The nature and role of the family has changed over time as have patterns of marriage and co-habitation. In Britain, the family, once a unit of economic production in pre-industrial times, has developed to become a private domain providing emotional intimacy to members.
Over recent years there has been a decline in the number of marriages, with a corresponding increase in rates of co-habitation and high rates of divorce, separation and re-marriage. These figures, do not, however, necessarily suggest that the value and importance couple-relationships are in decline. Indeed some people have argued that, at least in contemporary Western society, the romantic, love relationship between a couple is increasing in importance as wider family and other social ties are weakening and individuals become more and more socially isolated.
Research suggests that, after marriage, couples depend mainly, if not entirely, on their partners for support. Relationships with children have also been seen to change over recent years, where families
and households have been seen to become more child-centred and the social distance between parents and children reduced.
This dependence on intimate partnerships and immediate family as a support system may be particularly important for seafarers who are, potentially, an extremely socially isolated group. When on leave seafarers are often geographically removed from their work mates, and, where they are in close spatial proximity, may have different work patterns which result in few occasions where leave periods overlap.
Current crewing patterns and strategies often mean that seafarers will work with different individuals each time they sail, prohibiting or impeding the establishment of work-place friendships and encouraging more ‘on-board acquaintances’. Isolation on board may be amplified by the ‘para-military’ structure of the ship where officers and ratings, and different departments (deck, engine,
and steward) are separated both socially and physically.
Furthermore, the nature of seafaring work patterns may make it harder to initiate and maintain shore-based friendship networks resulting in social marginality and isolation. In this context the importance of a family and marital relationship may be amplified.
The stresses and strains associated with a seafaring lifestyle may take their toll both on the relationship and on the individuals involved, potentially leading to stress-related health problems and possibly relationship deterioration and eventual breakdown.
However, in addition to impacting on individual well-being, problems at home may also have safety
implications within the work environment. The importance of the spouse as a social support system and in enabling the pilot to cope with stress has already been acknowledged by the Aviation industry, along with the specific problems associated with a marriage where one partner is frequently absent.
Research with airline pilots has suggested that domestic stress and other major life events may have a detrimental effect on pilot’s judgement and wellbeing. Indeed the Aviation Authority recognises the importance of psychological and mental wellbeing to risk and work performance and includes tests for psychological health as part of its standard medical screening for pilots and aircrew.
Whilst, of course, it can be argued that any person may take their domestic stresses and problems ‘with them’ to work, for those who are intermittently absent these problems may take on new significance. In addition, there may also be a concurrent lack of opportunities to communicate with home along with limited opportunities for leisure and socialisation within the work environment which may amplify the impact of psychological well-being and work performance.
Indeed, even where there are no perceived problems in family relations, the emotional deprivation associated with prolonged absences from partner and loved ones can lead to psychological deterioration and increased rates of emotional tension which in turn may lead to increases in stress, emotional alertness and aggression, threatening individual and workplace health and safety.
Seafaring is a very particular work environment and differs from other shore-based occupations that involve intermittent absence in that the partner may be largely un-contactable whilst away at work and methods of communication may be often slow and unreliable or very expensive.
Unlike military wives who may have the support of being in a community of like-situated people, seafarers’ wives may be socially isolated from their contemporaries and may not be offered specialised support and services that are frequently offered to military personnel and their families.
Seafarers may also be similarly isolated without sufficient support networks, both while at sea and while ashore.
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This forum thread explores the reasons both seafarers and their partners which account for seafarers’ continued service at sea and the benefits they see attached to this particular lifestyle.
When asked about the benefits of a seafaring career both seafarers and their partners most commonly would mention ‘money’ as attraction of the work. Seafarers would often admit that their salaries are significantly larger than those they could expect to earn ashore.
It is also recognised that the differentials between seagoing and shore-side salaries are increased due to the tax benefits extended to seafarers.
The financial security associated with the job and the assurance of a regular wage is also an attraction to some seafarers.
