Together forever – couples who work on the same mine site

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Working in the mining industry can mean different things to different families, depending on the way their work/life balance is structured. Some couples base themselves in a city or large town while one partner works away. Some relocate to the nearest mining town. And yet another choice is both partners doing FIFO/DIDO – sharing the same donga on the same roster on the same site for the same company.

The most obvious benefit is spending lots of time together – which might sound great in theory, but naturally has some pitfalls!

Most couples on a joint FIFO roster seem to share a donga. And there are certainly issues that can arise from living together in a tiny space! The extent to which couples can manage this arrangement probably depends on how similar their living habits are. Most couples are fairly compatible with day-to-day habits and activities. Really successful couples negotiate around their differences.

We know that individuals differ in lots of ways: how tidy they are; how much TV they like to watch; how much sleep they need; and whether or not they make noises as they eat. In a ‘normal’ environment, couples can find space to just be themselves without bothering the other person too much. In a donga, even seemingly small differences can make for unbearable relationship stress … and grow into much bigger issues than they otherwise would. For example, if your partner wants/needs to watch TV late into the night (and you don’t) this becomes a problem when you are sharing a single room. Couples with differing habits really need to work hard on compromise – set and stick to clear ground rules (even as simple as deciding five nights when the TV can be left on and five when it goes off).

Another pitfall is allowing work to dominate your thinking and conversations. Living together on site, working with the same people and doing the same (or similar) roles can contribute to this. While bitching about work might seem like a fun thing to do at the end of a long day, it ultimately won’t add anything constructive or positive to your life or relationship. If your partner wasn’t with you on site there is no way they would listen to endless complaints about work and colleagues – and this is a good thing! It’s a good idea to limit work conversations to 10 minutes or so at the end of the day.

Yet another common source of disagreement in FIFO families, including those who work together, is how time off, or R&R time, is spent. This might seem a little surprising. You’d think that couples who work together would have a good understanding of the stresses related to the FIFO lifestyle and would agree about how time at home should be spent. This is often not the case. Because you work away together, friends and family might think you don’t need to spend time together when you’re home – and this can lead to unrealistic demands during R&R. They need to remember that you’ve both been working hard and that you haven’t had quality time together. For the sake of a healthy relationship, you need to say ‘no’ to family and friends sometimes, and perhaps introduce set days for particular tasks or seeing particular people. It is really important that you spend time together as a couple when you are at home.

Working on a project (a garden or a house) or sharing a hobby definitely helps to keep couples connected and this is really, really important for couples who work together. Couples who spend a lot of time together don’t necessarily know each other any better or communicate better than those who spend a lot of time apart. In fact, there is a real danger of complacency, with the assumption being that you are close and connected just because you are physically together a lot of the time. You can easily (but incorrectly) assume your partner knows what is going on for you emotionally because he is there in the same environment. If we assume this, we won’t bother telling him/her verbally – and this puts undue pressure on the partner and the relationship. No matter how much time we spend with someone or how much we love them, it is very important to remember that they can’t read our minds. Your partner can’t know with any certainty what you are thinking and feeling, unless you tell them!

Living and working together can make communication a little tricky. Getting the balance right will probably require some practice – no-one wants to “communicate about the relationship” every minute of the day and we certainly don’t need to tell our partner every thought and feeling! It’s more about making an effort to verbally tell your partner how you’re feeling, rather than assuming they “just know” or “should know”.

An example of this is coming back to the donga, exhausted after a hard day at work. You’re grumpy and not in the mood to talk about anything. You just want to go to bed. If your partner wasn’t there with you, you would send a text or make a quick call, explain your mood, tell them you love them, and leave it at that. Your partner back home would then be clear that you’re not grumpy with them. BUT, if your partner is with you in the donga at the end of your bad day, you’re more likely to assume they know you’re grumpy (and why) and not bother with the niceties.

This does your relationship a major disservice. Your partner might take your grumpy behaviour to mean that you are upset with them, adding to stress and tension for them and the relationship. Talking honestly to your partner goes a long way to creating a positive and trusting relationship. Some couples I know even add humour to this by having a funny code word, like “pina colada” as shorthand for saying “I’ve had a bad day, I’m tired and grumpy and don’t want to talk to you, no offence, I love you very much and hope tomorrow is better”. Try it.

Quick tips

Two great books on improving relationships are The Five Languages of Love by Gary Chapman and ACT with Love by Russ Harris.

On a final note: as with any major relationship decision, it is important to weigh up possible pros and cons before starting to live and work together on site. Talking to others in the same situation and trying to problem-solve any potential problems in advance is a great idea, and I always recommend giving any new lifestyle an initial timeframe to test out whether it works for you and your relationship.

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