5 Keys to Keeping Love Alive through the Graveyard Shift

side profile close-up of a woman leaning on a signpost on a sidewalkEditor’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!

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Be well!

References:

  1. BBC News. (2009). Bed sharing ‘bad for your health.’ BBC News. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8245578.stm
  2. 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
  3. Brusie, C. (2014). Love on opposite shifts. Babble. Retrieved from http://www.babble.com/relationships/love-on-opposite-shifts-2/
  4. 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
  5. J. (2012). Shift work: Learning to love our offbeat schedules. Offbeat Home & Life. Retrieved from http://offbeathome.com/2013/02/different-schedules
  6. 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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  • Trey

    Trey

    January 28th, 2015 at 10:58 AM

    This has to have been tough! We often don’t think that just because we are fortunate to get time off over the holidays that there are those working jobs where they have to be there regardless of what day the calendar says that it is!

  • kayla

    kayla

    January 28th, 2015 at 2:11 PM

    ugh those would be rough days! I would struggle because it would be like when you were awake your partner would be asleep and then if they wanted to talk to you then you would be sleeping. That is a relationship that will definitely take some effort

  • Barb

    Barb

    January 29th, 2015 at 3:38 AM

    When my husband worked the night shift and I worked days, well needless to say that it sometimes felt like we were just two ships passing in the night. But one thing that we would try to do a few times a week would be to meet for coffee when he was getting off work and I was getting ready to go in. That way we could still have at least one conversation for the day and catch up and sort of hold it together when it felt like we were drifting apart. Sometimes it didn’t feel like nearly enough time and I think that he would agree, but it was better than not having anything.

  • glynnis

    glynnis

    January 29th, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    It almost seems like it would be easier if both of you just worked the same shift, at least for purposes of connection. Now for sleep issues, that’s a whole other story. I am not sure that I could ever become accustomed to having to get my good sleep during the daytime hours.

  • Blake

    Blake

    January 29th, 2015 at 1:49 PM

    Well you certainly have to make a little more of an effort to hold it together but I actually think that this could be good for a lot of relationships. It gives you time apart when you need it and it also makes you appreciate the time that the two of you have together even more than you may if your schedules were always pretty much in sync. I am not sure that it would work for everyone, but I am sure that for a lot of couples it could actually be ideal.

  • AmberLee M

    AmberLee M

    January 30th, 2015 at 1:16 AM

    My S.O. is in the military and I moved far away from home to be with him. And times got tough and I had to get a job that would greatly make up the difference he couldn’t supply. I was a waitress working graveyard, and we drifted apart cause our schedules were totally ooposittes and sometimes for training he’d be gone for months at a time. We lost connection and lost each other. It took haha space… Me leaving for home.. For each of us to learn what we let slip away. Now, if he’s not off training, we go to bed every night together ( I got a job where I work his work hours) and we are so much better. Everyday we are rebuilding what we lost.

  • Reed

    Reed

    January 30th, 2015 at 10:10 AM

    I honestly think that my wife preferred me working nights because I snore

  • Sonia

    Sonia

    January 31st, 2015 at 8:25 AM

    I guess that because my boyfriend and i both work rotating shifts it just doesn’t feel that different to us. We both have jobs where the hours and shifts are constantly changing, and although this does NOT do the body good… we make it work for us. I guess those are just some of the challenges that you have to be willing to overcome if you love this person enough to stay with them.

  • HAL

    HAL

    February 2nd, 2015 at 3:57 PM

    It becomes even more important that the two of you schedule time to be together, maybe more important than it is for other couples. Couples who work the same schedule are bound to at least pass one another in the house every day. Couples who work shift work may not have this luxury. And I do say luxury because it is so important to have that other person in your life who will take care of you like you do for them.

  • beverly

    beverly

    February 3rd, 2015 at 3:42 AM

    Maybe it’s just me, but if you love someone then you love someone and you do what you have to do to make it work regardless of the work that they do, period.

  • Suzanne

    Suzanne

    March 19th, 2015 at 6:50 PM

    I know the hazards of this well. I have worked nights for 7 years as a nurse with no end in sight and have a husband, a teen, a tween, and a newborn. My husband went through a period where he was very resentful and selfish about me working nights. We went through some rough times, but have worked it out. We don’t wake each other up when we are sleeping. Even if it’s not our sleep schedule, if we are home when the other goes to bed, we join them till we fall asleep. Sex does not have to occur at night. I try to have lunch with him if I’m off for several days. If I’m in bed more hours he doesn’t make a stink realizing that sleep is harder with daytime distractions. He fields all phone calls for me and only calls me if it is urgent. Ultimately, I decided it was best for me to stay on nights. I love the people, the job, the quietness, the money, and most of all…not having to pay for daycare and being home when the kids get home from school even if I do sacrifice sleep sometimes.

  • jane

    jane

    February 15th, 2017 at 8:26 PM

    ive asked my bf to move out cos he works nights.he is disrupting my whole life and well being.the dogs and me all have to sit in the living room allday,with the sound down on the telly,cant do no housework,have people over or make the slightest bit of noise.if we do he goes mental.now i have to sleep on the sofa when i can aswell .all my chores and part time business have to be done between 6pm and 11pm.then i sleep for 3 hours and have to get up at 3 am as he wakes whole house when he comes home.then it starts all over again at 5 am when he goes to bed.got no life nothing.my advise is never live with a shiftworker they are a pain in backside.

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