The Hill Life: Dispatches from the Trail

Oct 24, 2012

Dear Belle,

I’m a big fan of your blog–I’ve been reading it for over two years now, ever since I started working in DC. Though I work in the nonprofit sector, I’ve always appreciated your posts on Hill life because my boyfriend is very interested in that career path. 

I was hoping you could speak a little about life on the campaign trail, because that’s where he is right now. And man, I’m starting to feel like a widow over here. We’ve been together two years, and all I’ve gotten in the past three weeks are superficial gchat messages and about an hour total of phonetime. He tells me he’s too busy or tired to talk. I understand, but I feel like he can spare 15 minutes before sleep to at least say hi over the phone. Maybe not everyday, but many of them?

I know you’ve worked on campaigns before. Am I being unreasonable? I supported him doing this but now I feel like I’ve been forgotten. I need a reality check!

Thank you for your consideration,

When you’re working on a campaign, particularly as a grassroots or field staffer, there are many busy days that start at dawn and end long after the sun has gone to bed.  You’re on your feet all the time, you don’t remember when the last time you ate was and your Blackberry is constantly blowing up with tasks that need to be done yesterday. And the stress level is usually a bouncing ten, especially the closer you get to Election Day.

Plus, as a junior member of the staff, you have all of your work to do–herding volunteers, making calls, coordinating lit drops–and then, all of the work your superiors give you.  So you basically do two jobs, neither of which has banker’s hours.

That being said, all campaigns operate on a kind of shared mindset (delusion?):  You leave the office while other staffers are still working, even if you have no work to do and no one else has any for you to do, and either a) the world will completely fall apart in your absence or b) everyone will notice that you’re gone and think that you’re slacking/unnecessary.  

I’ve seen campaign staffers sit in their offices for hours playing Farmville because the press guy is still burning the midnight oil and they don’t want to admit that they’re not hard at work too.  I’ve heard staffers badmouth the finance guy for going home at 8:00PM, even though the only thing they’ve done since he left is drink beer and shoot the breeze.  It’s the campaign trail equivalent of peer pressure; you leave, you stop working (or “working” as the case may be), you’re a traitor.

To sum up, your boyfriend probably is very busy, especially if he’s new to the campaign trail.  But you also need to remember that as a campaign worker, he lives in a sort of alternate universe where the stress of the collective weighs heavily on every staffer and the party line is “be/look busy or be thought of as useless.” 

So here’s my advice, you only have 13 days until Election Day, tough it out.  No need to stop to upset the apple cart so close to E-Day.  When he gets back give him a couple of weeks to decompress and then talk to him about it. Once he steps out of the campaign Borg Cube and gets some perspective on his experience, you’ll be able to talk about how his behavior made you feel and how you can both do better in the future.  

If you try to talk to him about it now, while he’s deep in the campaign experience, he won’t be able to hear you or respond with anything but a treatise on how you don’t understand what he’s going through.  Because, truth be told, you don’t and he won’t either until it’s over.  

Campaigning doesn’t leave you with a lot of time/energy for self-reflection.

Politics isn’t a career, it’s a lifestyle choice.  You’re signing up for long hours and high stress for as long as you can hack it.  But too many budding politicos get sucked into the same selfish illusion: That our work is so important that it must be placed above everything else.  This group-think is often reinforced by more senior staffers and bosses because you could never get someone to work a 90-hour week doing menial labor for 25k per year if they didn’t believe that their job was a grail quest ordained by God himself.  

All staffers need to learn to see the forest for the trees so that we don’t burn out or become emotionally stunted adult-children.  Having a relationship, esp. if you’re a politico, is all about give and take.  But one partner can’t expect the other to be understanding about the pressures of the life, if they’re not making a concerted effort to carve out time for their loved ones as well.

Let me leave you with one final thought from a dear friend who has the most important/time consuming political job I can think of: Everyone is busy, that’s no excuse.  If something is important to you, you’ll make the time.

Ask The Edit, Style

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  1. GoGoGo says:

    Lara–Hang in there! Your BF's lucky to have ya. Everyone's offered some really insightful comments. I'm glad they've been helpful. A few more campaign memories from the peanut gallery…

    I’ve totally been the wandering campaign girlfriend a few times now. I think Belle’s take is really sound. Tunnel vision sets in in a big way, and little political ups and downs become seismic events. If you’re up for going into Super-Girlfriend mode despite your frustration, finding ways to share the tunnel vision is awesome.

    I remember it would absolutely make my day when my boyfriend started following the race online. I can't tell you how floored I'd be to see a little unprompted email saying “I just saw what that reporter said about your guy—that’s hilarious!”It would make me feel like we were in this crazy experience together.