The importance of the money and the regular salary was such that many seafarers would cite it as the only advantage of working at sea
Indeed this dependence on the particular salary level could act as a trap to many seafarers and make it difficult for them to consider alternative (and less lucrative) shore-side employment due to their existing financial commitments. This dependence on the financial rewards of seafaring could be vouched by several seafarers, as the following selection of quotes from SIRC study illustrates:
• Because I needed to secure mortgage for a property and I’m kind of obliged to stay where I am to retain the necessary level of income, that’s the only reason. (Senior Officer)
• Well I don’t like going away to sea, it’s just that I don’t think I can do anything else that brings in the same remuneration package onshore as I can earn at sea. (Senior Officer)
• I got to this stage really where I was thinking, you know, ‘what the devil am I doing this for?’, and then I think ‘well I am doing this because I need the money and I am just hanging in until I think I have saved enough’. (Senior Officer)
The benefits of a seafaring salary can also be mentioned by seafarer’s partners; however they mention this less often than seafarers and are more likely to cite other advantages of the lifestyle. Seafarers’ wives would talk about financial benefits in terms of having a ‘nice house’ or car and also in relation to the fact that they feel they do not have to ‘worry about money’.
As with seafarers, women also recognised the ‘financial trap’ where becoming accustomed to a salary at a particular level could act as a ‘tie’ to keep the seafarer working at sea.
Benefits to marital relationships
Whilst research has pointed to the detrimental consequences of intermittent partner absence on couple relationships, many would admit that such working patterns could have beneficial effects on their relationships.
The positive effects are more likely to be mentioned by women than their partners, perhaps due to the fact that women may be more used to reflecting on, and talking about their relationships.
Many seafarers and their wives would talk about the intense pleasure and happiness they experienced when the seafarer returned home and some would use the term ‘honeymoon’ to describe their relationship during reunion.
The following quotes(from the SIRC study report) are illustrative of their comments:
• It’s tremendous buzz just seeing your wife again and just being there sort of thing spending time with her. (A Junior Officer)
• There is always that I am looking forward and I want to see him. There is something that I can always feel exited about and I feel happy. (Wife of a Senior Officer)
•When he comes home and relationship is fresh and exciting so maybe that wouldn’t be there [if he had a shore job]. (Wife of a Senior Officer)
Periodic absences of one partner are seen to stop the relationship ‘getting into a rut’ and encourage couples to appreciate each other and their time together. Rather, some couples do feel that they have fewer rows when they are together than their shore-based contemporaries do with their partners
As following comments would ratify:
• You don’t take so much for granted and you do more together as well. (A Junior Officer)
• I think what happens is as a seaman you learn to value your time with each other, you learn to respect each other a lot more, we have our ups and downs but I stand back and you pay attention to a lot more things than you would do if you worked in a factory. You don’t take each other for granted, I don’t, or try not to, put it that way. (A Senior Officer)
• You don’t get into your ruts that people talk about. I don’t think you take each other for granted, and you appreciate each other more and you appreciate the time you’ve got. (Wife of Junior Officer)
• I think when he does come home we don’t argue like a lot of couples. We don’t argue that, very, not often at all, because it is like a holiday when he’s home then, you know, we get on really well when he’s home. (Wife of Junior Officer)
Where seafarers have been in previous, unhappy relationships, the lengthy separations required by seafaring work patterns are seen as making difficult marriages more tolerable. However, this could be disadvantageous as it was also felt to prolong relationships which are considered better ended.
As two seafarers explained:
• I regretted it [my first marriage], financially, emotionally, in all ways it turned out to be terrible, a terrible move, and caused a lot of pain to myself and my first wife, and had I been living ashore it wouldn’t have lasted so long. (Senior Officer)
• The only reason I think I stayed - we stayed together - was because of the fact that I was away [at sea]. I could handle a couple of months at home knowing that I was going away, I managed to go away and see friends and relations and all the rest of it so it wasn’t too bad. (Senior Officer).
A further attraction of seafaring was the work-to-leave ratio. Although working conditions varies, officers in senior ranks could be employed on contracts as favourable as equal work to leave periods and those in junior positions have higher work to leave ratios.
