The top three issues in mining relationships … and how to overcome them

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

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 flies or drives in and out for work, 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.

1. Communication

DO:

  • 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.

DON'T:

  • Stick your head in the sand and hope problems will go away. Name the problems, work to solve them together.
  • Personally criticise 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 9-5, so don't expect them when one partner is away.
  • Allow FIFO or DIDO 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 tea, 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 he's home; the away partner annoyed with how often the partner at home is going out; or how much time she spends with her family when he's at home. 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.

DO:

  • 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 in R&R time.
  • Be clear about who is responsible for which jobs. Allocate task by roster or list. It sounds very 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 in R&R time.
  • 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.

DON'T:

  • If you're the 'home' person, don't try to squeeze everything into the time your partner is away. Young male FIFO workers tell me they feel under pressure when they're home ... their partner has often squeezed everything else in her life into the time he's been away, so she can be available for him every minute he's home. 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 and DIDO. 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.

DO:

  • Stay connected when one of you is away for work. This could take the form of raunchy text messages or phone calls if you're comfortable with that, or little gifts or notes left for each other.
  • Think about your partner while he's away (or while you're away...). 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.

DON'T:

  • 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/DIDO 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/DIDO couple you can always start fresh next time round! I think mining couples actually find it easier than most to break bad sex cycles.

There are my tips for keeping your relationship healthy and happy. Good luck!

Previous columns by psychologist Angie Willcocks


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 www.angiewillcocks.com.