According to Baumeister and Leary (1995), intimate relationships entail frequent and affectively pleasant interactions between the involved parties within a stable and enduring context of concern and caring. Seafaring couples, however, are often deprived of frequent interaction by separation. Even long distance communication is not available most of the time (Ellis et al. 2012; Sampson et al. 2018). Without frequent and caring interaction, couples are likely to suffer from loneliness and distress (Tang 2012). Perhaps more importantly, tensions may arise because a couple cannot provide one another with the necessary support they require, either emotionally or physically, due to the separation.
In this context, the interview data indicated that seafarer-partners liked to share these problems on the website and helped each other to manage them. One informant revealed:
I like to initiate, and respond to postings regarding emotions, for example, when seafarers’ relations with their lovers meet problems, when some people are not confident about their relationships in the separation period, etc. These emotions and feelings are very similar to mine. I feel empathy with them. I will try my best to comfort them, to encourage them, and to support them.
In order to illustrate further, I use three discussion threads below to show how they ‘comfort’, ‘encourage’ and ‘support’ each other. The first one was written by Bluesky who was experiencing difficult times while her boyfriend was at sea:
Example A: I have thought it over and over again. Maybe we should terminate the relationship, because I cannot sustain it any longer. I have not recovered from the illness… I just knew from a phone-call today that my father got injured in work and my brother has also been injured in the school. My mother has to take care of the shop, my father and brother alone, since I am not well and not together with them either. I feel so bad and useless… .
The second seafarer-partner, Lotus, revealed her frustration caused by her parents’ objection of her relationship with a seafarer. She wrote:
Example B: Several days ago when my parents knew that I was still in a relationship with my boyfriend, they admonished me. They are not happy with his job and family and are forcing me to terminate the relationship. What should I do? Please give me some suggestions!
The third posting was made by Lily, who was not entirely sure about whether her boyfriend loved her or not:
Example C: Having seen that most sisters’ lovers here are working in the deep sea fleet, I used to feel fortunate that I could keep in touch with him through messages and phone-calls… After he left, I make use of every little spare time to send messages to him. Gradually, sending messages becomes the main theme of my life and it is my source of happiness.… But he always replies me at the ratio of 1:3. This hurts me. I warned him several times. But after only few days, he would be back to his former attitude. This time I feel that I have had enough.… I sent him a message: Since it continues like this, we’d better break up.…
These three postings clearly indicate a sense of frustration. It is suggested that bad feelings signal a gap between the perceived reality and tacitly held expectations (Hochschild 1983; Tang 2009; Turner and Stets 2006). Bluesky’s (example A) bad feelings can be regarded as resulting from those unexpected and unfortunate events that she described. In example B, it could be argued that Lotus possibly expected that her parents would support her but this was not the case. While in example C, apparently, Lily hoped very much for reciprocation from her boyfriend only to be disappointed by his failure.
By revealing their problems in a public forum, the three seafarer-partners invited others, either explicitly or implicitly, to help them manage these emotional tensions and to provide support. Fifteen seafarer-partners replied to Bluesky’s posting, eleven to Lotus, and another fifteen to Lily. In those replies, the seafarer-partners did what Hochschild (1983) terms as ‘emotion work’ to help the initiators. An analysis of the replies suggested several strategies involved in the emotion work on the HCS website, although the boundaries between these strategies are not clear-cut. To avoid repetition, I only use some representative replies to illustrate these tactics.
The first one is acknowledgement that it is not easy to be a seafarer-partner. To posting A, one replied:
A1Footnote 1: Seafarer-partners do sacrifice a lot, especially in difficult times. I hope that together with your friends you can overcome the current problems. Problems are always fleeting.
One participant answered to posting B:
B1: There are lots of problems in our way. I think the best way forward for both of us and our parents is to move and change our parents, and to make them understand and support our choice. Maybe by that time, I think we will be the happiest persons in the world.
Both respondents first acknowledged the difficulties of being a seafarer-partner. By doing so, on the one hand, they offered sympathy and understanding; on the other, they suggested implicitly that hard times were common for seafarer-partners and thus normalised the problems. Acknowledgement, however, did not seem enough, since it did not give any practical suggestions to help solve the problems. Therefore, A1 went on to encourage Bluesky to overcome the problem; and B1 offered advice.
The second strategy of providing help is encouragement to the frustrated to be strong, as shown in A1. Another two also offered encouragement to Bluesky:
A2: Do not feel too sad. Things will be going better. Believe yourself, believe your love!
A3: The suffering will be over soon. The sun will come out after the rain.
One seafarer-partner replied to Lotus urging continuance:
B2: If you love each other, do not give up! I give you my best wishes and may you be happy forever!
By replying to different postings, all three seafarer-partners encouraged the initiators to overcome their difficult times: hold on to your love, do not give up; although there are problems, they are fleeting; happiness lies just ahead! Thus, the encouragement also served, on the one hand, to play down difficulties, since the latter were regarded as fleeting; on the other, to offer hope—suffering will end soon. These encouraging words arguably provided some strength and confidence to the initiators to tide them over the hard times.