Seafarers enjoyed these long periods, free from the constraints and demands of work and couples were positive about the benefits of the time together on their relationships. Both seafarers and their partners would often make comparisons to traditional shore-side hours of ‘nine-to-five’ and may point to the increased quality time with their families that seafaring work patterns allowed. As following comments from the same SIRC study would confirm:
• It’s nice having 2 and a half months. You don’t have to work. You can go out every night of the week if you want to. You can lie in as late as you wanted to rather than get up at 8 o’clock each morning, no watches. (A Junior Officer)
• Really I think we benefit quite a lot from, from the lifestyle as well. Because we do have then home, sort of for long periods of time, which compensates, I think, for the periods they are away. (Wife of Senior Officer)
• I was that person who had a 9 to 5 job and had to commute to it, I mean I don’t think, if you work out hour for hour and a day by day situation, I don’t think that same person could turn round and say I’ve the same quality time as with my children as I have when I’m home. (A Senior Officer)
• It’s lucky because when he’s home for a month he’s got more quality time with the children than a lot of fathers have because like now yesterday he took them swimming and he’ll take [our son] for a bike ride after school so he does do a lot of things like that for the kids where if he was working 9 to 5 he wouldn’t be able to do. (Wife of Senior Officer)
Some women would talk positively about the opportunities and freedom offered to them during
their husband’s absence. Women took advantage of this time to pursue their own interests, hobbies and friendships and conceptualised their time alone in a positive way.
For seafarers, other benefits related to the nature of the work, in particular the relative flexibility and autonomy that they did not feel would find in shore based employment. As two comments would ratify
• I like irregular hours, well on the ships I’m on the watches on our ships is 6 hours on 6 hours off. And I like doing 6 hours on 6 hours off, puts the hours in-between for the paper week and all. I couldn’t do a 9 to 5. (Junior Officer)
• I don’t necessarily think I’d be happy even if I could earn the same money in a shore job if that was too routine, I wouldn’t like to be too physically bound to a job in a confined, or by virtue of the job itself where you’re stuck in a particular room for a lengthy time, or on a shop floor doing the same job. (Senior Officer)
Additionally, despite increasing rapid turnaround times and growth in offshore loading and discharge, the opportunity to travel continued to be a benefit of the job appreciated by seafarers.
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In this forum thread strategies for coping with the Seafaring lifestyle will be explored as often been suggested by Seafarers and their Partners, along with the factors they say are important to the sustaining of their relationship.
The most frequently mentioned factor associated with succeeding in a seafaring relationship is trust. Trust is usually referred to in the context of sexual fidelity. Seafarers are aware that their prolonged absences could not only facilitate an extra-marital relationship, but that the loneliness associated with their absence could perhaps even predispose to infidelity.
As two seafarers explained:
• I think some women, especially younger women, would have difficulty, especially if they didn’t have children actually, the peer pressures are there to go out and have a good time sometimes, so naturally there is a pressure on the marriage or the partnership to stay to a level of fidelity I suppose. (Senior Officer)
• I think it’s [a worry] for all seafarers, you know because leaving them in a position where they can be lonely leaving them vulnerable really isn’t it. (Senior Officer)
For this reason trust between couples was seen as of particular importance. As the following quotes illustrate:
• Well she’s got to believe what he tells her, trust, if there’s any doubt about his integrity then you haven’t got you much choice. Because he’s not accountable, standing in front of her all the time. I think that is quite important but it depends, seem to be very reliable, strong integrity, some trust between the two of you. (Senior Officer)
• I think if you don’t have some degree of trust well there’s no point in being . . .. there’s no point in going on with the marriage. (Senior Officer)
Wives are also aware of the potential for extra-marital relationships for both themselves and their partners. They may refer to images of seafarers as sexually active and ‘having a girl in every port’ and also perceptions of their own susceptibility to form new relationships. For women too, trust is viewed as crucial to the relationships survival. As two wives commented:
• I think that a lot of men would find other women quite easily, and I think that a lot of women would probably do, easy to drift off as well. That’s the sort of life we lead these days, but I think you’ve just got to trust your partner. (Wife of Senior Officer)
• Yes they do go ashore, whether there’s someone in every port . . .?. But I think you have to trust someone, you have to believe in them and trust them that they’re not going to do it. But I mean you have got the same opportunity at home you know to do it yourself you know. (Wife of Senior Officer)
Trust is predominantly referred to in the context of sexual monogamy, however, for some seafarers, trust also extends to include a belief or faith that their partner could successfully manage without them at home. This included a confidence that their partner would manage household financial affairs in keeping with their expectations and could generally ‘cope’ with an absent husband.
Such a belief in their partner’s ability to cope allows the seafarer to work aboard ship without the burden of anxieties and concern over people and events at home.
For both seafarers and their wives communication between ship and shore is reported as important in managing separations and reunions. Indeed the couples who have a long history in the industry often made reference to the problems associated with the limited communication opportunities early on in their relationship and noted how much more manageable separations had become in light of modern communication technologies.
