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Coping With Stress of Overseas Marriage

November 10, 1986|HOWARD KIM | Kim lives in Los Angeles. and

Sharon and Larry Clark are both happily married though the Pomona couple have seen each other only three times in the past year.

Each time, it's been for about three weeks. Otherwise, they've kept in touch by letter, telephone and cassette tape--lots of them.

She calls often. He writes regularly with the mail taking weeks to reach home.

Still, they enjoy their life together--the little there is of it.

"It's like living a fairy tale. It has all the pluses of a fantasy," said Sharon Clark, 38, a Los Angeles schoolteacher.

But not all the time, she quickly conceded. When husband Larry leaves for work in the morning it's the middle of the night in Los Angeles and 10,000 miles away.

Larry Clark works for a large oil company in Saudi Arabia and has worked overseas for much of the past four years.

The distance that separates them, they say, has both strained and strengthened their eight-year marriage and left little time for boredom.

Unique Demands

The Clarks are typical of thousands of American families separated by jobs that take one of them--usually the man--overseas. It is a life style that makes unique demands of a marriage, ironically drawing many close together while literally keeping them miles apart.

The U.S. Department of Labor does not know exactly how many Americans are employed overseas, but in recent years their numbers have diminished because of a shrinking foreign job market. Certain professions still command a significant presence, particularly in remote areas of the world where, for practical reasons, families are not permitted.

Higher take-home wages (salaries overseas are free of income taxes), a taste for travel and the chance to work in unusual locales continue to lure willing professionals in engineering, construction and health care.

But while one breadwinner is away, often up to six months, the other may be working a full-time job and running a household alone.

"The biggest problem is trying to run the family, to keep things going while he's away," said Patricia Pecorella, 36, a nurse from Upstate New York.

For the past five years husband Alan has worked in Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe and the Middle East. "I've been to so many places, my passport is running out of pages," joked the 37-year-old physician's assistant, who adds that for him jobs have always been easier to find overseas.

The couple have three children. And though they've traveled together on some assignments, separations of up to a year have been something they know well.

But, they say, it's never easy.

Loneliness and the absence of emotional support and physical affection are only part of the problem.

"It's the small stuff--paying bills, fixing leaky faucets, making minor day-to-day decisions," Patricia Pecorella said.

Having to face holidays without a family member and making up for a missing parent can also be trying.

Then there are the immediate effects, the time before and after the departure.

"It's terrible," said Sharon Clark, "Usually, the day before there are tears." And for many, heated words, as well.

'Deep Resentment'

"Typically, the departure ritual entails a lot of fighting," said Lt. Col. Chip Wood, an associate professor of behavioral science and leadership at the U.S. Air Force Academy. "The fighting usually involves not the issue of the quarrel but a deep resentment over being left."

Wood, who has researched the effects of occupational separation on military families, said that while there are big differences in civilian separations, many of the ensuing problems are similar.

But the fighting, as one psychologist views it, can be a healthy way to cope with the stresses of the situation. "It's far easier to say goodby with anger than with tears," said Patricia Cooney Nida, an Atlanta behavior consultant who is married to a career army officer. Having "a good goodby fight," she said, makes the temporary break-up seem final and complete for the moment.

There are also some positives buried amid the difficult circumstances.

In her husband's absence, Sharon Clark obtained a graduate degree in education, began a new career and managed to work two jobs. In her spare time she sees more friends and tends to be career and managed to work two jobs. In her spare time she sees more friends and tends to be more outgoing, she said, enjoying the free time and independence.

But it's not exactly like being single, she insisted. "It's still very much like being married. I have someone who I know cares very much about me. He's just not physically with me right now," she said.

Being the head of a household can have its rewards, too. Wives must--and usually do--become capable leaders and decision-makers, according to Nida.

They tend to be so good at it, in fact, that conflicts arise later on.

'A Funny Situation'

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