Communication on the Home-front

Today’s Revisisted first appeared in Independence magazine, official publication of The Independent Pilots Association, Anniversary Issue, 1999. Though originally intended for a very particular audience, I believe the message fits a variety of marriages. It’s 20 years later, and I’m still married to the same pilot.

My husband got his first professional flying job just before we were married, and I’m thrilled to be married to a pilot. That said, it is also true that the spouse of a professional pilot faces a unique challenge due directly to the feast or famine aspect of the pilot’s presence at home. Marriage to a pilot requires a tricky balancing act of this Catch 22: 

1) Pilot marries someone strong and capable. My husband has to trust that whether he’s in Europe, Asia, or Pittsburgh, I’ve got things at home under control. If a child breaks an arm, if the car breaks down on the interstate, if the principal calls from school, Dean is secure with the fact that I can handle it and he can concentrate on flying. Someone asked him once what it was like to be over-seas while his family is back at home — if it worries him that he was so far away. Dean answered that he can’t let himself think about all the things that could happen when he’s gone or he wouldn’t be able to stand it. Not only does the pilot have to be confident in the spouse’s capabilities, but the spouse has to be confident as well. I know I can deal with life’s glitches — and feed the dog and keep the laundry done — and that becomes the tricky part because: 

2) Pilot needs to feel like a necessary part of the family when at home. Ah-ha. So now the strong capable spouse must yield some of the parenting and household duties to the prodigal spouse. If your house is like mine, your pilot spouse — while lovable — does things just a tad differently than you would. He obsesses over one tiny aspect, like door frames, when you’re trying to clean the whole house before your guests arrive. He plays with the kids outside so long that by the time they take their baths it’s too late to do homework. He tells you to bend your knees when you’re lifting the garbage can, and you’re thinking, “Hey, I did just fine last week when you were gone and now I don’t know what I’m doing?” 

If you’re looking for it, there’s always a big fight just around the corner, and that’s scary. I don’t have any professional advice, but from 12 years of experience we’ve learned that it helps just to acknowledge that this Catch 22 exists. When it seems like Dean is being critical of me or my way of doing things, I have to try to realize that he needs to have a stake in our family’s well-being. If I really did do it all, what would be his role? I know he loves flying, but what kind of life would it be if he just brought home the paycheck and watched us continue to go about our business? 

All this is not to say that the pilot-spouse’s actions are automatically excused and anything goes. But realizing what’s sometimes behind little criticisms allows the couple to step out of the fight and talk about where it really came from. We’ve all heard that many fights are not about the surface topic at all. When small matters start to bother Dean, I can continue to aggravate him since he’s making it so easy, or I can talk to him about what he didn’t get accomplished on his days off because of the weather. And it works both ways. I have to admit, my I-can-do-it-myself’ attitude can show its ugly face pretty quickly when I judge that Dean has said the wrong thing. That’s when Dean needs to make the decision to either respond angrily back or to pull us out of that scenario and recognize that I may be feeling overwhelmed with life’s details and losing confidence in my capabilities. Corny as it sounds, talking really does help. 

Being married to a pilot has had such a positive impact on me. When we were newlyweds I didn’t know I could even pump my own gas, let alone navigate new cities, initiate friendships with strangers and decide what does merit a child’s visit to the Emergency Room. I wouldn’t change Dean for the world, and although I believe that ultimately we’ll be a happily-ever-after story, to think we should have all the answers now and never fight again would leave us with a lot of years and nothing new to discover.