It is an all-too familiar scene on oil and gas leases: a busy and dangerous job is underway when a key employee gets a call from his wife. Having spent weeks without him, she is lonely, emotional and stressed. The couple spends the next half-hour on the cell phone, as she tries to explain her feelings and he tries to calm the waters – while simultaneously trying to perform his duties.
Distracted, he nearly splashes himself with acid. After the job, he concocts a story about a family emergency and rushes home to try and save his marriage; however, instead of resolving anything, the distance, hurt and conflict between him and his wife only worsens. They fight about money, drinking, priorities, everything. Still upset, he leaves home for his next stretch of days on.
Soon after opening my couples’ mediation practice in Red Deer, I realized I was quickly becoming the go-to person for couples struggling to make an ‘oil patch marriage’ work. I realized something else, too – scenes like the above are commonplace, as the skills needed to enjoy a successful oil patch marriage don’t come naturally.
Since the oil boom of the 1970’s, many Alberta wives have called themselves ‘oil patch widows’ due to work rotations that require their husbands to be away for weeks or months at a stretch.
It is understandable how this physical separation can lead to an emotional disconnection between two people who are often leading separate lives.
Typically, a husband is travelling or on location, working long hours, or sleeping in a camp. A wife is working, taking care of the house and raising the kids.
Both feel lonely, exhausted, and – here’s the real kicker – unappreciated by their spouse. They start to compete over who works harder or makes greater sacrifices.
They may start to imagine what their spouse is up to while away, and these imaginings rarely fall on the sunny side: a wife may picture her husband flirting with every waitress on the way to Fort Nelson, while a husband may wonder whether his wife is Facebooking old flames when the kids are in school. They spend their phone calls arguing, criticizing or issuing ultimatums.
Overall, it’s a checklist for divorce: physical and emotional disconnection, negativity, a lack of appreciation and, almost always, poor communication skills that lead to further conflict, misunderstanding and misery.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. An oil patch couple can make-up—and spring break-up is the time to do it.
To start, focus on reconnecting in an emotional sense. Do your best to understand what your spouse has on his or her plate during the days on rotation and show interest, support and appreciation for that.
Tune in to your family life and get on the same page in terms of parenting, socializing and doing chores during days-off. Commit to working as a team, not acting like opponents.
You may need to reconnect in a physical way, too. That’s right, get busy in the bedroom. Lovemaking releases oxytocin, a ‘cuddling’ hormone that can deepen feelings of affection and connectedness.
If your marriage has serious problems such as broken trust, spending issues, intense hurt or an inability to communicate or resolve conflict, you may need professional marriage help before you are able to make-up in a lasting way. Couples mediation is a popular choice that can give you the tools you need to get back on-track.
In the end, however, it’s up to you whether you become a divorce statistic or a success story. There is no doubt that an oil patch career presents its challenges, but it also comes with rewards. With the right skills and attitude, your marriage can rise to those challenges and reap those rewards.
Debra Macleod, B.A., LL.B. is a local couples mediator and relationship author-expert who offers private sessions, relationship “tune-ups” and employee H&S seminars to energy companies. Visit her at MarriageSOS.com.