your relationship?
  • What are two specific ways you can commit to investing in your relationship this week?

Spotlight on extra resources:

Look up the following on (this will
also lead you to related books): The seven principles for making marriage work, by J. Gottman and N. Silver (2000).

Caring for your relationship when you’re apart

Long distance relationships, or those that involve frequent or extended separations, bring with them some significant and unusual challenges. It is possible to thrive in relationship across the miles – both of the authors of this module are proof of that. Bree and her husband spent four years dating before getting married, and two of those years were cross-country long distance in Australia. Lisa was living in Los Angeles when she met her husband, who was living in Papua New Guinea. They spent most of their dating relationship (and some
significant time since getting married) coping with long distance.

So thriving in relationship across the miles is possible, but it takes time, effort, and energy. Here are some ideas about how you can care for your relationship during and after separation.

  • Practice good self-care. A strong personal identity and good self-care and coping skills will stand you in
    good stead while you are apart.
  • Communicate about the reasons for the separation. It will help tremendously if both partners agree that it’s a good idea (or at least necessary).
  • For extended separations consider pursuing common interests (such as reading the same book) that can help give you things to talk about.
  • Pay attention to emotional reactions to your separation. Understanding that mood swings can be more common or severe may help you weather them without feeling as uncertain or threatened.
  • Find ways of communicating that work well for you while you’re apart. Ideally you should communicate often enough, for long enough, so that you both feel connected, but not so often that you feel pressured or resentful of the time and emotional energy involved. You will not always be able to find a balance
    that works equally well for both of you, and your ideal patterns may look completely different for short trips versus long ones. It can help to figure out what might work and manage expectations if you have discussed questions like:


    • How often would you like us to touch base while we’re apart?
    • How (e.g., email, phone conversation, text message, etc.)?
    • Do you like having quick contacts like text messages or three-line emails, or not?
    • Do you feel pressured or expected to have an in-depth discussion every time we talk?
    • What do you find more rewarding or enjoyable about communication when we’re apart?
    • What do you find most challenging about communication when we’re apart? (E.g., do you find
      you’re more emotional or lonely after talking to your partner than before? Do you communicate too much, or not enough? Do you often feel as if you have nothing to say, or that what you have to say
      is boring?)
    • Does communication always help you when we’re apart, or are there times when you feel it hurts more than it helps? Think of specific examples if you can. How does it help? How can it hurt?
  • Devote time to reconnecting and reestablishing intimacy upon reunion. This can take time and does not always come easily or naturally.

To think and discuss…

  • What are some of the things you value about time apart (the silver linings of separations)?
  • What are some things you really miss while you’re apart? When do you tend to miss your partner the most?
  • How do you care for your relationship when you’re apart?
  • What helps you feel connected to your partner when you’re apart?
  • Are your preferred communication patterns and needs the same or different for short-term trips versus longer separations?

Spotlight on extra resources:

Visit the Headington Institute’s module on Understanding and coping with travel stress. Look up the following on (this will also lead you to related books): The long-distance relationship survival guide, by C. Bell and K. Brauer Bell (2006).

© Headington Institute 2009