    It also probably made me a better conversationalist when we did talk. Poor boyfriend–I totally remember taking up limited phone time with lengthy anecdotes that started with, “Omg, you’ll never guess what this reporter said today!” (Really, subconsciously what I was trying to communicate was, “This whole experience is bizarre and exciting and I want to share it with you! Maybe if I explain all the tiny details of it, you’ll understand why I care so much!”) But, if we’d already had that little gossippy exchange earlier, we could skip that step. His thoughtfulness was a good kick in the pants that reminded me to start with “So, tell me about YOUR day!”

    Right before bed wasn't always the best time for long chats. I'd usually get some air and chat around 9pm. (9 is generally the transition time when the phone banks shut down and the volunteers go home.) Sunday mornings, too.

    We did do some cutesy couple stuff. While I was manning the phone bank at night, I'd put a Flickr slideshow on one corner of my screen of some cool place in the world, and we'd gchat about fantasy travel plans. When I'd come home too wiped for anything but pjs and Hulu, I'd still tell him what Office episode I'd be watching and then we'd sort of watch that together if he could. I think we skyped through a movie one night.

    Mostly, though, the main thing was that the end date was in sight. In my case the DC routine has not turned into a 24/7 lifestyle, though that's probably not uncommon. (Sounds like you had an especially crappy experience, AD. Sorry to hear it!) Hopefully, all the priorities will reset again in 12 days. Best to you both!

  2. marking time says:

    While your boyfriend is out on a campaign you should take the opportunity to connect with girlfriends (and heck, guy friends) you don't get to see enough when your significant other is in town. As someone who has worked in politics and has a significant other who is also out on the trail quite often you need to learn to accept the time commitment and the fact that they wont be around to talk for 15 minutes on some days or most days, to be quite honest.

    Think of this as a time to learn about your interests and hobbies; it's rare that we're given opportunities for our relationships to become suspended in time.

  3. gg says:

    Not quite the same thing, but my husband and I are both lawyers. I am no longer in private practice but he is. When we were both constantly swamped and even now that only one of us is pulling the 100+ hour weeks we found that texting is really helpful. I know it seems like it's for 13 year old tweens, but it's a quick and easy way to stay in touch through the day. And you don't have to majorly interrupt what you're doing in order to get in a quick, “how are you,” or “you won't believe what just happened.”

  4. Jamie says:

    I also absolutely recommend texting. I know it's not the same thing but my boyfriend and I are in a long distance relationship and texting makes it much easier. We text each other funny anecdotes from our day and it doesn't interrupt what you're doing but shows the other person you're thinking of them even if you can't really talk right then.

  5. Ellen says:

    I second the last remark by Belle…. My (now) husband and I were long distance (different states) until after we were engaged. We both had very time consuming jobs that required many 7 day a week work weeks with 12+ hour days but we still saw each other every week, if not multiple times a week, for the most part. He always said you make work what you want to make work.

  6. Kate says:

    My boyfriend is working a campaign at the moment as well, and I agree re: quick notes to each other, whether via text or gchat (ps. i love the ability to text in gchat so i can be 'chatting' with my bf while he's out an event without being that person texting all day in the office!) On those busy days when he can't really talk, i send little messages that don't really require a response (ie. hope your event is going well/i love you) so that he can shoot a similar text or chat back quickly when he has a free minute. We also make time to video chat at the end of every day, even though now it's usually just two minutes to say goodnight at the end of a long day!

  7. CynthiaW says:

    You also didn't say if this is his first campaign, but it sounds like it is. It's super-easy to get caught up in the first one and completely lose perspective (even moreso than in subsequent campaigns). I agree with Belle that you just need to let it go for now and definitely reconnect with girlfriends, hobbies, etc. – I'd wait for a few weeks after he was back to broach the topic about future campaigns as well. And you're really going to have to work hard to keep the conversation non-accusatory and non-confrontational or it won't go well.

    I've worked several campaigns with varying degrees of successfully merging it with my personal life – it is possible, and it gets easier with time, but there are always going to be times when you just don't want to deal with one more demand on your time, so it's nice to have an understanding significant other. Even during the campaigns that I've done the best at keeping my real-life on track, the last 2 weeks were crazy and the other person in my life just had to accept that and move on. To be fair, I'm pretty accepting when the other person has a big project going on and can't chat.

    It's definitely a balancing act and a supporting partner does make a big difference – my husband was super-supportive of me during the last campaign that I worked, but I worked on it for 18 months and the last 6 months, in particular, were CRAZY. As a consequence, we both agreed that I'd sit this election out and only do minor volunteer stuff. Of course, I don't work on the Hill, so that might not be an option for your boyfriend.

