Flying Miners: communication lessons for FIFO couples

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

I’ve been watching the ABCTV’s Flying Miners with interest over the past few weeks. One of the comments I’ve noticed a lot throughout the series is that 'good communication' is the key to making relationships work when one partner works away. In fact, we often hear that good communication is a vital part of all healthy relationships.

This seems like common sense and I agree with it. However, in my experience most people don’t have a good understanding of what good communication means and even less idea on how to do it.

Most people will say that good communication is the ability to speak up clearly about something that’s upsetting them.  Others say it’s about ‘talking openly’, or ‘being able to discuss things’. While all this is true, what’s often missed is that good communication is about being able to listen as much as it’s about being able to talk. Communication between two people involves both the sender (the person talking) and the receiver (the person listening) and mis-communication happens at both ends of this process.

Couples can find themselves stuck in negative patterns where they keep having the same arguments with no resolution. Other couples avoid talking about difficult subjects altogether in an attempt to avoid conflict, because they’ve learnt over time that avoiding the tricky topics is better than arguments that go nowhere. Over time, relationship satisfaction can be dramatically lowered.

Communication and working away

Avoiding difficult conversations is a common pattern in couples where one person works away, because the cycle of coming and going leaves little space for talking about hard subjects if they won’t be resolved. When is the best time to raise a difficult issue if your partner works away (or indeed if you work away)? I’m often asked this question.

I hear lots of reasons why it’s not wise to bring it up when your partner has just arrived home from a swing, and why you don’t want to raise it in the middle of R&R when things are ticking along nicely. But you certainly don’t want to raise this hairy subject in the few days before he/she goes back … then again, it’s never a good idea to raise difficult subjects when your partner is away at work, is it?

So when is the best time? Well, the reality is that this sort of problem is only ever an issue when the couple has difficulties with communication anyway. Couples with good communication patterns find a way to raise and resolve difficult topics even when one of them works away.

The good news is that learning new skills in communication is entirely possible. Ideally, both you and your partner will work on this together. Remember, all interactions involve a sender of information and a receiver of information. There are specific skills to learn (and practice) in each of these.

'Sending' information

Here are some tips if you’re the one raising the issue (the sender of the information):

  • Be as clear as possible about the issue that you want to raise, and what you want to say. Writing down your thoughts beforehand can help you clarify what’s going on for you.
  • Try to use ‘I’ statements when you’re talking to your partner, and keep ‘you’ statements to a minimum.
  • Focus your attention on your thoughts and feelings about what has happened, not just the event. For example, “I felt let down and sad when you didn’t call, and I thought you must have forgotten about my job interview”.
  • Keep the conversation to one issue at a time. Resist the temptation to raise every issue just because you have your partner’s attention.
  • On a similar note, resist the urge to generalise problems. For example, avoid statements like “you always..” or “you never..”.
  • Try hard to keep your tone and body language open and calm. Sitting down can help with this, as can taking some deep breaths before the conversation. Also try lowering your shoulders and gently wiggling your fingers and toes as you’re talking. These actions can help you stay in the present moment.

'Receiving' information 

Here are some tips if you’re the one listening (the receiver of the information):

  • Listen to understand, not to reply. This is the number one tip because it is the most important. Listen with the intention of knowing your partner better, not of defending yourself or being right!
  • Following on from this, watch your tendency for defensiveness. Defensiveness is a natural human reaction to being attacked, but you need to bear in mind that you’re not being attacked.
  • Try hard to keep your tone and body language open and calm. Sitting down can help with this, as can taking some deep breaths before the conversation. Also try lowering your shoulders and gently wiggling your fingers and toes as you’re talking. These actions can help you stay in the present moment.
  • Be available. Give your partner the time and space to talk to you.
  • Resist the urge to be right. The ‘facts’ rarely matter in an argument with a loved one.
  • It’s OK to take some time out if what your partner is saying is too difficult for you to hear. If you’re too overwhelmed with emotion to continue the conversation, just let your partner know you need a break and then come back in a few minutes (make sure you do come back!).

Other handy tips

And here are some general tips for both of you:

  • Be patient with each other as you’re learning new skills. Your partner won’t always get it right, especially in the beginning. Don’t give up if he or she doesn’t get it right straight away.
  • Make a point of knowing your own thoughts and feelings because it’s much easier to communicate this stuff if you know what it is! If this is tricky for you, get some professional help.
  • Practice relaxation and stress reduction in your own life.
  • Look after yourself physically and emotionally.
  • Some FIFO couples have a set time that they can raise any issues. This can work well especially while you’re both learning new skills.
  • Use emails, texts, letters and notes as part of your communication. I know this is frowned upon by some, but I think any or all of these can contribute positively to communication, especially in FIFO relationships.
  • Be willing to get over hurts and move on. Let past stuff stay in the past. If you have serious issues around being let down or betrayed, or either one of you has a lot of resentment, try relationship counselling.
  • Sulking and not talking are not part of a healthy adult relationship. If you want your partner to know that you’re annoyed with them, use your words.
  • Let go of the idea that one of you is right and the other is wrong. Arguments are never, EVER solved like this!

On a final note, it’s important to know that good communication often doesn’t feel good, at least in the short term. It’s often stressful, confronting and upsetting to raise issues, and perhaps even more so to hear them. This is why so many individuals and couples shy away from talking about the tough topics.

However, it’s worth learning and practicing the skills because, over time, good communication really does contribute to a closer and more loving connection with your partner.

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.

To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. 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.

Angie Willcocks is a registered psychologist with a private practice in Adelaide – for details about Skype consultations please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. She’s an expert in tackling issues such as depression, anxiety, postnatal depression, child sleep routines and relationship difficulties. She has a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Psychology and a Masters of Counselling Psychology. She is also the co-author of The Sensible Sleep Solution: a guide to sleep in your baby’s first year, which can be ordered from her website