Ten weeks ago, I waved goodbye to my husband as he started his journey towards Mt Everest. Yep. Mt Everest. For as long as I’ve known Ben (and for many years prior), travel and adventure have played a big role in his life.
After six years together, we’ve both grown accustomed to time apart – it’s become routine. But, that doesn’t mean having miles between us is always easy. Ben still gets a little home sick, and I worry that his dance with risk will end badly one day (I really shouldn’t have watched the movie Everest, damn it!).
Ultimately, though, we’ve discovered time apart doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be a special opportunity to carve out individual identities, nurture a healthy relationship and keep the love wildly alive.
So, whether you’re married to an adventurous jetsetter like me, in love with a FIFO worker, struggling with your partner’s deployments, living in a different city to your loved one, travelling regularly yourself or anything in between, here are some tips to help keep your long-distance relationship happy and healthy.
#1 GET YOUR COMMS PLAN SORTED
Before you temporarily part ways, discuss your preferred methods of communication as well as timing (how often and what time of day you’d like to connect – battling two time zones can get interesting!). I’m happy if Ben shoots me a Facebook message once every few days, but her loves to hear my voice, see my face and swap stories regularly. So, we meet somewhere in the middle and it keeps us both happy.
Confusion and conflicting expectations breed stress, so jump on the same page and allow some flexibility. Chat about potential challenges to your comms plan, such as a lack of internet access or busy schedules, to avoid disappointment. Be modest, be realistic and don’t keep score.
Here’s what Ben and I usually stick to:
> A daily goodnight and good morning message on Facebook, so we start and end each say knowing we’re thinking of each other.
> A Facetime chat once a week if we have access to decent internet, so we can see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices.
> During longer stints apart, we might send flowers or a care package. This gives us something to look forward to before we’re reunited.
> We send the odd selfie, video, voice memo or photo depicting our lives so we feel like we’re in each other’s worlds.
While Ben and I aren’t big gamers, we know couples who “go virtual” while they’re living apart and play interactive games such as Words With Friends. Not a bad idea.
#2 GET CRAFTY
Think outside of the box, unleash your inner romantic and create ways to “be with your partner” while you’re in two locations. Trading metaphorical “pieces of each other” will keep you both focused on the precious and incredible love you share.
Here are some of the things Ben and I have done for each other over the years:
> For Christmas time: I created an advent calendar in the form of a miniature suitcase. Each suitcase compartment revealed a cheesy message and funny toy to match – kind of like a Christmas bon-bon.
> For weddings: Ben ordered and constructed miniature cardboard box dolls, which he’d designed to look like us. We traded dolls the night before our wedding so we could still be together in spirit (Ben and I did the traditional thing and stayed apart before our big day).
> For nights alone: Ben wrote a love letter on one of this t-shirts and sewed it into a pillowcase so I could “hug him” in my sleep. It’s one of the best, most invaluable things I own.
> For adventurous trips: When Ben gets excited, he jumbles up his words (often in genius ways). He accidentally called me “waby” once (wife and baby), and the name stuck. Ben likes to carry a lucky mascot with him while he’s tackling wild escapades, so I made him a waby doll, with long black hair and a nose ring, so he could pin it to his backpack.
> For the bedroom: Ben created a hipster clothesline in our bedroom, mounting a web of twine over the bed and hanging dozens of photos using wooden pegs. While he’s away, I wake up and fall asleep each day to images of our wonderful life together and memories of our love.
> Little things: Ben pinned some heart-shaped lights around our bathroom mirror and bought me a music box, which plays, “You are my sunshine”.
As you can probably tell, my husband is ridiculously romantic and thoughtful. I’m a lucky girl.
#3 LISTEN & BE HEARD
When you’re in a long-distance relationship, dealing with mental separation can be harder than the physical side of things. To help bridge the gap, avoid bottling up your thoughts and emotions, even if you’re doing it to protect your partner. Be open and honest. Share the good, the bad and the ugly, and encourage your loved one to do the same.
