Oil and gas layoffs pose new challenges for couples

After being married to an oilfield worker for almost 16 years, Rita Belisle is used to having the house to herself — but lately that's changed.

Albertans are being forced to change their ways and adjust to new realities with thousands out of work

Chris Biollo, with his wife Tammi-Lynn, lost his job in October. He's one of thousands out of work in the oilpatch. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

After being married to an oilfield worker for almost 16 years, Rita Belisle is used to having the house to herself — but lately that's changed.

Her husband, Sylvain, was laid off six months ago and is spending more time in their slate grey, bi-level in Sylvan Lake, Alta. He's one of the tens of thousands who have lost their jobs in the oilpatch this year. 

"Usually he's gone 20 and home 10," said Rita. "We're getting to know each other again."

"There's days that you think, you know, 'Just get the hell out of the house,'" she said with a laugh. "'I've seen your face for six months!' And he's probably thought the same thing. But at the end of the day we sit down, we figure it out."

'Chicken 1 day, feathers the next' 

Rita, 51, and Sylvain, 52, have been through downturns before. They know enough to plan for them. 

"It's feast or famine, you know. It's chicken one day and feathers the next, that's the way the oilpatch has always been and we're a hardy bunch," said Rita.

She concedes, however, that "this time people are a little more worried."

Rita and Sylvain Belisle in their garage workshop in Sylvan Lake. The couple are adjusting to life together after years of Sylvain working away in the oilpatch. (Allison Demptster/CBC)

Gloomy numbers

The gloomy numbers keep racking up as the downturn drags on, with the ranks of Albertans receiving Employment Insurance benefits rising by 9.1 per cent in September and the credit agency TransUnion reporting that credit and loan delinquencies are starting to pile up in the province, surpassing the Canadian average. 

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) pegs the number of job losses in the oil and gas sector at roughly 35,000, but that estimate was made in August. There have been more rounds of layoffs since and oil well drilling contractors are bracing for a grim year ahead. 

​​Sylvain, a drilling consultant who has worked in the oilpatch for about three decades, used to check the price of oil daily. He doesn't bother anymore.

"The reserve is so high," he said. "It's why this downturn is so scary, because there is so much oil."

"Makes you wonder, is it time to get out of this industry? Is it time to find something else that isn't so volatile?" Rita added.

Cutting back

The Belisles are cutting back on extras and dipping into their retirement fund, and they're not alone. Oilpatch households across Alberta are making similar calculations with their budgets. 

Chris Biollo, a power engineer in Langdon, was laid off in October and figures his savings will last another five months.

"If I don't find anything after December, I might hit panic mode then," he said. 

For now, he's enjoying one upside of the downturn: more time with his kids, seven-year-old Piper and 15-year-old Tyson. 

His wife, Tammi-Lynn, works at the local credit union.

"Uncertainty is changing everything," she said. "It's changing how we're living day-to-day. It's changing how we're planning for the future. It's changing how we're looking at Christmas. It's changing how we're looking at the kids' activities." 

Deborah Kieran of the Calgary Counselling Centre. The centre has seen an increase in couple's seeking counselling since the economic downturn. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

Couples counsellors in demand

As families cope with the effects of the downturn in the oil industry, counsellors are in growing demand. 

"We are definitely seeing an increase in the number of people coming in to discuss couples counselling," said Deborah Kieran, a psychologist at the Calgary Counselling Centre.

Between January and October the centre has seen an 11 per cent increase in couples looking for counselling this year compared to last.

It can be especially difficult for men who are used to being the main money earner in the family.

"With the breadwinner title gone, what is their title now? It can be a very confusing time, a time where you want to be able to figure things out but you're perhaps a little bit ashamed or feel bad about it and hesitant to reach out," said Kieran.

"Financially people are hitting that panic button — 'Oh, maybe we shouldn't have bought that fifth wheel, and the quad, and the boat, and the place on the Shuswap.' You know, 'maybe we got ahead of ourselves,'" said Debra Macleod, a relationship consultant and mediator, who works mainly with oilpatch couples.

"You're seeing people who aren't on the same page in terms of how they're going to reduce their spending, what kind of things they're going to sell." 

'You'll find out how strong your marriage is'

When he's not sending out resumes, Sylvain is usually in the garage where he and his wife operate a rustic-style furniture business.

Rita calls time in the workshop "therapeutic."

"I think times like this is when it either makes or breaks you. You'll find out how strong your marriage is," she said.

"Even if we lose our shirts, at the end of the day as long as we've got each other then that's the most important thing," said Sylvain.