FIFO: One of the hardest kinds of relationships

So I haven’t written in a while.

As much as I’d love to say that I’ve had nothing on my mind, well, that would be a big fat lie.

I mean, it doesn’t help that I subscribed to Netflix. And for Christmas I got a subscription to Frankie Magazine (which I feel I’ve grown out of, I seem to have less and less patience for articles on other people’s crocheted trivet collections, I’m reading it out of pure FOMO).

But what caught my attention was a recent episode of The Real Housewives of Melbourne. I know, I know, I need a shower after watching it too. But I just can’t take my eyes off Gina and her constant dealing in fact, not friction.

Anyway, Geens was talking to one of the other ‘housewives’ about her relationship. It wasn’t the high-flying heady times that interested me about her bloke, but the routine that so many have to endure if they want to be together.

Fly-in, fly-out relationships have to be the hardest kind of relationship there is.

And I’m not just talking about the mining industry – I’m talking about partners that have to travel or, like working in defence or transport, be away from their primary partner for solid chunks of time.

Gina hit the (bedazzled) nail on the head when she mentioned it wasn’t the bloke that was the problem. It was the constant reuniting and leaving that was the killer.

What makes this kind of hellish limbo special is that it’s not a true long-term relationship where one of you lives in Perth and the other lives in Brisbane and you make plans to visit as often as you can. Nor do you live in the same area and are able to easily connect after the working week down at the pub.

Is the plane late or are we early? Do I have time to trim my sideburns?

I’ve lived both these lives. And when I say I’ve lived both these lives, I mean I’ve been the person leaving and the person being left. And sure, I get that it can work for some, personally it’s a massive thumbs-down.

I simply can’t manage my relationships on such a part-time basis.

Everything feels like it’s on a cycle that’s ruled by the calendar. Duh, most rosters are, but instead of just getting excited that it’s only half an hour until Friday, it’s on a slightly grander scale.

If you work a regular kind of 9-5, I hazard a guess that Friday afternoons are something to look forward to. Clock-watching with a smile, a weekend of clean-slated possibilities ahead.

When you work away, the equivalent to Friday is ‘fly day’.

While you might have a whole day of work still ahead of you, you get that sweet anticipation that the day will end back in the arms of the person you’ve been missing like crazy – or just the simply the fact that you don’t have to get up at 4am, or do night shift, for a few days.

So it’s like Friday afternoon, but on steroids.

But, swings and roundabouts.

My friend Lindal and I have the same feeling about Sunday afternoon.

It starts about 2pm. It’s an ickiness, a dulled-but-realised panic that your two-day reprieve was drawing to a fast and furious close. Worse still, if you only managed to watch Catfish and Teen Mom 2 all weekend.

The FIFO equivalent to late Sunday afternoon doesn’t have a special name, but that ickiness? It’s more like an actual feeling of creeping dread.

I wish I was exaggerating.

Instead of ‘ugh, work tomorrow’, life’s big-ticket questions would start to get all up in my grill: ‘I can’t do this anymore’, ‘why am I doing this’, ‘what does this all mean’, ‘what am I doing with my life’.

So instead of having this overwhelming chat with myself every six to 12 months like a normal person, it was every second to third week. As I don’t work away now, it’s easy to think ‘oh, well I’m sure everyone goes through that kind of thought process every so often’, but at the time, I was convinced I was the only one.

The cruel thing is, when you’re in a relationship with this person, you’re also strapped in for the ride.

After they leave, the house – and your heart – can feel a bit empty. I mean, you just saw them looking so melancholy about hopping back on to the ‘big bird’ that you can’t help but take some of it on.

By the next day, you’re back into your routine. Just like they’d be back into theirs.

If you’re lucky, there will be a signal so you can text and call. Lots of companies have strict rules about having phones on-site, so you know they may not get your thinking-about-you-plus-an-emoji messages or photo of the cat (looking like Obi-wan after poking its head out from the rug it burrowed under) straight away.

When I worked away, I was wily.

There were no mobile phones – well there were, there was just no signal, no wifi so (other than playing Snake) they were rendered useless.

However, we did have phonecards. Except you had to line up for a phone to become available to use them, just like prison.

Or, if you worked night shift up at site, say, cleaning offices, I would work my backside off so I could carve out a good 45 minutes and stealthly make phone calls. Sometimes at 10pm… from the mine manager’s office.