There will be times when long-distance sucks and the only person who can make you feel better is the one you can’t be with. Let yourself be in that sucky moment. Share it with your partner and allow them to help you through it in the best way they can. Open communication will help keep you close in spirit and prevent mental molehills being turned into mountains.
On the flip side you can also establish “no go zones” – things you only talk about when you’re face-to-face. For Ben and me, discussions about the future get parked until we’re together.
#4 CONNECT WITH OTHERS
When you fall head over heels in love with someone, other important relationships often fall by the wayside and get less attention than they deserve. Being away from your partner opens up more time, which can be spent with other special people in your life. Hanging out with friends and family heals loneliness and negativity. Don’t be afraid to let people know you’re struggling with time alone and you need their company. Invite them to wrap you up in their lives and keep you busy.
It’s also worth linking up with others who are in the same situation as you, whether you’re the traveller or one who’s at home. While my husband was tackling the nine great walks of New Zealand with two mates, “the wives’ club” kept in touch online. Being able to share the experience with others halved the stress.
#5 DISCUSS WORSE CASE SCENARIOS
This might seem a bit glum, but it’s also a smart thing to do if you want to reduce the shock factor that comes with nasty surprises. Get real about risks and potential challenges, which may arise while you’re apart from each other. Ask the tough questions in advance. What happens if someone gets injured, ill or worse? What happens if you encounter financial troubles? What happens if a long-distance relationship stops working for one or both of you? What’s the best way to tackle these problems if they pop up? Considering the possibilities and preparing for them will help you avoid unforeseen stress.
#6 KEEP BUSY & RELISH THE FREEDOM
One of the keys to thriving while you’re on your own is to keep busy and fill the void with experiences that bring you joy. Having a newfound freedom to do your own thing can be completely invigorating. What dreams have been on the back burner for a while? Travel, volunteering, study, a new skill or hobby, a business plan…? The world is your oyster, so tuck in!
As strange as is sounds, having an active independent life will bring you and your partner closer together. Each time you connect, you’ll be buzzing with positive energy and brimming with new stories. In any relationship, long-distance or not, it’s important to give each other the freedom to be independent and true to yourself. Being apart only makes this process easier; it’s much harder to do when you’re living in each other’s pockets.
Distance allows you to learn to live – I mean really live – without each other. It also makes you realise how wonderful you feel when your partner is around. Find that place where you don’t need each other, you simply want each other. That’s the real glue.
#7 STAY TRUE TO YOU
When two lovers support each other’s freedom and spend a lot of time apart, people outside of their relationship may feel the need to worry on their behalf and plant the seed of doubt. Won’t the distance cause you to grow apart? Doesn’t it make you angry or resentful being in that position? Aren’t you worried one of you will stray or fall in love with someone else? Not all long-distance relationships are destined to fail, as many people seem to think!
If you and your partner genuinely feel like it’s working for you, then stick with it! If you’re struggling with the separation, be honest about it and spend less time apart. Remember, the people in the relationship get to define the relationship. Your limits, values and style as a couple are completely in your court.
Don’t let other people’s scepticism or rigid beliefs mould your thinking. As long as you respect, trust and communicate openly with each other, you’ll know how to make the relationship work best for both of you.
#8 TAKE IT SLOW WHEN YOU’RE TOGETHER
If you’ve spent a decent chunk of time without each other, odds are you’ll have developed unique lifestyles and routines. Merging two lives back together can be a tricky process, so be patient and compassionate. It takes time to adjust. Keep life simple and make time for downtime together rather than jam-pack your days with activities. If you’re in between solo stints, decide what you’d both like to achieve and how you’d like to spend your time while you’re together (jobs around the house, R&R, catching up with mates, “adult cuddles” etc). Essentially, make sure your needs are met.
#9 TURN TO THE PROFESSIONALS
Long-distance relationships can be hard to navigate, and they have a way of bringing a person’s insecurities and negative thoughts to the surface. Getting a professional to help you and your partner manage the minefield, especially while you’re in separate locations, will only serve your relationship well. Whether it’s a responsive and/or preventative step, there’s absolutely no shame in it. Getting a professional on board is simply a smart thing to do. When Ben’s away, I visit a psychologist once a fortnight to simply “check in” and discuss thoughts I’d usually run by my husband. It’s better to talk to somebody than nobody at all.
