10/31/2013 05:03 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Can "Oil Patch Marriages" Ever Work?

Since the oil boom of the 1970's, many Alberta wives have called themselves "oil patch widows" due to work rotations that require their husbands to be away for weeks or months at a stretch. It is understandable how this physical separation can lead to an emotional disconnection between two people who are often leading separate lives.

It is an all-too familiar scene on oil and gas leases: a busy and dangerous job is underway when a key employee gets a call from his wife. Having spent weeks without him, she is lonely, emotional and stressed. The couple spends the next half-hour on the cell phone, as she tries to explain her feelings and he tries to calm the waters--while simultaneously trying to perform his duties. Distracted, he nearly splashes himself with acid. After the job, he concocts a story about a family emergency and rushes home to try and save his marriage; however, instead of resolving anything, the distance, hurt and conflict between him and his wife only worsens. They fight about money, drinking, priorities, everything. Still upset, he leaves home for his next stretch of days-on.

Soon after opening my practice in Calgary, and my satellite office in Red Deer, I realized I was quickly becoming the go-to person for couples struggling to make an "oil patch marriage" work. I realized something else, too--scenes like the above are commonplace, as the skills needed to enjoy a successful oil patch marriage don't come naturally. The challenges are above and beyond the normal challenges of marriage and family life.

Typically, a husband is travelling or on location, working long hours, or sleeping in a camp. A wife is working, taking care of the house and raising the kids. Both feel lonely, exhausted, and--here's the real kicker--unappreciated by their spouse. They start to compete over who works harder or makes greater sacrifices. They may start to imagine what their spouse is up to while away, and these imaginings rarely fall on the sunny side: a wife may picture her husband flirting with every waitress on the way to Fort Nelson, while a husband may wonder whether his wife is Facebooking old flames when the kids are in school. They spend their phone calls arguing, criticizing or issuing ultimatums.

Overall, it's a checklist for divorce: physical and emotional disconnection, negativity, a lack of appreciation and, almost always, poor communication skills that lead to further conflict, misunderstanding and misery. Indeed, Alberta has the highest divorce rates in the entire country. It would be naïve to think that the oil patch lifestyle does not factor into this.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Oil patch couples can make their marriages survive and thrive. Here are a couple initial tips:

First, focus on reconnecting in an emotional sense. Do your best to understand what your spouse has on his or her plate during the days-on rotation and show interest, support and appreciation for that. Tune-in to your family life and get on the same page in terms of parenting, socializing and sharing chores during days-off. Remove tones of contempt and criticism from your voice and speak to your spouse in friendship and with affection. You may need to reconnect in a physical way, too. That's right, get busy in the bedroom. Lovemaking releases oxytocin, a "cuddling" hormone that can deepen feelings of affection and connection.

Second, focus on the pros of an energy sector career - primarily wages, bonuses, benefits and consecutive days-off - and approach the oil patch lifestyle as a team. Couples should establish guidelines for communication when a husband is on-duty: it is highly advisable to limit phone calls or texts during working hours, since this is often when conflict starts and a "cell phone fight" ensues. This isn't just bad for a relationship. It is a recipe for disaster, as a distracted oilfield worker is a dangerous oilfield worker. Marriage problems and lease sites don't mix.

If your marriage has serious problems such as broken trust, spending issues, intense hurt or an inability to communicate or resolve conflict, you may need professional marriage help before you are able to make-up in a lasting way. My practice is a leader when it comes to oil patch marriages. I work with both private individuals and energy-sector companies striving to mitigate the costs associated with employee marital problems; however, in the end, you must be the expert in your own marriage.

It's up to you whether you become a divorce statistic or a success story. There is no doubt that an oil patch career presents its challenges, but it also comes with rewards. With the right skills and attitude, your marriage can rise to those challenges and reap those rewards.

And I should know. I've been a happily married "oil patch wife" for thirteen years.

Debra Macleod is a relationship consultant with offices in Calgary and Red Deer. Her practice specializes in "oil patch marriages" and offers an alternative to traditional counselling. Visit her at