Since I haven’t had to do that in a very good 10-15 years, I do wonder if smartphones have made it harder or easier to deal. While partners can still look forward to that nightly call, they don’t have to battle it out to find an actual phone to make it.

However, back on the flipside, back at home when you’re partner is the one away, I can imagine you’re painfully too aware of the dangers of texting when you’re feeling insecure: constantly checking your phone for your ‘delivered’ iMessage to magically turn to ‘read’, then only to be left hanging when you don’t see the ‘typing awareness indicator’, otherwise known as the ‘grey bubbles of torture’ being activated. The struggle is real.

I used to go out with this guy who was incredibly articulate, funny and could make a double-adaptor power plug sound super interesting. One day, I found a piece of paper in his work pocket after he flew home. It was a bullet-pointed list of stuff we had talked about while he was at work. As it turned out, he wanted to remember the innocuous-but-funny things that happened to him or thought about while at work. That way it wasn’t just ‘yeah, work’s OK, how about you’ bore fest, the conversation had a little more detail, even if it’s how Davo* got his pants-pocket stuck in the latch of the chopper as he was getting out and gave himself a wedgie.

But it’s a fine line.

I know when I was the one working away and my partner was back in Perth studying fulltime, I wanted to hear all the news – but not too much news. If he was having too much fun, I remember I started to resent it (and him) but, at the time, I didn’t have the tools to not take his harmless conversation so personally.

I didn’t want to hear about all the new friends he was making at uni, especially the super-smart women that were in his classes. To me, all I was hearing was that he didn’t miss me at all. I knew it was ridiculous to invest so much into one daily phone call, but there I was.

It also didn’t help that I was pretty much working alone most of the day, so my self-esteem eventually took the brunt. That vicious circle was the hardest habit to break, but it was my relationship that ended up breaking first.

Years later, I remember telling a friend that it’s rare to have a partner that’s absolutely on the exact same page as you all the time. All of a sudden, things will really be happening for one of you, while the other sits idle. Then, it’ll change and things will be really happening for the other. Relationship quirks like that can be hard lessons to learn.

Then there was ‘maintenance day’.

My mate Rachel, who is so gorgeous anyway, would always look especially fresh-faced on a Thursday, the late afternoon before her boyfriend flew in. Hair washed, legs shaved, brows done (and more).

‘Woo, look at you,’ I would fawn.

‘Maintenance day’, she said.

It was like Christmas Eve, whether you were picking your partner up from the airport or you had just flown in and trotting through the arrivals gate – the jolt as your eyes would systematically scan every face to find the one you missed most was seriously electric.

For those back at home, I would love to say, hey, when you’re partner is at work, just do your own thing, just get on with it and get busy.

Yeah, it’s great advice, but it can be so hard to actually put that into practice.

I mean, you want to book a holiday, but you can’t just throw a dart at the calendar, right? What about your up-coming birthday, you might consider having it a week or two late to fit in with the bloody roster. You won’t go watch the Avengers at the megaplex with your friends – you’ll save it up for when your partner is home.

It’s those little things that get put into a holding pattern, which apparently you’re not supposed to do because you’re living your life, right? RIGHT?

What I’m saying is, there’s nothing actually wrong with that.

If you throw yourself into work just to get to the next swing, I guarantee that’s probably what your partner is doing too.

To make it a bit easier, and not actively trying to wish your time away until the next time you see them, try making a list of things to talk about, have a ‘maintenance day’ or take yourself out to see a movie (there are more movies than just The Avengers out, y’know) and perhaps consider disabling your iMessage read receipts.

The funny thing is, if you fill your partner’s time off with all the things, for them it can feel like they’re too busy, which can add to the pressure of getting everything done.

But this is all just short-term, day-to-day stuff.

Longer-term things, like working out an exit strategy, well, only you and your partner can start to nut that one out.

But I do know that having something to look forward to – a holiday booked every few months or making gradual plans to leave working FIFO altogether – will always leave you with a feeling of having control over the situation, not the situation controlling you.

It was interesting to see how someone like Gina Liano could be similarly emotionally affected by her FIFO relationship just as people like Shaz and Matt up the road. In a sense, all our relationships do a kind of stepping-in and stepping-out, it’s the time in-between which fluctuates from mere hours to weeks and sometimes (shout out to my sister-in-law Tracey) months.

If you need any more proof that keeping busy is the best advice, I finished writing this on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and you know how I feel about Sunday afternoons…



*true story, except ‘Davo’ was actually me when I worked at Varanus Island off WA, the guys thought it was hysterical*