Cruising couples spend a great lot of time together, basically every minute of the day, working towards a common goal, sharing good and bad moments. There is a common saying that if you survive living on a boat as a couple than you can survive anything.
There had been famous sailing couples, like Susan and Eric Hiscock and Lin and Larry Pardey, and hundreds other that sailed or keep sailing the oceans.
But how difficult is to get along on a sailboat with limited space and privacy? What makes cohabitation on the sea a pleasant experience rather than a hell?
I reached out to Giulia Casani, a Marriage and Family Therapist who lives and works in Chicago to answer these and other questions and to sieve through the romanticism and the myths of the sailing couples
Here is the interview:
FB: Ciao Giulia, thanks for this interview. With you I’d like to talk about those couples that decide to live a life afloat, that share a lot of time together in a very small place. How do you survive?
GC: What I noticed of couples that share the same life goals and career is that in most cases one is the other’s boss. There is a captain and a first mate, in the case of sailing. This makes for a potentially complicated situation where authority and power get in the way of other dynamics of the relationship. It’s yet another opportunity where you can have conflict.
Another complication specific to live-aboard cruisers is that home and workplace coincide, and so “after work” you don’t have anywhere else to go and you are reminded constantly of the good or bad decisions made. To keep these situation in check and to avoid that they contaminate other parts of the couple’s life it is important to negotiate roles.
When roles are not officially explicited and tasks clearly assigned there is the risk that they could be taken for granted. Specifically to tasks and roles, it is important for them to be separate enough that one doesn’t end up treading on the other’s toe. A clear agreement also help in showing if each one is “pulling their own weight” to keep away resentment.
If there is no clarity you end up discussing about it on and on in an infinite loop, and that makes for a stressful and tiring relationship.
FB: Do you think it makes sense to talk about “blue jobs” or “pink jobs” on a boat?
I think that today, at least in the Western World, it doesn’t make sense anymore to leave the decision above roles to culture or society, and so goes for pink and blue jobs on a boat.
Attributing roles, duties and responsibilities is a decision that lie inside the couple itself through negotiation. There are preferred jobs onboard or jobs that one is better than the other at. There are also chores that nobody like and that have to be assigned on a rotation.
Again, it is important to talk about those things and don’t assume things would happen spontaneously. When such decisions are made then stick to it.
Independently of strengths and weaknesses, in the very case of cruising and living aboard a boat it is important to be interchangeable, so in case of emergency the operations of the vessel are not compromised. In this case the most experienced or skilled in a particular task has to be able to teach the partner until he or she becomes competent. That also means to learn how to deal with frustration, to learn how to delegate, and to accept for example that even if that maneuver is not done perfectly, it is good enough.
FB: How difficult is to find your own space while sharing everything and every moment with your partner.
GC: This makes me think about a very good book written by Eshter Perel, a psychologist from Belgium who became very famous through a TED talk. She is a relationship therapist who focuses on sexual desire and infidelity. She pointed out that today we have a romantic ideal and expect from our partner not only to be our lover, but also our best friend, trusted confident, sexual companion, in brief our whole life. This is pretty impossible and yet it has become an assumption of relationships based on love.
On a boat, where couples experience isolation from the rest of society and extreme togetherness, this situation becomes even more difficult and can affect the alchemy of the relationship.
The word desire comes from the Latin dēsidēre (de – from, sideus– star) meaning distant from the stars, which suggests how to experience desire we have to get to a certain distance, longing for something we can’t reach.
If couples work in different places, for instance, they could worry that he or she may encounter an attractive person when they leave the house or during the coffee break. Desire and jealousy have a very strict relations and when couples spend every single minute of their day together, they know they didn’t meet anybody else, the mystery vanishes and so the healthy jealousy.
FB: But how do you keep your lives separate on a small boat?
GC: As a therapist I suggest the same as when kids arrive: you have to plan your life ahead, from sex to dates, from working out to entertainment. You cannot leave it to chance and spontaneity, or it won’t happen, you have to plan ahead.
It’s healthy to go on your own adventures, especially after weeks of eating the same meals, reading the same books and doing everything together. For sailing couples to remain romantically engaged I think it is important to cultivate a private and independent self that is separate from the partner’s, to gain that distance that make desire possible, especially after sailing and cruising start to become a usual activity.