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How To Keep A Distant Relationship (Advice for Seafarers)

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A pair on a ship recreating a 'Titanic' scene

One of the most challenging aspects of life at sea is to somehow keep relationships and friendships alive despite being away so often. Communication via the internet can help those fortunate enough to be on ships with connectivity, but how else can people manage to keep the spark in their lovers’ eyes?

How to keep a relationship while away

Seafaring can be tough on families and social life, but it needn’t be a relationship killer. There are things which can be done to make the isolation or distance feel less damaging. But it does take work, determination and a bit of support from those ashore.

Shakespeare said that parting is a “sweet sorrow”, as it makes people look forward to seeing each other again. But given the lengths of some trips to sea even Romeo and Juliet might struggle.

Loneliness, homesickness and fatigue are three of the most debilitating and damaging psychological problems among seafarers. These are caused by long periods away from home, the reduced number of seafarers per ship, and increased work load. The stresses of any ship are felt by the crew.

The biggest cause of stress though, according to a study of Australian seafarers, was the relationship between home and work. In fact at its worst, marital and family problems are even known to contribute to suicides at sea.

A symbol of heart on a laptop keybord

How to keep a distance relationship? With all current technology is it a shame not to keep in touch with the one. Just do it.

What factors affect seafarers’ life at sea

There have been many studies over the years into the effects of shipboard life, and each has found that when links to home get stretched or broken, then real problems follow. It seems there is little which cannot be overcome with some feeling of support from home, but without that life gets a whole lot harder.

According to a study by the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC), there are some major factors that determine the impact on the family life of seafarers in all countries.

Length at sea: Partners whose relations worked for four weeks or less found the period apart acceptable – for the rest, there were issues. All nationalities said they faced loneliness during absence, then even some “irreconcilable emotional distances” even when they were together. 

Demands on leave time: Sometimes being home isn’t always without worries. Leave time is not free of work for most seafarers – there are often training courses to attend, and according to SIRC some UK officers often return exhausted and take a long time to recover. 

Ship visits and spouses sailing: Spouses feel much closer to their partners and understanding of their occupation if they are allowed to sail with them. Those not allowed to sail regret it and feel shut out and alienated from his life on board. Alas, family sailing is less and less commonplace these days. 

Company support: Company support of all kinds, no matter how minor, is valued and helpful. It is particularly important to be able to get in touch with a seafarer in an emergency, and partners like to know where the seafarer’s ship is. Contact with other seafaring families is valuable. Some organisations, like the Watch Ashore, can provide some comfort.

Communication: Communication is of crucial importance, allowing relationships to develop and be sustained, often over long absences. It helps seafarers to feel part of their families, able to take part in everyday events and make decisions. Access to internet and calls is the most important issue today for many at sea.

Hidden costs: The nature of life at sea often imposes different financial burdens and work constraints on other members of the family. Some partners do not take jobs or have to have lower level work to accommodate having time off when their seafarer kin return home.

Tips on how to keep your relationship strong 

A couple is happy in the rain

How to keep a distance relationship? When you are together cherish every moment that you spend. It has a consolidating effect on your romance.

Alas, for all the areas which can be improved it remains inevitable that intermittent separation from family and home is part of a life at sea. Now, we don’t want to get all soppy and all “Marie Claire” magazine on you, but there are ways in which long distance relationships can be sustained.

When you arrive home next into a loving embrace, remember that we helped that to make it happen…by sharing the tricks of the keeping the home fires burning, as it were.

Talk as often as you can: Duh, of course you want to speak as often as possible, and so you should. But also don’t tie yourself to times or days – that can send you crazy if something gets in the way. Just let home know that you will call whenever you can…and then do it.

Talk to other people about each other: Ok, so shipmates may not want to hear the slushy details of what you and your “angel” get up too – but it can help to maintain a strong bond by sharing the things you enjoy most about the folks back home.

You are never alone with What’sApp: If you are lucky enough to have Wi-Fi onboard, make sure you have a good messaging service. Ditto if you make it to Wi-Fi ashore – you will want to hook up good, fast and proper.

Skype Your Life: Life for seafarers on vessels with internet is so different than for those without. If you are one of the lucky ones (or discerning ones who wouldn’t take a job without it) well done to you. Now get on the line to those back home and chat it out.

Two red hearts and a white envelope

How to keep a distance relationship? Communicate, communicate and communicate.

Writing…with a paper and pen: For those without internet – and sadly there are still far too many, there is a proper old school option. While it may sound a little Jane Austen – if all else fails you can still get a pen and start sharing your thoughts with home. Do it, you may even like it.  My Dearest…

Send Stuff Home: People love presents. People love presents sent from thoughtful and caring seafarers even more. Get into Interflora, hammer your Amazon account – and send nice presents home every now and again…and not just at birthdays. Shake it up a bit, keep the air of mystery.

Light at the end of the tunnel: Make landmark dates so that you know you can reach each one and slowly eke out the time until you can be back home. Talk goals, and get crossing that calendar off.

More relationship tips for you

While all of this great relationship advice may help a little, there are actually 8 key areas that could help seafarers to better manage the threats of loneliness and isolation. These are:

  1. Shorter trips (preferably no longer than four months)
  2. Paid leave of a comparable length to sea time
  3. Continuous employment, rather than employment by voyage
  4. Training time to be added to leave period
  5. Opportunities for partners (and children where possible) to sail
  6. Improved access to communication
  7. Increased contact between seafarers’ partners and their employers
  8. Opportunities for seafarers’ families to make contact with each other while crew are at sea.
  9. What are your secrets to keeping connected to home?

Share your thoughts, email apickles@kvh.com