Sex and the FIFO couple: are you making excuses?
By psychologist Angie Willcocks
I recently received a question about sex in the FIFO relationship, with the gist being: “My husband works on a FIFO roster and whenever he is back he wants more sex than I do. We argue about it because I’m too tired from being so busy while he’s away. How can I get him to understand that I am just not in the mood?”
I’ve decided to write about this topic for Mining Family Matters because I’m sure that many of you face the same issue – not only because of the FIFO lifestyle but also because differing libidos is a big issue in almost all long-term committed relationships.
It is true that FIFO couples face the same stresses as other couples, with a few extras added in. A less-than-satisfactory sex life is not an inevitable consequence of this stressful lifestyle, but a FIFO roster makes for a pretty good excuse as to why things are not going so well in the bedroom! Why? Because the constant separations mean that an extra amount of courage is required by both partners to foster a truly intimate connection in the bedroom and beyond.
From a FIFO relationship point of view, it seems to me that the main challenge is maintaining a well-connected and close intimate relationship when separation is always just around the corner. And the main risk of the FIFO lifestyle is a barely adequate sexual relationship where partners ‘go through the motions’, while always keeping their guard up slightly, knowing that separation is close at hand. (Or perhaps one or both partners pulling away from an intimate sexual relationship because such closeness makes the frequent separations even more emotionally difficult.) It is hard enough to show vulnerability in any relationship, to be fully honest with your partner about your sexual needs and desires. This must especially be the case when separation is always looming.
Coming back to the question: it might be helpful for me to start by stressing that it is entirely normal for couples in long-term, committed relationships to have hiccups in their sexual relationships. These hiccups don’t necessarily mean that anything is wrong. I wouldn’t mind betting that the man in this particular partnership would always be the one with the higher libido, regardless of their work arrangements.
FIFO provides a ready excuse, but it is much more useful to take a closer look at what is really going on in the relationship than blaming a lifestyle that is not likely to change in the short term (I assume).
The larger the discrepancy in libidos, the bigger the issue will seem and the more complex the ‘sex problem’ will become. Of course, the reverse is also true – if both partners have similar libidos the impact of the occasional mismatch on the overall relationship will be minimal. For example, if one partner wants to have sex once a week and the other twice a week they will generally find a middle ground relatively easily, without needing to resort to ‘mind games’. However, where one partner wants sex daily and the other wants sex monthly, the ‘sex problem’ will grow. Over time, it is likely to result in, or at least contribute to, wider relationship difficulties.
Where sex is a significant issue in a relationship, each partner unwittingly starts paying a lot of attention to the other’s sexual mood. Each looks for signs to indicate whether or not the other is ‘in the mood’ and the lower libido partner feels the need to send frequent signals that “I am definitely not in the mood”.
The greater the difference between libidos the more pronounced (and problematic) these ways of relating become. Take the question above, for example. Now I’m pretty sure that the lady’s partner would understand loud and clear that she’s “just not in the mood”. That’s not the problem. The problem is that her being “just not being the mood” is the problem for him. He could equally write to me and ask, “How can I get her to understand that I want more sex”?
Communication is not the problem here; in fact each is communicating their preference very clearly. The problem is the cycle they have got into (and I have to say it is a very common one).
It goes something like this: let’s say the woman in the relationship is the lower desire partner, and the male the higher desire partner. The lower desire partner learns from experience that any sign of affection may be misinterpreted as a sign that she is ‘in the mood’. As a result, she makes it her daily business to send her higher desire partner the message that she is not in the mood in various ways: She may:
- Become less physically affectionate – a quick peck on the cheek hello replaces a close and more intimate hug,
- Go to bed earlier (or later) than her partner to avoid sex (and sometimes even pretend she is asleep)
- Make an effort to look as unattractive as possible in bed (think old PJs and bed socks in the early stages but this can unwittingly lead to poor eating and stopping exercise)
- Stay as far away (and as still as possible) from her partner in bed,
- Make loud noises around bedtime about how tired and busy she is.
The result of this behaviour is less intimacy in the whole relationship. Not only does the higher desire partner miss out on sexual intercourse; both partners miss out on physical affection, touch and intimate connection.
Over time, both partners feel less desirable and attractive and less satisfied with their physical relationship – not just the partner with the higher libido. A cycle like this can be tricky to break as well, because one partner feels so deprived of sex that any change in the other’s behaviour (such as becoming more affectionate) is likely to be (mis)interpreted as a sign that they want to have sex.
This partner is then likely to immediately initiate sex, thereby proving to the lower libido partner that they really are only interested in one thing! Changing these cycles and improving the overall affection and intimacy in a relationship requires the commitment of both partners to do things differently.
Doing things differently within a FIFO relationship may take a bit of extra courage, because the looming separation. But on the positive side, time away can be great for reflection and great to start ‘fresh’ the next time your partner is home. It might even be that the cycle is easier to see and easier to break, especially if talked about beforehand (over the phone might work better for some).
- Have a think about separations over the course of your life. It is true that those of us with more painful and more frequent separations will be more likely to be emotionally sensitive to goodbyes and may more prone to ‘having a guard up’ to try to emotionally protect us from the pain of separation. You might think that frequent separations from loved ones as a child, for example, might make you ‘used to’ separations and goodbyes, but in fact this isn’t the case. If anything you might be even more emotionally sensitive to them (and perhaps more guarded when your partner is home). If you think this might be an issue for you, the answer could be to dig deep to find the courage to connect fully when your partner is with you and to find ways to keep feeling connected when your partner is not with you.
- “I’m too tired” or “I’m too busy” can be code for “I don’t want to feel close to you, only to lose that feeling again”. It is vitally important to sustain the connection even when away from each other. I have written about the importance of this for children, but adults also need to find ways to feel connected when apart.
- How you feel about yourself, your partner and your relationship will impact on both desire and sexual satisfaction. Stress, worry and resentment can feed into low desire. Be clear about these if they are issues for you, and work to resolve them outside of the bedroom. Working out what you are angry or resentful about (and then resolving this if possible) means that you don’t have to withhold intimacy to make your partner realise that you are upset or angry.
- Break your ‘sex cycles’ and talk openly with your partner about this. If you usually wait for your partner to initiate sex, you do it next time. If you and your partner are in the habit of the common cycle outlined above, talk about it and change it – the higher libido partner has to agree to wait for the other to initiate sex and accept that physical contact may be hugs and closeness without sex for some time, and the lower libido partner has to agree to initiate sex at some point (not too long or the cycle will begin again).
- Work at keeping the sexual relationship alive even when you are apart. Couples who do it well tell each other that they are thinking of each other, they may have ‘phone sex’, send suggestive text messages and think of themselves as sexual beings even though their partner is away (see next tip).
- Re-charge your own sexual batteries while your partner is away: read erotic fiction, think about sex with your partner and let them know what you have been thinking about. Engage in an activity that makes you feel good about yourself. Build your own self esteem.
Think about whether sex and intimacy are important for you in your relationship and have an open and honest conversation about your satisfaction with your sex life. Conversations like these, even if they are not 100% positive, can actually build intimacy in a relationship.
“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the last test and proof; the work for which all other work is preparation.” – RILKE
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.