Frequent communication could help bridge emotional gaps and provide the couple with the sense that the seafarer continued to participate in everyday events and decisions whilst at sea. As one seafarer explained:
It wasn’t too bad always thinking I’m gonna get a letter or something like that and then you imagine a phone call and stuff like that it was good. (Junior Officer)
Such contact, whether by telephone, email or letter also served to ‘break up’ the trip so that absences do not seem so lengthy. One wife who had regular contact with her husband whilst he was at sea commented:
We’re on the phone every other day, we email each other, the contact is so much more now that you just don’t feel apart so much as the early days you know. (Wife of Senior Officer)
A upcoming trend of having continuous internet access on-board the merchant ships is a very big boon to the couples, in this context.
For seafarers’ wives, the difficulties associated with partner absence are both practical and emotional. Practical issues related to dealing with household problems, from fixing broken shelves and washing machines to dealing with floods and power cuts. Emotional problems refers to the loneliness associated with separation from their partner and anxieties and depression associated with this absence. In both these domains the existence of a local support network of family and/ or friends could be vital.
Family support is often valued for issues of a practical nature, in particular for help with childcare. As two women explained:
• We were living close by [to my family], that helps as well because for all the things sometimes when you do need help or you need to go somewhere and the children . . I haven’t had to take the children shopping for every little thing. (Wife of Senior Officer)
• I’m sure it would be harder if I wasn’t supported. Although I like to think that I don’t rely on people, I’m sure if they weren’t there life would be a lot harder, you know it’s little things. The other week when the light bulb went and the I couldn’t reach – even with the step ladder I couldn’t reach - and my dad’s 6ft 2 so I got him to do that, and ‘oh while you’re here can you do that and that’ and you know just the little jobs that you never get round to doing, that [my husband] would do. (Wife of Junior Officer)
In addition, close and frequent social contact with family and friends appears to help protect women from emotional problems such as loneliness and depression whilst their husband is away. One women living in the village where she grew up described her experience:
This house’s an open house, everybody’s in and out friends, cousins, children. It was like a port of call, that’s what my father in law used to say. So no, I was never lonely. (Wife of Senior Officer)
Such support has a positive effect on the seafarers’ wife and subsequently is beneficial for the seafarer, who could continue his work at sea without worrying about his partner’s well being.
‘A good seafarers’ wife’
Interestingly, when seafarers are asked about factors that helped make their relationship work they often talked in terms of either characteristics of their wife or the context in which their wife lived at home rather than focussing on themselves, their own conditions of work or experiences during their leave periods.
This may be because the seafarers recognise the importance of their wife’s acceptance and support to both the success of their seafaring career and also their marriage. As one seafarer put it:
We simply couldn’t, couldn’t have survived, if the wife was showing me any, any signs of being unsatisfied, or complaining if you like, about you know going away to sea, I don’t think you could have managed or survived. (Senior Officer)
Independence is a characteristic men often associate with a ‘good seafarers’ wife’, as is the ability to cope with day-to-day events and demands alone. One seafarer explained:
If she’s the sort of wife who has to ask her husband or how to do or what to do about everything you will never succeed. (Senior Officer)
Women also recognises the need to be self sufficient and independent. This independence relates to the ability to manage household and family affairs alone and also to the need to maintain their own identity and interests outside their marital relationship. As two women commented:
• I think that is the main thing, you have to learn to be independent and strong and cope on your own and cope with all the problems that come with the children. (Wife of Senior Officer)
• I am quite an independent person. So I suppose that sort of helps you keep your own independence. (Wife of Senior Officer)
Seafarers’ wives have developed strategies to deal with their partners’ absence. The most frequently mentioned of these is ‘keeping busy’. This could be done by involvement in paid work, immersion in domestic labour or increased social contact with family and friends. As one young wife commented:
I just try to be strong I think and keep myself busy, I’ve got brilliant friends and good family so I think that’s what keeps me going really. (Wife of Junior Officer)
Children could also inadvertently ease the difficulties of husband absence as not only could they provide a source of company and therefore combat loneliness, but also their needs could be time-demanding, and indeed sometimes all consuming, for their mothers and thus fulfil the need to ‘keep busy’. Parental activities such as school runs and involvement in church and school activities could also provide extra sources of social contact for women while their partners were away at sea.
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