Making time work in busy relationships

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I've had a few questions lately about FIFO and time prioritisation in relationships. Disagreements about how each partner spends his or her time heat up in FIFO relationships because there is less time to go around.

Mostly these disagreements revolve around how each person's time is spent when the partner who works away is home. Should this time be spent just with the family? What about friends? Is the stay-at-home partner expected to 'drop everything' when the away partner is home and say no to social engagements they would like to attend?

I suspect that any couple's arguments about how time is spent come from differing ideas on what is important … and of course from lack of communication! The result of ongoing disagreements is dissatisfaction with the relationship and feelings of resentment, anger, disappointment and frustration.

I have a solution! Firstly look at how you are spending your own time. A good rule of thumb for relationships is to think about what you want the other person to do, and then do it yourself first (a bit like Gandhi’s "be the change you want to see"). So if you want your partner to take a long hard look at how he is spending his time, you do it first.

Start by doing a review of your own life.

Here's how:

Have a think about different areas of your life and rate the importance and satisfaction in that area. The ratings are out of 5, with 1 being not at all important/satisfied and 5 being very important/satisfied

Here's an example for the area of work/career.

How important is your work/career to you? Remember that 1 indicates not at all important and 5 indicates very important.

1          2          3          4          5   

(circle the appropriate number)

Next have a think about how satisfied you are in that area of your life, with 1 indicating very dissatisfied and 5 indicating very satisfied.

1          2          3          4          5   

(circle the appropriate number)

Do your ratings match? It's great if importance and satisfaction are both at the 5 end of the scale. It's not so good if importance is high and satisfaction is low.

Repeat this exercise for the following areas:

  • Intimate relationships
  • Parenting
  • Friendships/socialising
  • Education/learning
  • Family of Origin (this means parents/siblings etc)
  • Finances
  • Health
  • Spirituality/religion
  • Fitness/sports
  • Community life (volunteering etc.)

Are there some areas of your life where the importance is high but satisfaction is low? Ask yourself "what would it take to move my level of satisfaction up one number?" (from 3 to 4, for example).

When you have completed this task, ask your partner to do the same. Have a look at each other's sheets.

As well as being a great thing to do individually, this exercise is really good for couples because it can:

  • highlight shared goals,
  • shed some light on why arguments may be happening, and
  • open up communication about each person’s struggle to balance all the things in life that are important to them.

Don't worry if you and your partner don't place the same importance in each of the areas - it would be unusual for couples to totally agree on this and total agreement is not necessary for a successful partnership. However, having a look at the areas you and your partner differ is a useful exercise because it might shed some light on why disagreements keep happening.  It's hard to be OK with how your partner is spending his time if you don't think what he's doing is important. For example, if family of origin is 'not at all important’ to you, you're likely to feel annoyed if your partner spends hours on the phone to his family. This may become an area of contention for you. If you were to realise that family of origin is ‘very important’ to your partner you might be able to have a quiet word with yourself when he is next on the phone to his family, reminding yourself of how important this area of life is to him.

Successful couples respect each other's goals and priorities and support each other to do better in the areas that are important to each of them. This is not always easy. Priorities may compete and time may be limited. Compromise from both of you becomes important.

This exercise is not a quick fix, but is intended to get you thinking and you and your partner talking. You might not always like the answers you get, but at the very least you might get some insight into why those disagreements about how time is spent keep happening!  

It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?
Henry David Thoreau

Previous columns by psychologist Angie Willcocks

Please click here to ask Angie a question, or to offer any comments or ideas for topics that you think might benefit mining families.


To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.