There are also a number of wonderful books and online resources to help you tackle the challenges that come with time apart and turn it into a positive experience. I recently encountered Separated by Work by veteran FIFO wife Kirsty O’Callaghan. Kirsty kindly agreed to share her thoughts and advice on long-distance relationships. I found the information really enlightening; I’m sure you will too.
INTERVIEW WITH KIRSTY O’CALLAGHAN
On the tough times…
Couples who are living apart will have a spotlight put on areas that are lacking in their relationships. The mundane outweighs passion and ecstasy, and when they are hurting, their partners are not near to support them when their wounds need healing, or they just need a hug.
People who enjoy healthy relationships understand that a relationship can’t be what makes their lives full—it complements, it adds to, but it can never complete or fill what is empty space. Many people get in a relationship and start to devote their every waking moment to their partner. Then when the pressures of life and being apart kick in, their entire world falls apart.
For relationships to be functional and healthy when separated by work or other circumstances, we have to have our own goals and passions, as well as joint ones. We have time away for ourselves to explore our own interests. There is nothing sexier than a man or woman who is interesting, passionate, and capable of holding his or her own. There is no greater turn off than clingy desperation.
Still, distance can be intolerable for most of us at some point, especially in the beginning. The need to be physically close to our partners is strong and we think it’s the only way to increase emotional closeness and connection. I felt like that for the first year of my relationship with my FIFO husband. I remember what I missed most in the beginning was touch; that touch on my back when we walked into a room together, the touch on my shoulder as my husband walked past where I was sitting, the touch on my lower back as he came into the kitchen to see what I was cooking, and the touch of his hand in mine…
My levels of oxytocin dropped dramatically when our FIFO lifestyle began. Oxytocin is known as the bonding and trust hormone, or the love hormone. The brain produces it when we touch another in a caring way. Scientific research indicates that this hormone has specific abilities to balance social behaviour, including effects on motherly care and aggression. It encourages bonding between couples, induces feelings of being part of a group, and increases trust. Oxytocin also reduces stress responses, including anxiety.
Not being able to hold our family members and be close physically can heighten feelings of isolation, loneliness, and/or distrust. Once I realised this, I made sure I hugged friends and my kids more often and shook lots of hands while my husband was away to get my boost of oxytocin. When he was home, we made producing this hormone a priority.
There are couples who adapt immediately while apart and allow the distance to enhance emotional closeness and connection to their partners. Neither response is right or wrong, different people have different experiences. Culturally I think we are programmed by TV, movies, social media, magazines, books, friends, and family into the belief that the ideal romantic couple remain physically together, and any time apart should be intolerable. Those that have that belief feel impatient, unloved, and disconnected. The people who haven’t bought into society’s expectations tend to be more patient, calm, and secure.
Keeping your relationship healthy while apart doesn’t mean problem-free by any stretch of the imagination. My husband and I have arguments, we annoy each other, fail to listen, and lack empathy at times. We go through our share of relationship issues as a FIFO family. But we’ve discovered a few healthy habits which allow us to blow off steam and frustration in a fashion that doesn’t undermine the integrity of our relationship. We now know how to fight fair for our relationship and stay honest.
Overall, I’ve discovered that being separated by work does not create marital issues, issues with friends, or strained relationships with family and children. Your relationship can survive and thrive, and has as much chance as any other couple. This doesn’t mean there aren’t unique challenges that long-distance and relationships face. If there are already underlying rifts or problems (especially with your partner), being apart will bring these issues to the surface and magnify them.
A typical theme within couples who live apart (mainly due to work) is competitiveness around their roles and responsibilities. Who is doing the most, enduring the most and under the most pressure? I have yet to find a reliable, one size fits all measure of who is doing it the toughest or the easiest.
