Love in the North

🕔Sep 24, 2007

When British poet Thomas Haynes Bayly coined the saying, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” it’s safe to say he wasn’t trying to foster a communicative, functioning relationship with a miner in northern British Columbia.
“Relationships are hard.” It’s a simple fact; one that Dan and Wendy Orienti can’t seem to impress upon me enough as I sink back into their living room couch.
Forget about the usual challenges to matrimonial life, like taking the garbage out, driving the kids to school and doing the dishes, to name a few. Throw in day-to-day challenges of life in the North, and prospects for a successful relationship can be downright chilling.
Wendy and Dan are partners in both life and work, a pairing that perfectly complements the other, and they listen intently, expertly lobbing their responses back and forth. The only difference between this meeting and any other day at the office is that I’m sitting here solo, and they’re the ones answering the questions.
For more than 10 years, the Orientis have been offering counseling and workshops out of their Smithers home, with a unique approach that offers couples the chance to discuss their relationship with another couple. They use the Personality and Human Relations International (PRH) method, which focuses on self-awareness and becoming who you are.
“A lot of people have no idea who they are. I think that’s worldwide,” Dan says, and certainly many relationship challenges are universal. But shoveling the driveway and chopping firewood aside, some relationship hurdles are unique to the North. Number one on that list seems to be the high incidence of one partner working away from home for long stretches at a time.

Absentee partners

“In the North here, we’ve got an added challenge with people working in camps, or working in the bush 14 or 16 hours a day, that adds an extra strain on couples,” Dan says.
That family dynamic, while not unheard of elsewhere, is common in northern communities and makes communication, the basis for any healthy relationship, somewhat of a challenge.
“They leave here with this awakened commitment to work on improving their communication, and then maybe one of them is gone for three weeks,” Wendy says.
Wendy notes that an awakened self-image can also help the quintessential, plaid-jacketed northerner reconnect with his or her sensitive side. “If their self-image is about being a logger or a rough-and-tumble kind of guy, then to open up and talk about tenderness is hard to do. It flies in the face of an image of himself that he’s secure with.”
Northerners in general tend to be “do-ers,” the Orientis explain. Rather than spend time working through relationship troubles, they would rather be haying the fields or fixing the pickup. So much so, Wendy says, that our sense of self tends to revolve around what we do instead of who we are.
“Here in the North, where there’s maybe more work, I think a lot of people grew up with more ‘doing,’” Dan says. “We have a lot of clients that that’s all they know. But they don’t know how to ‘be.’”
Christina Brazzoni moved her therapy practice from Calgary to Prince George in 1994 and was shocked to discover how few options there were for counseling in northern BC. She first started practicing in rural First Nations communities, and today, as well as counseling at her office in Prince George, her company flies therapists into remote communities on a regular basis.
She says while relationships in northern BC appear to have equal odds for survival with their southern counterparts, they face a unique set of challenges—namely, the absentee partner phenomenon.
“There’s a lot of shift work in the industry that’s up here—like the railroad, the mills—which is a strain for couples in that they’re not living in sync with each other,” she says. “Men will be away for sometimes several weeks at a time and Mom is single parenting, or one of the couple is alone for a good portion of the time.
“I’d say that’s the biggest issue with couples up here.”
On average, there are almost half as many divorces in British Columbia each year as marriages, with similar statistics for most of western Canada and Ontario. In the Maritime Provinces, the percentage is significantly less—closer to a quarter as many people divorce as marry each year.
(Incidentally, British Columbians are among the least likely to get married in a religious ceremony, accounting for only 41 percent of marriages in the province in 2003—lower only in the Yukon, where 27percent of couples had church-based weddings. In contrast, 98 percent of Ontarians were married in a religious ceremony that year.)
Statistics Canada doesn’t keep records on divorce rates in northern BC versus the rest of the province, but it’s interesting to note that divorces in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut are significantly lower than in BC. In fact, Nunavut saw a staggering 33 per cent drop in its divorce rate between 2002 and 2003—four people chose to dissolve their marriages in 2003, compared to six the previous year. There were 67 marriages the same year.
While divorces in the Territories might be significantly lower than the rest of Canada—accounting for only a handful each year in Nunavut and well under 100 in each the Northwest Territories and the Yukon—it seems to have less to do than you might think with keeping someone around to warm your toes on those long winter evenings.

Northern benefits

Brazzoni says strong family values, particularly in aboriginal communities, tend to provide a support network for couples in the North. Not only do smaller, close-knit towns offer support that may not be present in larger centres, it often means that extended family lives in the vicinity.
“There are some really good things about smaller communities. Many people living in Prince George are from Prince George, so there’s good support for couples and for families—grandparents, aunties and uncles, that sort of thing,” she says.
Hardened, hardworking northerners take heart: there are definitely some pros to cultivating everlasting love here in the hinterlands.
For starters, the counselors advise, increase communication by taking time to reignite the flame. Fortunately, we live in the perfect environment to do it. When they’re not working, the Orientis cherish their backcountry trips into scenic and remote locations, where they can spend days in the mountains connecting with nature as well as each other. The upside to the northern lifestyle is that we live in a locale where such adventures are easily accessible.
“The natural environment can provide stimulus for the being,” Wendi says. “Even the garden—that little bit of time in the backyard can be your brief taste of quietude.”
Brazzoni agrees, noting that a trip to the cabin or a family ski weekend is a great way to reconnect. “Certainly, there’s some good, clean living up here,” she says. “I think that the small-town lifestyle is good for people. There is a strong sense of community in northern BC. Many people like the outdoors, so a lot of people here camp.”
As for Bayly, the whimsical poet—well, his adage has mutated into many truisms: “absence makes the heart go wander;” “absence makes the heart grow fungus;” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder…for someone else.”
It’s said that Bayly himself died miserable and penniless when anxiety over his wife’s mismanaged estate undermined his health. Perhaps he’d have been better off with a hardworking northerner.