In this tough economy, couples are finding it necessary to take whatever jobs they can get, and that means an increasing number of married people work contrasting shifts. If one of you works a graveyard shift or rotating shift job, the difference in your waking and free time may mean you actually get to spend very little time together.
You've heard a lot from various experts about how important communication and intimacy are to the health and survival of your relationship. But they don't talk about how to stay in touch when you barely even see each other! Phone calls, e-mails, photos and instant messages help, but it's hard to feel as close when you don't see each other. It's also difficult to make joint decisions when one of you isn't actively experiencing the problems the other partner is facing.
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Spending most of your time apart due to shift changes may be so far from your original expectation (and experience) of marriage that you don't really know how to handle it. You may be squabbling about being stuck with all the household chores while your partner feels cut off from the world by a night shift. Both your partner and you may be feeling the intimacy gradually drain out of your relationship, leaving you with an empty shell where your marriage used to be. Spouses at home during the day have to deal with all the household problems: plumbing that doesn't work, financial decisions, child rearing and discipline, and all the chores once shared by two. Spouses at home at night are lonely, isolated, and feel out of touch with family.
Schedule juggling can present an enormous problem in this situation because you are not always in control of when you're required to be away from home. It's hard enough juggling household responsibilities, but you might also find it difficult to carve time to simply be at home together.
It is also likely that you have so much to catch up on when you're both home that there is little time for the two of you to reconnect. However, when your schedules mesh well, it means that one of you can take care of things in an orderly fashion when the other is working so that you have ample time together. When it works well, this type of alternate commuting can make it possible to have two incomes and still care for children, family members and household responsibilities.
If separate shifts are a long-term situation, your situation offers some benefits and some problems. The benefits are that you have time to establish your routine, develop support systems, and even develop a re-entry system that works. The problems, of course, are that you are spending a lot of time apart, and keeping the connection and intimacy fresh is not easy in this scenario. Long-term schedule problems present transition problems because you need to plan for long-term solutions, such as:
- Household maintenance: If you are working different shifts, you may need to change your expectations about how well your house or yard will be maintained in one partner's absence. The dayshift partner may not have enough time or expertise to get it all done alone. The nightshift partner might have to sleep most of the daylight hours. Neither of you have a lot of time for maintenance and housekeeping. If your budget permits, you can pay for some of the maintenance jobs (lawn mowing, basic housekeeping) that you previously handled together.
- Ongoing childcare: Often, children are the main reason for splitting shifts in the first place, so at least one parent can be home when the kids are. Keeping each other on the same page about parenting issues can be tough.
- Social networks and support: You might find that having a social life is difficult, but most couples need the support of friends and family. You may have to do your social activities separately.
- New routines: You'll have to come up with a new plan for meals, cooking and shopping: If you don't cook and your partner is not at home, eating and feeding your family can present another problem. For the short term, eating take-out or in restaurants can work OK, but in a long- term situation, you'll find you may have to develop new resources of food or even the ability to cook! A partner who is used to shopping and cooking for two or for the family may find that eating alone becomes a problem. While this is a great time to go on that diet you've wanted to try, it does require some uncomfortable adjustment and rethinking.
- Ways to communicate: You must communicate about the business of your marriage. If you're on split shifts for a long period of time, you may need to find a different way to make decisions about bill paying, hiring help, and budgeting. Especially if one partner is sometimes incommunicado, at work, the at-home partner needs to have the ability and permission to make occasional unilateral decisions. This can create an uncomfortable change in the power structure of your partnership.
- How to stay emotionally close: When the time you have together is scarce, you need to change your routines for keeping in contact and maintaining a strong emotional connection. Splitting shifts for an extended period can be very lonely for both partners, and even if you have close family relationships or strong friendships, it doesn't replace pillow talk, physical affection, and shared experience. Making your split shift marriage work begins with getting as realistic a picture of your situation as you can, and then making plans to solve each problem that you envision, as well as learning to solve new issues that arise on the spot.
Navigating these uncharted waters will involve making a lot of joint decisions, and will help you develop teamwork. Try this method of solving problems, and take each problem one at a time.
How To Stay Close
1. Make an appointment: Don't ambush each other with a problem, especially when you're getting ready for bed, about to make love, rushing off to work, or during an unplanned telephone conversation. Or, if you realize a discussion is escalating into an argument, stop it by making an appointment to discuss the issue later. To make an appointment by e-mail or IM when you're apart, or briefly in person when you're together, try saying this: "I have a problem I'd like to discuss. Will you have time tonight after dinner (or this weekend, or tomorrow afternoon)?"
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Make an appointment when you'll both have time to think and respond thoughtfully. Alternatively, if you won't have time to talk in the near future, agree on an e-mail heading (e.g.: problem discussion) that will alert your partner that you are asking to work on a problem, then describe your problem as in the next step. Keep reading...
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