Early on in our experience I realised I couldn’t measure housework, school runs, running my own business, working part-time and baby duties against my husband’s 13-hour days in the middle of nowhere, enduring 40+ degree celsius heat. Some days, it can feel like you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders while you’re partner is having fun. Levels of responsibility naturally chop and change. Those in a healthy relationship understand that sometimes we need to give a bit more, while our partner focuses on other things or needs time out, instead of complaining, competing or comparing.
How did I get to the place of not comparing? It took a couple of years for the moments of resentment and unfairness to subside. The change was helped by a powerful thought, one which still brings me peace. I ask myself, “What if I simply accepted the fact that my husband works away? How can I see this as fair, a process, and go with the flow?’’ This fresh perspective reminds me to accept the situation, accept the people in my life and accept myself. It gives me time to decide and choose how to view the situation. Flexibility and happiness is found in the unconditional acceptance of self, others, and life. It helps reduce negativity, if we take things as they are.
The behaviour of comparing doesn’t just happen between partners, it also comes from friends and family too. Often friends and family negatively view our decision to be apart for long periods of time, sometimes weeks and sometimes more. This leads to misunderstandings and well-intentioned remarks, which leave us feeling like we’re doing the wrong thing. Acceptance of others and their opinion, as limited as their view may be, is needed here.
For whatever reason, you and your partner have decided that this life is for you. The trick is to stop looking for confirmation and acceptance from others — look for this in yourself and once you have found it, others won’t impact you or your family as much. When people show concern or sympathy for our family situation, I often lead with the statement, “Oh, its all good for me, with my husband not being home as much we’ll be married longer,” and I laugh. This is a favourite response of mine as I’ve noticed that people have nowhere to go with it. They laugh because I do, and usually change the direction of the conversation.
I have a close friend whose husband was in the Navy many years ago. She was in her early 20s and they had just had their first child. She told me she used to pretend her husband didn’t exist when he was away and wouldn’t think about him at all. It was the only way she could get through those early years. Right or wrong, it worked for her and they are still happily married 22 years later.
I continue to remind people that what works for one couple will not work for another. There were many days in the beginning when I did something similar to my friend. I just refused to let any thoughts of my husband come to my mind. I would get on with my routine, my day, my responsibilities, and wouldn’t give him a second thought. It helped me and I just surrounded myself in what I could do, not what was missing. After a couple of years this tactic was no longer needed. I now think of my partner regularly throughout the day with nothing but love and it has become much easier to accept our FIFO life.
When together it is time to spoil each other, spoil the kids, give each other quiet time alone, and give lots of reassurance and comfort to feel secure in how important we are to each other. When apart it is more important than ever to connect, feel loved, and be noticed. This connection goes beyond just knowing that our partner loves us, or Mum and Dad love their kids. It has to be shown for healthy relationships to thrive, and needs to be meaningful to the person receiving it.
To start you can ask yourself the question, “I feel most loved by my partner when…”. This will give insights as to how you best receive love and feel emotionally validated. Once you have discovered how you feel most loved you can go about reviving your relationship, reconnecting with your children, or enjoying your family and friends in a more meaningful way.
A good relationship is based on trust, respect, honesty, and acceptance. Be prepared to listen, compromise, negotiate, and laugh. Try not to hold grudges. Be honest, care about their feelings, support their dreams and beliefs, and avoid critical remarks. Partners should always:
> Support each other’s well-being;
> Share time, create special moments and make memories;
> Respect what the other person values most (even if it’s not the same thing as each other);
> Express sexual and emotional needs in a considerate way;
> Aim for agreement rather than winning when conflict arises;
> Keep life and the relationship fresh by continually learning new things — together and apart.
Here is a lovely story to illustrate this…
A friend of mine is a FIFO wife. Her partner spends two weeks away with work and one week at home. During one of his stints away, her daughter became ill and was hospitalised for a few days. One morning after a very stressful week, she was talking to her partner on Skype and he asked if there was anything he could do. She jokingly said, “You could cook dinner tonight”. They both laughed. That night after she got home from work, there was a knock at the door. When she opened it, she was greeted by a pizza delivery man with dinner – organised by her partner.
This story shows how we can all think outside of the box, listen to our partner’s needs and overcome the limits of a long-distance relationship.
