So. Husband away, though I am not playing. I am miserable. I am feeling the full ache of distance spanning thousands of kilometres and multiple time zones. So much a part of me, yet so far removed from where I am, I’m left wondering.
How does anyone in a long-distance love affair do it? Or, how does anyone in a relationship where you spend more time apart than together manage to manage the tyranny of distance? And, if you’re faced with this on a basis more permanent than the occasional international conference, should you seriously consider whether it’s all worth it?
One of my best mates is a fly-in fly out (FIFO) wife. They met, fell in love, and almost immediately he went to work in the middle of Queensland’s isolated lands of plenty. For years they made the most of time together. They travelled. They stuck it out. This year, they got hitched. And they’re one of the happiest couples I know. Their communication is open, they’re clear on the values they share, and they both know where they are going, together. Not something I might say about many other couples I know who see each other all the time.
Yet some of the literature on the FIFO life is unnerving. Beginning with widespread job dissatisfaction (one in five quit in the first few months according to preliminary research from Griffith University), there’s evidence of health risks associated with substance abuse and fatigue. Risks that affect you physiologically, and emotionally – relationship stress is a likely consequence.
Indeed, there are studies that demonstrate FIFO relationships suffer particular and unique stresses. According to this Sydney Morning Herald article (http://www.smh.com.au/small-business/blogs/work-in-progress/fifo-fifo-its-off-to-work-we-go-20130221-2euqb.html) last year, psychologists at Murdoch University found that while workers were happy with their rosters, their partners felt unsatisfied and stressed. Especially, I suppose, if there are children to care for.
Yet more and more people are in relationships that either directly or indirectly involve FIFO. What does this mean for Australian society? What does this mean for each couple’s happiness? The happiness of their children? What does it mean for our collective happiness as a society?
It’s not just my good mate who’s husband is away more often than he is home. Members of my family are in the same position, other friends of mine are in relationships that require a lot of individual travel. We’re a far more mobile society now than we have ever been. And in both directions – wives may travel as much as husbands. They may be the ones "coming home". What impact does this have on a world still dominated by conventional "she’ll keep the home fires burning" norms?
Interestingly, when I discuss the lifestyle with the women I know – particularly the fire-stoking faithful brides – they say there are many upsides to a long-distance love affair. They love, for instance, that they can have their own space. They love that when he comes home there’s a great emphasis on couple time. One woman, who has children, says she likes being able to take charge of their development without risking criticism. She has support from her mother and father, and integrates the dad as much as she can but, "it’s not just the primary care that’s mine, it’s the primary control as well".
"I sometimes prefer it when he’s away," another girlfriend says. "I have my own routine, he doesn’t disturb it, I’m not resentful of him disturbing it, and I really look forward to when he comes home. It’s like being single, with all the benefits of long-term love!"
Interesting. I contrast her experience with that of an older couple who’ve agreed to separate due to the toll their geographical separation was having on their love. They reported a loss of connectedness. Missing all the little daily things became a loss too big to bear. Much better, they reasoned, to be with your partner, and actually be with them.
But there’s criticism of this from one FIFO friend.
"If you’re not strong enough to go the distance, you’re doomed anyway."
Ouch! Is she right? I ask myself whether I could bear being away from the love of my life for regular, extended, periods. Short stints here and there are manageable now, and we joshed before his departure there’d come a time, years from now, when I might be glad of some well-timed spousal relief. But honestly, I don’t think I could do what so many couples do – I don’t think I could bear it.
Does that mean my relationship is weaker? Does that mean I am?
I don’t believe so. Do you?
As for how to deal with some of the pressures associated with love in absentia, Relationships Australia recommends "couples take time to understand their personal couple dynamics as well as their different approaches to parenting". They suggest creating a list of family rules, and involving the children in the decision-making process to promote feelings of inclusion and readiness for any changes.
That doesn’t really address some of the problems a couple without children might face, nor does it deal with the generally transient lifestyles led by so many these days. Nor does it confront the fact that so many of us are spending more time at our work than with our loved ones and family.
So I wonder, when it comes to love in a modern, mobile, over-time-loaded world, are we really heading in the right direction? And are we prepared to handle the consequences?
Katherine Feeney is a journalist with the Nine Network Australia.