  8. J says:

    I have realized that the common denominator among almost every successful relationship I see is a certain level of texting. What is it about texting?! I don't know, but if my boyfriend is texting me regularly, I somehow feel more loved and secure.

  9. AD says:

    Hi Lara,

    This will very likely last beyond the campaign. Especially if the candidate wins and your BF is awarded a medium to high-level staff position. The long hours, blackberry obsession, peer pressure, delusion/group think, work work work work work work work will NOT end. Like Belle says, if's a lifestyle choice. You need to take a serious look at things now, and decide whether or not you can handle having a boyfriend/husband/father of your children who is perpetually absent, burnt-out, unattentive, always busier than you and clearly doing something way more important than you. UNLESS – and there is always an unless. UNLESS he wakes up, smells the coffee and realizes that you are more important than pleasing his boss.

    Sad Ex-Girlfriend to a Communications Director Did Not Smell Aforementioned Coffee

  10. Colleen says:

    My husband worked a House race in 2010, and is consulting for a Senate race this cycle. In 2010 he was in Michigan while I was still in DC. Now, we're both in Michigan yet his schedule is so crazy that it feels like we're long-distance again.

    Two things help me: texting and knowing there is an end date to campaign madnes. Texting really keeps us connected. Since everyone else in the campaign office is glued to their Blackberries and iPhones, it doesn't look out of place for him to be on his as well.

    The 2010 campaign ended up being the best thing that happened in our relationship. It was painful as hell during it – it was his first campaign and there were a lot of hurt feelings and frustration on both sides. Yet, it also forced us to confront what we as individuals and as a couple wanted out of life. It helped us prepare better for this cycle and actually helped us communicate better with each other in all aspects of our relationship.

    Belle's advice about waiting to have a conversation until after the election is spot-on. Nothing productive will come from having it now. Until then, take the time you have to do whatever it is that you enjoy. Only 13 more days (not that I'm counting or anything…)

  11. Lara says:

    Hi everyone,

    Thanks so much to Belle and to everyone else who has commented! It is very helpful to hear from people who have gone through this. I will keep my chin up until the campaign is over and then have a talk. It is good to know that this is a common experience. It's a first time for both of us.


  12. Anonymous says:

    For Lara:

    Sorry to be posting a little late. I think Belle gave some good advice about riding this season out until after the election. It sounds as if this is his first campaign season as well as yours. After the decompression, you can both look back together to see what worked, what didn't work after one full and fair cycle. I think that's important, for both perspectives. Hopefully this discussion will give you both the understanding of the other perspective in order to make any adjustments necessary. I think it's challenging, on both sides. Neither is right or wrong. It's really about time management.

    At the end of the day, though, Belle's last statement is right. This is right on the money. “Everyone is busy, that's no excuse. If something is important to you, you'll make the time.” When my BF and I had to do LDR and he has the busiest schedule of anyone I know, he always made time for me. I was amazed and impressed.

    Good luck!

  13. Anon says:

    Breathe, Lara! And read “All's Fair” by Carville and Matalin. It will be alright, and Belle's advice is spot-on.

  14. gingerr says:

    As the wife of a Road Warrior I've found that you either enjoy the times SO is away from home or your don't. It's a time for friends, family, alone time, doing exactly what you want without regard to what someone else wants to do.

    Traveling spouses do tend to persist. When I met my SO he traveled for his Systems Analyst job. After we were married he moved onto a different career, but still said “yes” to travel opportunitites. It's a personality trait.

  15. Sarah says:

    I am currently experiencing the same thing. My boyfriend of nearly two years has been in Ohio since January on the campaign trail. It has been VERY hard for me to deal with. However, we knew it wouldn't be easy before he left and he made me promise to tell him when something was wrong. I'll fully admit that I've gone on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication and gotten a therapist to deal with my depression, anxiety and insecurities. My friends have been great, but it is still hard. My boyfriend always listens when I tell him how forgotten and unwanted I feel. I understand how busy he is, but it still sucks when I don't hear from him for long periods of time. We try to talk twice a day. Now that it is down to the wire he is even busier than before. Just keep yourself occupied and remind yourself that it is A) it's almost over, B) if he is making any effort to connect with you, you're probably always on his mind and he's calling as much as he can. Good luck!

  16. GoGoGo says:

    Boy. Now I want to make everyone who's planning on going out on the road read this thread!

    If you're on a campaign right now, and you're reading this at work, go call your significant other instead!

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