Clinical Psychologist and Couples Counsellor Cobus Kleynhans understands the unique challenges of FIFO (Fly In, Fly Out) relationships, and offers helpful tips for couples facing this reality …
It is now common knowledge that major life events are inherently stressful – not just negative ones like divorce or bankruptcy, but also the positive ones like getting married or moving house.
This stress is caused by the transition from something familiar, stable and predictable, to a new situation that is still unfamiliar – which then requires an ongoing effort to render it stable, predictable and consistent. And it is precisely this requirement that is time-consuming, energy-draining, frustrating, bewildering and sometimes even anxiety-provoking.
Stresses on FIFO Relationships
Understanding the stressful nature of transitions, helps us to gain some insight into the unique challenges faced by FIFO relationships.
Couples and families in FIFO relationships invariably encounter the challenge of having to cope with regular and ongoing transitions.
Typically, the partner left at home is required to adjust to living and functioning independently in the temporary absence of their partner who is working away – usually for three or four weeks at a time. Moreover, the person at home is then required to adapt again when their partner returns.
It is, to be sure, very stressful to maintain regular routines whilst also trying to accommodate and respond to each partner’s needs.
This can be a very delicate balancing act. In fact, it is not uncommon for the partner who has recently returned home to feel justified in “putting up their weary feet”, and expect that their needs for closeness, attention and intimacy are given high priority (albeit that these expectations may not always be explicitly stated).
Similarly, the partner on the home front may also have an expectation (also unspoken or implicit), that their partner show support and help out with the house work and children while they are home.
In this scenario, neither partner feels that their needs are being sufficiently met.
The Poison of Resentment
Needless to say, this situation is the perfect breeding ground for resentment and indignation.
Resentment not only hinders closeness and sabotages effective and positive communication; it is actually poisonous to relationships. Indeed, once resentment sets in, all the benefits of the FIFO lifestyle are rendered invisible.
Positive, open and constructive communication is required. However, the newness of the FIFO culture, not to mention the various subtleties and complexities, mean that this does not always come easily.
Most Australians acquire their communication styles and strategies in their families of origin.
Historically, Australian families were not required to negotiate multiple and complex transitions. The family unit was relatively stable, allowing communication and patterns of interaction to be shaped and facilitated by family and community conventions, with traditions handed down from previous generations.
In the global economic context, which is becoming increasingly more complex and transient, different communication skills are required.
New Communication Skills for a New Lifestyle
The changing landscape of a FIFO living and working arrangement, means that a couple is required to negotiate openly and transparently how best to utilise their limited resources – especially the most precious resource of all, time – in ways that meet everyone’s needs equitably and supportively.
Although this may seem straightforward, suddenly the couple is expected to master an entirely new lifestyle situation, entailing more sophisticated communication and negotiation skills.
One example of these new communication skills, is learning to establish a future focus in conversations. That is, focusing on creating a shared vision for the future, as opposed to focusing on the past, which incidentally, invites and escalates patterns of blaming.
Another strategy that couples find helpful, is to abandon the common habit of forming and defending “logical” arguments, as this only invites counter-arguments from the partner.
Typically within this dynamic, couples become embroiled in a pattern of escalating defensiveness and hostility, quickly resulting in both parties feeling misunderstood, attacked and emotionally bruised.
So, what is the alternative and how is this cultivated in a FIFO relationship?
It may appear to be just common sense, however these new habits are far from easy to put into practice.
Tips for FIFO Relationships
Firstly, it is important for each partner to discern their own needs within the context of the family, and to articulate these needs to their partner with an attitude of openness and collaboration, and in a manner that invites the other to do the same. Linking these needs to shared family values is an essential step, with a clear understanding of the family’s strengths, resources and limitations.
The most difficult aspect of this is to maintain a constructive attitude, which is always a challenge in emotionally infused conversations.
It is at times like these that consulting with a psychologist with skills in effective communication habits, can be instrumental in assisting couples to develop a set of shared and workable solutions to the challenges they face.
Through the development of these constructive communication techniques, the couple is then set to make the FIFO relationship work effectively for them, to achieve their long term goals and make the most out of what the FIFO arrangement has to offer.
Author: Cobus Kleynhans, BA (Hons), MA (Clin Psych).
A Clinical Psychologist with over a dozen years’ experience in working with individuals and couples, Cobus Kleynhans has extra training in the techniques and practice of Couples and Family Therapy.
He has pursued extensive development in mindfulness-based treatment models, and is excited by the wealth of research revealing how mindfulness is effective in helping to enhance and promote healthy brain function.
Please note: Cobus’ books are currently closed.