The third type of response is a reframing of the situation for the initiators. For example:
A4: This is just your temporary feeling. In fact, you are blaming him, since so many things have happened but he is not with you! I can understand your feeling, for this happened to me before. In fact, you do not really want to terminate the relationship. Think twice and have confidence in yourself and him. Do not let yourself feel regret in the future.
This replier started her response by playing down the situation—it was temporary and thus was not as serious as the initiator had thought. Following that, she reframed the situation for the initiator. In this seafarer-partner’s view, Bluesky was blaming, rather than intending to break up with, her boyfriend and therefore the action of terminating the relationship should not be taken; otherwise, it would be costly. The fact that ‘this has happened to me’ justified her competence in doing this on the one hand, and normalised the situation for Bluesky on the other—you are not the only one and many of us have experienced this problem. In the end, this replying seafarer-partner served the purpose of encouraging Bluesky to ‘have confidence’ and offered advice—‘think twice’ and ‘do not let yourself feel regret’. The reframing strategy was widely used in replies to posting C:
C1: Do not mind this too much. In the past, we could only expect letters, which take several months. How fortunate now we are that we have mobiles! On board the ship, he cannot carry the mobile everywhere. He cannot receive your messages on time. Even if he can, he may not be able to reply to you immediately since he has got job to do. Moreover, not the whole coastal sea is covered by a network service. Some areas are not covered at all.…
C2: Many times, our environments and moods are not synchronised.… When you are full of passion, maybe he is busy with working; when you are sleeping, maybe he becomes passionate.… We are all different. Especially with those in distance relationships, synchronisation is very difficult.
C3: In the past, I also used to hasten my husband to reply to my messages. Only after I visited his ship did I realise how hard and tiresome his job is. There are always reasons for not responding to messages. Do not take it seriously.
C4: All men are careless. My partner only replies to me once after receiving one hundred of messages from me.…
These replies reframed and reinterpreted the situation from different perspectives. C1 first downplayed the problem: compared with the past, you are in a better position and should feel satisfied. Then the replier continued to give two possible reasons to justify the failure of Lily’s boyfriend: either he was working or there was no network coverage. C2 offered another reason—tempo-spatial dislocation and asynchronization. Based on her own experience, the third replier believed that seafarers had to work hard and therefore did not have much energy left for messaging. The first three replies also gave Lily a sense of what could be happening at sea. The last one generalised men’s ‘nature’ and suggested that it was ‘natural’ for men not to reciprocate women’s intimacy.
Reframing, as indicated by the examples, was at the same time normalising. It served to convince initiators that the situations were widely experienced and normal and therefore there was no need to feel unhappy or distressed. Playing down and normalising the situation, arguably, would change the initiators’ perception of reality and thus reduce the difference between the expectation and the perception.
Reframing also helped frustrated seafarer-partners to make sense of what was happening to them. The initiators’ bad experiences disrupted their lives and made them feel insecure about themselves and their relationships. In a sense, they felt a loss of control. Others’ reinterpretations threw a positive light on the situations and thus helped the initiators to understand things in a less threatening way. Orgad’s (2004a, b) study of breast cancer patients’ web-pages and online help groups suggests that their sharing of illness experiences and the knowledge gained from this served to empower patients in the sense that they were able to make sense of, and manage, the threat and disruption that cancer posed to their routine everyday lives. Similarly, reframing on the HCS seemed to make it easier for distressed seafarer-partners to reflect more upon, and to better manage, their disrupted lives and to regain a sense of security and control. Maybe for this reason, Lily came back to the thread and thanked others for their support.
The final support strategy which was identified was offering advice, which as indicated earlier, was sometimes intertwined with other forms of tactics. Here, I show more examples:
B3: Try your best to get your parents’ consent. When you become a seafarer’s wife, you will be home alone for a long period of time, during which you will need your parents’ support.
B4: If you are deep in love with each other, and if you are really prepared for the future difficulties of being a SP, take action to change your parents’ attitude.
C5: Do not hold it too tight. Learn to release it a bit sometimes. Like chocolate, it melts if you hold it too tight.
B3 not only gave a suggestion, but also pointed out the implication of not acquiring consent from parents. B4 advised Lotus to transform her parents’ attitude. Although the two suggestions were a bit different, the aim was the same—try to change the parents. Based upon her understanding of love, C5 offered her advice to Lily: give your boyfriend some freedom. These suggestions, arguably, helped the initiators to take informed actions.
The four strategies, as shown above, served to downplay and normalise problems, throw positive light on negative experiences, and offer hope and advice to seafarer-partners in distress. As such, they contributed to alleviating tensions for seafarer-partners and nurturing their well-being. Mermaid, a seafarer’s girlfriend aged 24, for example, said in the interview:
I feel that… since he is not home, there is a kind of longing. I want very much to talk to other seafarer-partners about my situation, the problems I experienced in work and everyday life, and my pressure. Then they would reply to me… some of them give me advice, which I feel gives me guidance in life. Their replies also help to remove some of my pressure [stress].