Oilpatch couples find ways to make it work
The dynamics of the oilpatch work environment put unique stress on romantic relationships.
While the promise of wealth, work and financial stability draws many to the industry, the long hours, days and weeks away from home and stress of the job can take a toll on those closest to the workers.
Krystal Acton of Red Deer is one of thousands of people with significant others who work in the oilfield. She and her fiancé, Eric Drader, have been living this lifestyle for about 10 years and while they have struggles, as all relationships do, they make it work.
While Drader doesn’t usually work in camp, he can be on a lease five hours away and spend 12 to 36 hours on the job.
“The times he comes home vary all the time — they could be at dinner time, sometimes it’s three in the morning,” said Acton, a dayhome provider.
The couple have a four-month-old and two-year-old, and Acton works.
“It affects us just trying to stay on a routine and trying to keep everybody happy,” said Acton. “We have day-to-day struggles, too — our daughter has epilepsy and that makes it more of a struggle than anything else, really. When she has bad days, those are the harder days for us.
“Over the years, I’ve kind of gotten used to it. Some days are hard because you know you have to do all the cleaning, putting everybody to bed, making dinner, but we make it work. He makes up for it when he’s on days off.”
The long-term hope is that Drader will switch to a regular 9-to-5 day.
Acton’s future mother-in-law, Kelly Frayn, is president of the Red Deer Oilwives Club. A member since 1998, she was an oilpatch wife until her husband was killed on a worksite in 1985 and she became a single mom.
She joined the group through a friend. The group has two meetings a month, one for the executive and one for general members, and currently has 22 members.
“We’re really close because we can relate to each other,” said Frayn. “It’s the fellowship part of it, we phone each other all the time. When I was younger, we’d babysit for each other. It’s support for each other. I was lucky my husband was home every night but my daughter-in-law is home with the kids a lot because my son is gone working a lot.”
Transfers are a constant for people employed in the oilpatch. Just recently, she received an email from a person moving to the area and looking for support in the group. She will be a guest at the next meeting.
“Most of my friends, the ones I would call my closest friends, are the people I met through the support group,” said Frayn. “You become like a family with a very close bond. You’re phoning each other, going out for lunches, meeting up with each other.”
Another option for people struggling with making oilfield relationships work is counselling.
A former mediator, Debra MacLeod, now counsels couples, specifically those with at least one person employed in the oilfield industry. She recently set up an office in Red Deer and said she sees a common thread when counselling couples: the problem of assumptions.
“Where you have a guy working up on a lease, maybe in a camp or something like that, and you have a wife at home, either stay-at-home with the kids or working herself and balancing the home, and each of those two people is making huge assumptions about how the other person is spending their day,” said MacLeod. She also was an oilpatch wife who has been through the experiences these couples face.
“Wife tends to think ‘You’re out with the boys having great food, you’re not having to clean, you’re furthering your career all the time, having adult conversations, life is great for you isn’t it?’ While husband tends to think ‘You don’t have to get up early, you get to be with the kids, you don’t have to worry about being the main bread winner, you’re not running around or freezing out in the cold like I am or taking crap from the guys.’
“Each person thinks the other has it better than they do and these assumptions spiral in their head to the point that they have a lot of resentment for the other person based on these assumptions.”
Money also pays a role. MacLeod said it doesn’t matter how much you make, what matters is how much you keep. And a significant upswing in income can have an impact on the relationship.
“There is an attitude that goes with it, a sense of ‘Look at me, I’m making all this money,’ and the big lifted trucks we see everywhere. It’s pretty stereotypical,” said MacLeod. “It is common to have a guy buy a $60,000 pickup with all the bells and whistles and just park it in the driveway at home. Then the wife gets upset, she’s bagging groceries and he’s buying this, and he says ‘I make the money, I can do whatever I want with my money.’ ”
Another wrench in the dynamic is the nature of oilfield work, which can take a person away from the home for few weeks to a camp, only to have them return for a week, creating a huge change to day-to-day routine.
“Dad comes home, he misses the kids and what does he want to do, he wants to break the rules,” said MacLeod. “Stay up late, watch a movie, eat in front of the TV, never mind homework we’ll do that in the morning. It’s coming from a good place, he misses his kids — he doesn’t want to come home and be a slave-driver, he wants them to think Dad’s home, it is fun.”
What makes relationships like this work is focusing on the benefits of oilpatch employment: the money, health benefits, consecutive days off and early retirement options.
It is also important to stay connected while the man is working, but technology poses problems.
“It’s good to some extent, I’m a big fan of Skype and Facetime with kids, that is fantastic,” said MacLeod. “Where people miss the boat and problems is by texting. Texting is a massive form of miscommunication and fights. I’ve had oil companies call me in where they have a fracking job the next day and the supervisor is having meltdown from a fight through the cellphone.
“I empathize with them because I’ve been through these fights, and come out the other side a lot stronger.”