Communication, acceptance, and being interested in each other will enhance the “I notice you” sentiment while apart. It is a different type of everyday connection, yet it can be a positive one. Our time physically together is shorter, there are conversations we will never have, and our intimate moments may be less than what our friends say they have — which, by the way, may, or may not be true — but our relationship can still be as loving and affectionate, if not more so.
The only way we have to connect while apart is through the spoken word on the phone and other devices. Use this time wisely; words can boost someone up or break a relationship down. My husband and I quickly discovered what worked “pre-FIFO life” didn’t work during it. FIFO rosters demanded a change in the way we approached keeping in touch. One of the changes we had to get used to was regular technology use — emails, Skype, Facebook, and texts etc.
Calls that are made at the wrong time, when one of you is busy or distracted can lead to tension. When this happened for us, rather than saying, “I’m busy can I get back to you in a short while?” we tried to multi-task. Things worked better for us when we set aside time to for calls or texted first to see if the other was free. That way, we could be completely (or mostly) present and have each other’s attention.
This led to us being able to share our concerns and feelings with each other more openly. There were times I had to ask my partner to listen more rather than jump into thinking he understood what I was saying or offering an opinion and solution straight up. John Gray, the author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, summed up my point when he said, “Men need to remember that women talk about problems to get close and not necessarily to get solutions.”
When a person is heard, they feel valued and appreciated. You may or may not be interested — that’s beside the point. The point is to allow our loved ones to feel validated because we’re truly listening. This is good for them, good for you and great for the relationship. It avoids many misunderstandings, which can happen due to physical separation.
Listening without judgement and criticism will make the distance more bearable and everyone will feel more connected. A Greek Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, once said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” I would like to see more people use this as the number one rule of good conversation. Being listened to properly is the difference between having a sense of acceptance or isolation. It says to the person speaking, I value you and you matter.
To strengthen this message, encourage your family and friends to talk about how they feel and what is important to them right now. People naturally love to tell their story — your family members are no different. It could be as simple as asking, ‘How was your day?’ and blocking out everything else to listen to their response.
Being separated by work or living apart helps you avoid a lacklustre relationship where you merely co-exist in the same space. You get a window that other couples don’t get, one which can take you to a whole new level of connection, a level that, after years of marriage, many couples lose. You’ll naturally check in with each and discuss your thoughts, feelings, dreams and deeper issues more often than live-in couples. Your relationship will become more than just sitting on the couch and discussing your day in front of the TV.
Your mind and way of thinking can be your friend or your worst enemy. I read an article recently where William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, said, “The greatest weapon we have against stress is to choose one thought over another.” This sounds easy, but it takes time, patience, and persistence to manage your thoughts effectively.
Your mind has had free reign for so long it’s developed its own way of viewing the world. When you start taking notice, you are going to find thoughts that create feelings that create beliefs that are either out-dated or downright stupid. Thoughts and beliefs which used to fit in your life when you were working 9—5 and coming home every evening to a partner may not suit a long-distance relationship.
While living apart, you will have lots of down time to discover these thoughts and allow your stuff to come up. The times you were offended, disappointed, hurt, manipulated, mistreated, and judged etc. In those quiet and isolated moments, your deepest beliefs will come into view. Some people attempt to drown them out with distractions, alcohol, technology, TV, food, or more stuff. Try not to ignore your negative thoughts. Instead, analyse their value and logic and work on creating a healthier inner dialogue.
Use your alone time to build a better relationship with yourself and your life; to become accepting, mindful, and still. Right now is the best time to train and re-wire your brain to think in a way that you decide, and that allows you to live life to the fullest.
At the beginning of our FIFO journey, after a broken moment, I realised with certainty that the only relationship I had the power to change and influence was the relationship I had with myself. I needed to fundamentally change my views about my new life and my own identity. I had to examine everything about me, take it all apart and welcome the dramatic change my life and relationships needed.
Eventually, I learned to become grateful that FIFO had given me this opportunity. I discovered the value of mindfulness and positive impact it had on my mental, emotional, and physical health. Once I was able to develop a regular mindfulness practise (quite a few attempts failed miserably), I found everything got a bit easier. Issues which once seemed huge became inconsequential. I can think my way around problems better, I’m calmer and happier, and I can communicate my needs and point of view more confidently now.
