Editor’s note: How do egalitarian couples with a shared goal of equal partnership navigate differing work demands? In deciding what to address this month for her ongoing series about relationships under intense work demands, the author grasped at what was right in front of her: the dynamics of partners who work different shifts. Specifically, this month she’s writing about partners whose work hours are as different as night and day. How do partners with these contrasting schedules make it work?
At the beginning of the month, my partner worked the second of two holidays at the hospital. As a resident physician in her department, she was given the choice to take off Christmas or New Year’s, but not both. If you picked or were assigned off for Christmas, like she was, you had three glorious days—from Christmas Eve through the day after Christmas—where you didn’t need to be at the hospital.
Of course, if you were off for Christmas, you worked over New Year’s. As I mentioned in an earlier column, my partner works in obstetrics and gynecology, and it turns out that people don’t stop having babies just because it’s a holiday.
So for the week of New Year’s, to cover for those on vacation like others had done for her, she worked a 24-hour shift every other day. Then she started a four-week block of nights.
You can imagine our adjustment as a couple—from the rare shared-vacation bliss and relaxation, to full days where we don’t see one another, to weeks where she’s going to bed as I’m getting up in the morning.
I fear the potential of living parallel lives with my partner, with no intersection or coming together. I think most of us in healthy relationships strive to avoid this possibility. But what do we do when our schedules don’t line up?
To keep a complex topic simple, I came up with a “top five” tip list of common challenges and issues of contention for partners who work conflicting day/night combinations. First up is the most obvious: partners who work contrasting shifts don’t see each other nearly as often as they would like to!
- Recognize that loneliness may come, and strategize about how to effectively cope with it. A woman named Jess wrote a great piece for Offbeat Home and Life (2013) reaffirming that, no, these schedules aren’t ideal, especially at first, but there are perks. Partners may have the ability to confront codependent tendencies and become more independent and self-assured. They can seek out their own friendships and hobbies—after all, you aren’t in a good place to take care of your partner if you’re not taking care of yourself.
- Make time for intimacy and connection. Find effective ways to have sex, make decisions, and resolve conflicts. For one couple, what were usually conflicting times of sexual arousal (before bed and in the morning) actually worked out well when their work schedules didn’t otherwise match up. Bernstein (2014) writes that “physical closeness, even without sex, stimulates the hormone oxytocin, which reduces stress and promotes bonding.” Some contact is crucial! Regarding decision making: Dr. Tina Tessina (n.d.) points out that when two partners aren’t home at the same time for days on end, some decisions will likely need to be made unilaterally, which can “create an uncomfortable change in the power structure of your relationship.” Partners need to discuss and get onboard with that reality. Tessina also spells out some great ways of resolving conflicts with schedule restrictions in the mix.
- Respect your partner’s sleep needs—and your own. Jess of Offbeat Home (2013) cautions that it can be tempting to wake up your partner to get him or her to spend time with you, and it can also be tempting to neglect sleep in favor of precious time together, but resist doing either of these in excess. Less sleep for either of you (or both!) can lead to chronic cycles of dysfunction and feud. In her Babble column “Love on Opposite Shifts,” Chaunie Brusie (2014) writes that a coworker was so resentful of her night shift-working husband seeming to “sleep the day away” that she started counting the hours he slept, only to find that he was sleeping normal amounts. Bonus! Enjoy a higher quality of sleep: There’s evidence to suggest that couples sleeping separately can reduce sleep disturbances (BBC News, 2009; CBC News, 2013) and actually promote peace instead of escalating tensions based on differing sleep needs (Bernstein, 2014), so to boost all of our relationship-egos I’ve included references about sleeping separately in the list below. I know that this largely excludes the effects of working nights on circadian rhythm and that it’s nearly impossible to revel in the silver lining when your arrangement isn’t one you’ve chosen for this reason, but it’s still worth noting.
- Utilize technology creatively and often. Sending picture texts or updates about your day, calling to say goodnight at a bedtime that’s not your own—these efforts can go a long way.
- Rekindle the lost art of love letters! We write love notes often, so this isn’t something different when my partner goes on nights, but last year, when our work schedules prevented us from seeing one another for days on end while we were both working action-packed jobs, our letters became more vivid and interesting, and I felt closer to her for sharing them. Plus, it was easy to see how much the other person missed us. It feels good to be missed. So long as there’s a payoff, missing your partner is the sign of a good thing—not a symptom of impending doom.
Whatever your schedule and sleep needs, I hope you find peace after reading that there are others like you who are making their partnerships work in reliably creative ways.
- BBC News. (2009). Bed sharing ‘bad for your health.’ BBC News. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8245578.stm
- Bernstein, E. (2014). Couples on different sleeps schedules can expect conflict—and adapt. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/couples-on-different-sleep-schedules-can-expect-conflictand-adapt-1410217854
- Brusie, C. (2014). Love on opposite shifts. Babble. Retrieved from http://www.babble.com/relationships/love-on-opposite-shifts-2/
- CBC News. (2013). More couples opting to sleep in separate beds, study suggests. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/more-couples-opting-to-sleep-in-separate-beds-study-suggests-1.1316019
- J. (2012). Shift work: Learning to love our offbeat schedules. Offbeat Home & Life. Retrieved from http://offbeathome.com/2013/02/different-schedules
- Tessina, T. (n.d.). Marriage advice for work schedules: Same love, different shifts. Your Tango. Retrieved from http://www.yourtango.com/experts/dr-tina-tessina/dr-romance-married-different-shifts
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