How to Stay In Touch When You Barely See Each Other

In this tougher economy, couples are finding it necessary to take the jobs they can get, and that means more couples work different shifts. If one of you works a graveyard shift or rotating shift job that limits your time together; the difference in your shifts and commutes may mean you actually get to spend very little waking 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 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 doesn’t experience the problems your partner is facing.

Spending most of your time apart due to shift changes may be so far from your original expectations 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; and both you and your partner may be feeling all the intimacy and partnership gradually draining 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 to make, all the child rearing and discipline, and all the chores usually shared by two. Spouses at home at night are lonely, isolated, and feeling out of touch with your 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. You are not at home at the same time, you must solve problems about how the household chores will be handled, bills will be paid, and children and pets will be cared for. The other major problem with two different commuting schedules is finding time to be at home together. It is also possible to have so much to catch up on when you’re both home that there is little time for the two of you to reconnect. When your schedules mesh well, it means that one of you can take care of things while the other is gone, and you get enough time together to enjoy each other and feel like a family. 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.

Long-term Situations

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 your connection and intimacy feeling fresh is not easy. 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 day shift partner may not have enough time or expertise to get it all done alone. The night shift partner might have to sleep most of the daylight hours. Neither of you has 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 once 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 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, much of the time.

New routines:

For meals, cooking, 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 abilities 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, but haven’t because your partner isn’t on it; it does require some uncomfortable adjustment and rethinking.

Ways to communicate:

About marriage business: 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 for a long period of time, 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.

Steps for Solving Problems Whether You’re Apart or Together

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 building 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, say: “I have a problem I’d like to discuss. Will you have time tonight after dinner (or this weekend, or tomorrow afternoon)?” 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.

2. Think through the problem and describe it carefully:

This is not the time to just blurt out whatever comes to mind. Writing it down first is very valuable here. Also, try to state your problem as a problem for you, and not to blame your partner or anyone else. For example, say “I feel frustrated when you come home late because I worry that something’s wrong.” Rather than: Why can’t you be on time?” or “You’re always late, and it makes me mad.”

Before your appointment time, figure out what your problem is and how to state it so your partner will understand and not feel attacked. Ask your partner to agree that he or she will hear and try to understand what you’re saying without interrupting.

Then, ask your partner for his or her opinion of what you can do together to fix the problem. Do not get into who’s right or wrong, but focus on understanding each other and coming up with a solution. “It doesn’t work for me not to know what checks you wrote. I understand you’re busy, but can we find a way to fix it? Maybe we can get checks with carbon copies, and then when you come home, you can put your copies in the checkbook, so I can figure out what our balance is.”

3. Generate Options:

Take turns challenging each other to come up with the best solution for the problem. Have fun with it, don’t be afraid to be silly, and you’ll free up your thinking so you’ll come up with more creative options. “I know, let’s win the lotto, then we won’t need to know how much we have in the bank! Maybe we can have an account with online access, then I can input the checks I write, and you can check the balance any time.”

4. Discuss the possibilities:

When you have enough ideas of what to do, discuss them, which would be best for both of you? Consider how your partner would feel about any decision, as well as how you feel. Try decisions on and imagine how they would work.

5. Try it on:

If you’re not sure which decision would work, consider trying one or two of them out for a short time, to learn from your experience. For example:

If you’re struggling about your time schedule, and one of you feels like you don’t have enough time together, while the other feels pulled by work commitments, try a schedule change that you may not think will work, just to see what you can learn from it.

If you’ve been a stay-at-home parent and you need or want to go back to work, take a temporary job for a couple of months to see how it feels and how it changes your family life.

If your job offers you a shift change, talk over how the changes will affect your day-to-day life: who picks up the kids, who shops, who cooks, how you’ll get the maintenance done, and what time off you’ll have together. Once you’ve done the research or tried the change on, you’ll have a lot better idea of which solution will work for both of you.

6. Clarify your choice:

It’s unfortunately easy to think you’ve agreed upon something when you actually are thinking two different things. To avoid this problem, when you think you’ve reached a decision, state it out loud. “OK, so we’re agreed: we’re going to…” It can even help to write it down, in case your memory is different later. If find yourself disagreeing about what you decided, you can check with your written agreement.

You can go back and follow these steps any time you’re having trouble finding a solution or making a decision. They work great even when a decision you previously made needs renegotiation.