Stop for a moment right now, and consider just how valuable this present moment is. This moment is all there truly is and it’s your only point of power. It’s the only time you can choose to act on or do nothing about. Those who are not mindful of their thoughts skip from one unfinished idea to the next. There is an uncontrolled constant stream of pictures, ideas, memories, and desires through their minds.
I often use the S.T.O.P acronym for mindfulness:
S = Stop right now.
T = Take a breath.
O = Observe what is going on around you and within you, just observe it.
P = Proceed with your next action or non-action; whatever you feel most appropriate, beneficial, and purposeful.
On routine (or, lack thereof)…
A common area that causes tension in long-distance relationships is the arrival and departure of routine. This is how our crazy “routine” used to pan out…
It’s a fly in day. My husband has spent many hours trying to get back to our family – by car, bus and plane. At home, the excitement is building and the house is being cleaned ready for the big moment. The moment comes, lots of hugs, kisses and smiles all around; and then, as everyone comes down from the initial reunion, life goes on. Tiredness sets in and chaos begins to reign.
Once our family has muddled, cuddled, and quarrelled through R&R, it’s nearly time for my husband to fly out again. Gloom washes over our home with the realisation that he’ll be leaving again soon. We wear distant, fake smiles. Regret over what could’ve been done with out time together, or what shouldn’t have been said, rises to the surface. I want to shout, “This sucks!”, but I can’t because this is how our lives work at the moment and I don’t want to upset my husband. Before I know it, it’s time for goodbyes. With tears in our eyes and aching hearts, we let go and get on with it — we cope with our long-distance family life.
This is how most of us feel about ongoing long-distance relationships, such as those experienced by FIFO and defence families. When everyone’s together, there’s often a lot of “stuff” that’s left unsaid, which creates a disconnect and weighs people down. I find the best way to lift the mood, is to bring the entire family together (when my husband is around and when he’s not) and encourage everyone to share their head space. Even if someone brings up a problem with no solution, just being able to say it out loud can help ease tension and remind people they’re not alone.
Whether it’s as simple as a spontaneous chat around the dinner table or as formal as a weekly family meeting, creating an opportunity for everyone to discuss their concerns, feelings and needs will do wonders for all. These conversations can also be very enlightening. People don’t always think or feel the way you expect them to.
On moving closer together…
I want to address a common concern I’ve been asked about many times: moving yourself or your whole family to be together. Is it better for couples and families to be physically close, or simply manage the distance? Should your family stay where there is familiarity, friends, and an established lifestyle, or set up a new life in a new location to avoid a long-distance relationship?
Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong choice, and certainly no proof that either path will support a more successful relationship, family or life. This is one of those situations which can only be solved by you and your partner. While the input of children and extended family should be valued, the final call needs to be made by the couple. I encourage you to do your homework and take all the time you need to make a final decision. Seek and listen to advice, but trust your gut instinct. What works for you now may change in the future. Review your decision at relevant times. Learn as you go along and, most importantly, move forward as a team.
A long-distance relationship can be your new normal; it can be a positive experience, and it can give you a better quality of life. Being separated by distance teaches us that love means more than physical proximity and quality means more than convenience. Spending time apart allows us to be more, have more, and do more – if we let it. You and your partner can choose to survive and thrive in a long-distance relationship. A long time ago, I decided FIFO life wasn’t about waiting for a happy ending; it was about embracing the journey and creating a story – the story of us. I was more than ok with that, and so was my family.
Want to learn more…?
Kirsty O’Callaghan’s book, Separated by Work, gives long-distance couples the tools and encouragement they need to take back control, help themselves and support each other through the toughest of times. It explains how spending time apart, due to work or lifestyle choices, can lead to a happy and healthy relationship. Filled with practical tips from leaders in their field, and hands-on exercises for the whole family, Kirsty offers a rare insider’s understanding to all aspects of this lifestyle choice.
You can read more and purchase Kirsty’s book here.