By Angie Willcocks, Mining Family Matters psychologist
There's no such thing as a perfect couple or a perfect relationship. All relationships have ups and downs, and in relationships where one partner works fly-in, fly-out (FIFO), the ups and downs can feel extreme. I know that many FIFO couples love the buzz of seeing each other again after time apart. I've heard many couples say that the high of the re-connection makes it all worthwhile. There's no doubt in my mind that couples like these, who actually enjoy FIFO and all it brings, are those who understand how to manage the tricky parts of the lifestyle. So what are those tricky issues to negotiate? Well, in my opinion they are: communication, how time is spent and sex. I've compiled this list of do's and don'ts from conversations with couples who love FIFO, as well as those who struggle with it.
- Know your hot topics. What are you likely to argue or disagree about? Get a plan on how to deal with this properly so you can stop going over the same old ground. For example, if you find yourselves constantly arguing about how to discipline the kids, come up with a discipline plan.
- Try different ways of staying connected when one partner is away. Notes, letters, texts, phone and video calls all have you feeling closer.
- Try to work as a team even when your partner is away for work. Frequently use the term "we" in conversations. For example, "What shall WE do" ... about whatever the problem is (rather than "what are YOU going to do about it" or "what do you want ME to do about it").
- Know yourself - notice your own thoughts and feelings and monitor your own behaviour within the relationship.
- Regularly check in with each other about how the lifestyle is going.
- Stick your head in the sand and hope problems will go away. Name the problems, work to solve them together.
- Personally criticize each other. Ever. It's fine to complain about a behaviour you're not keen on ("I really don't like it when you leave your work gear in the hallway"), but not "You’re such a lazy slob".
- Expect deep and meaningful conversations every day. You wouldn't have them if you both worked in a 9-5 office job, so don't expect them when one partner is away.
- Allow FIFO to be an excuse for bad relationship habits. 'Side effects' of FIFO, like fatigue, can lead to bad habits if you're not careful.
- And finally, remember that good communication does not mean endless talking about all your problems or difficulties. Good communication is a daily task in a relationship: little things like saying thank you, making a cup of coffee, remembering to ask how things are for your partner and being aware of your own relationship behaviours.
2. How time is spent
Lots of FIFO couples argue about how each person spends their time. There are many variations on this: the home partner getting annoyed with how shift change is spent; or how much time is (not) spent with family when they’re home; the away partner annoyed with how often the partner at home is going out; or how much time they all spend with extended family. There is no 'one size fits all' answer to this, but it's worth remembering that arguments about how time is spent usually come down to differing priorities.
- Talk about priorities and areas of importance. You might not share your partner's priorities and motivations around how time is spent, but when you hear about what is important to them, you might start to understand their reasons for spending their time the way they do. For example, you might rate your family higher than friends in how you want to spend your time, but this doesn't mean your partner will. Understanding each other's time priorities can lead to respectful compromises.
- Agree on a realistic list of jobs/tasks that need doing while the 'away' partner is home.
- Let your partner know one or two fun/relaxing things you'd like to do when you’re all together.
- Be clear about who is responsible for which jobs. Allocate tasks by roster or list. It sounds regimented, I know, but it saves a lot of arguments.
- Build a support network of family, friends or paid help.
- Plan on spending some time doing things separately when you’re together.
- If you're the 'away' person, make sure you keep in contact with friends and family while you're away - it will ease the pressure to see everyone and 'catch up' every time you're home. Try to keep important connections continuous.
- If you're the 'home' person, don't try to cram everything into the time your partner is away. Young FIFO workers tell me they feel under pressure when they're home ... their partner has often squeezed everything else in his/her life into that rostered time away, so they can be available 24/7 when they’re together. It sounds lovely in theory, but it's a huge amount of pressure.
- Expect to always agree on how each other's time should be spent. The intensity of the time together can definitely add to the pressure for "everything to be perfect" but it won't be. There will be times when you disagree.
- Always do things just to please your partner (this goes for both the 'home' and 'away' person). While compromise is obviously a very important part of a healthy relationship, always giving in to your partner’s priorities isn't.
3. Sex and intimacy
It's an issue in many relationships, and sex and intimacy can definitely be affected by FIFO. The pressure to squeeze all the loving into a week or so, and differing libidos (common in all long-term relationships) can leave one or both partners feeling disappointed, dissatisfied and disconnected.
- Stay connected when one of you is away for work. This could take the form of sexy text messages or phone calls if you're comfortable with that, or little gifts or notes for each other.
- Think about your partner while you’re apart. Remember the things that first brought you together and what you love about them now.
- Work on breaking your 'sex cycles'. If you always wait for your partner to initiate sex, you do it next time. If you always initiate in a certain way at a certain time, try something different and unexpected.
- Discuss your satisfaction with your sex life in a respectful way.
- Understand each other's 'love language'. Some people feel most loved when their partner makes love to them, others feel loved when their partner hangs out the washing, and others still feel the love when their partner tells them how great they are. Gary Chapman has written an excellent book on the subject called The Five Love Languages – check it out.
- Emotionally disconnect from your partner when you're apart. I know this is a big ask. Some people protect themselves from feeling too lonely or sad by cutting off emotionally. While this can work OK in the short term, it's a habit that will add strain to a long-term FIFO relationship.
- Allow stress, worry and resentment into the bedroom. Work to resolve any problems outside of the bedroom (as much as possible).
- Withhold sex as a way to try to get your partner to understand your feelings. This is serious miscommunication. They won't understand the message and the lack of intimacy is likely to contribute to any problems you already have.
- Worry if your sex life is not perfect. As a FIFO couple, you can always start fresh next time round. I think mining couples actually find it easier than most to break bad sex cycles.
So, there are my tips for keeping your relationship healthy and happy. Good luck!
Mining Family Matters aims to break down the barriers of isolation and the stresses of living away from family and friends. Although this website provides general advice from a psychologist, the content should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. Always speak to your doctor or specialist provider for advice on a specific medical condition. If you are depressed and require urgent assistance, call 9-1-1 or visit the Canadian Mental Health Association website at www.cmha.ca.