Seafarers share the emotional and physical hardship of maintaining a long-distance relationship.By Celestine Foo, Malaysia correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade
While distance does make the heart grow fonder, it is not the healthiest way to maintain relationships, especially when it comes to familial and romantic relationships. It isn’t easy to watch a loved one set off on a long trip, much less strive to upkeep the bond that physical closeness is unable to replicate.
A support system is important for families
“He missed Charlie’s first steps, a few birthdays, family gatherings – you name it, he has probably missed it,” Joy* says of her husband Martin, a Chief Officer of a cargo ship. “You don’t really get used to it, but you learn to handle the challenges alone,” the mother of a three-year-old son adds.
Car broke down? Call a repairman or learn how to identify what is wrong. Child needs taking care of? Call a close friend or a family member instead. Repairs, renovations, bills – it’s all you.
“It takes a lot of independence and understanding on everyone’s ends”, Joy reflects. “The children probably have it the hardest. Seeing different family units and comparing them to ours makes it seem like Martin is an absent dad, but we do our best”.
Charlie understands that his dad works an irregular job. The time Martin spends away from the ship is precious – he does “regular family things like a barbecue night or just having a glass of wine with my wife” – the little luxuries the rest of us take for granted.
Martin and Joy share that the strain is very real, however. “Mentally and physically, we are both constantly exhausted. We draw strength from those we love and not being able to go home to her after a long day makes the next day a challenge.”
Depressive episodes come and go for Joy, who says that Charlie helps to keep her focused.
“Before my son, Martin was the one who comforted me. It was difficult when he wasn’t around but a close family relationship supplemented those times. With Charlie, I find my motherly instincts kicking in and life feels more purposeful. The butterflies I get when I wait for my husband to reach home is unrivalled. It keeps our relationship exciting, I think”.
A matter of trust
“It’s hard but we are trying to make it work,” 29-year-old Sharlene* says of her three-year relationship with deck crew Roshan*. One of the biggest setbacks is the lack of communication.
The lack of stable internet access or phone coverage makes it difficult to have any private conversations, be it exchanging endearments or having arguments. “We go back to snail mail sometimes. When he can, Roshan sends me letters, postcards, and sometimes little souvenirs.”
What about special dates? It’s one thing to not be present on normal days, but certain occasions are one-in-a-lifetime and missing them would mean missing some milestones. “We make it up to each other when he comes back. I take time off when I can and we spend long periods of time together instead.”
Trust is another obstacle the couple have to overcome. With the long periods of separation, it is only normal for paranoia and some insecurity to creep in. “It isn’t for everyone,” Sharlene shares. The pair have made certain allowances or “agreements” for when they feel too lonely, but neither have acted on the agreement, saying the anticipation of seeing each other again makes everything a lot better.
In terms of sustainability of the relationship, Roshan says that he sees himself building a family with Sharlene. “But maybe not just yet. I intend to save up first and eventually find something that will allow me to be closer to those I love.”
“I’m still young and this is a passion of mine. She loves me and accepts that, which I appreciate. I doubt that I would have been happy in any other job, which would then have led to me being unhappy in other aspects of my life”, Roshan elaborates.
All in all, while the distance is clearly a challenge, it is one that they have chosen to overcome together. While it may not be a lifestyle for all, it can still be a rewarding one that can help the family to grow stronger in the long run.
* Names changed to protect privacy.