Balancing a demanding job with the needs of your partner is an everyday challenge for millions of us. And while many of us feel that our loved ones work far more than they should, we acknowledge that careers are important – both for financial and personal reasons.
If one of you works far more than the other, your relationship can suffer. The career-focused partner may feel tired when s/he arrives home, and unwilling to discuss the issue. The other partner may feel hurt, angry and resentful, yet feel powerless to create positive change on his or her own.
Naturally, every relationship and every individual career is different, so we can’t point to solutions that will work for everyone. However, there are some insights that can help most couples begin an open conversation about work and life priorities. Here are some steps you can take when career commitments seem to be hurting your relationship.
TAKE A HARD LOOK AT YOUR PRIORITIES
If you’re the one who works more, step back and think about what matters most to you. Whatever you may think your values are, your calendar may tell a different story. Can you look at your recent schedule and honestly say you have set aside enough time for your spouse and your relationship?
The honest answer may be that work truly has been the #1 priority. This means your partner is forced to accept whatever scraps of time and attention you can spare after investing your best at work.
On the other hand, you may have placed a higher premium on family, health and your own personal life – which is a sharp contrast with your spouse’s priorities. It isn’t uncommon for one partner to spend an inordinate amount of time with children and family while another pursues a fast-paced career, but this pattern may lead to a gradual breakdown in the closeness you once shared as a couple.
If you genuinely care about spending time with your loved one, you must make it a specific goal. It isn’t enough to simply respond to pressure from your mate. If it isn’t your personal priority, you’ll never stick with it, so you need to be honest with yourself above all.
As a marriage therapist, I’ve found that overwork sometimes has positive motives. For example, one spouse may feel s/he is building a future for the family by working hard to earn more money. To some, not being able to support others financially means not being able to love them well. Keeping this perspective in mind will help you extend compassion to yourself or your partner as you work on the issues together.
TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT YOUR EXPECTATIONS
Conflicts often occur because each partner wants and expects something different. If one is happy with the existing work-life balance, s/he may be totally unaware that the other is feeling neglected.
Don’t assume that your spouse is fine with things simply because you are. Ask how s/he is feeling about the issue, especially if your work hours and commitments differ. Welcome an ongoing conversation to make sure you are in sync – and if job responsibilities change, make certain you discuss how this will affect your relationship.
If there’s a gap in your expectations, it may mean your partner has a higher need for quality time in order to feel cared for and loved. Alternatively, it may mean there are everyday issues that claim too much of your time.
Maybe you can commit to a 30-minute conversation each evening, a phone chat during your commute home or a weekly date night. If practical issues are getting in the way, look for easier ways to get laundry, housecleaning and errands done to make more time for each other.
If you can afford the extra expense, it may be better to pay someone to ease these routine burdens than to fight about them. The only time this won’t work is if your partner finds special meaning in handling daily chores. If, for example, s/he feels you are being thoughtful and loving when you unload the dishwasher, do it!
ADOPT HEALTHY ROUTINES
Many couples worry that falling into established patterns is a sign their relationship has gotten boring or lost all its spontaneity. Sometimes that’s true. But the fact that your partner travels almost every week or doesn’t make it home for dinner every night isn’t a sure sign you’re headed for divorce court. It may simply mean there’s a predictable pattern, and that may be just fine.
However, when one partner loses control of his or her work schedule, there may be a breach of trust. Every relationship needs some consistency, and every partner deserves some reliability. Without it, partners may begin to feel they can’t count on the one person they should be able to rely on most.
These may seem like trivial matters when one of you is grappling with a work crisis. But relationships aren’t broken in one swift stroke. They erode slowly over time. Every time you make a commitment and then break it, you’re chiseling away at that underlying trust.
So consider agreeing on basic routines that benefit both of you. For example, you may agree to eat breakfast together before heading to work, or putting your devices away on Sundays. The agreements themselves aren’t as important as the fact that they are voluntary and meaningful for both of you.
Keep in mind, too, that there’s no such thing as a perfect score. If s/he makes it home earlier some nights a week (but not all), celebrate that and let go of the others. If s/he’s improving but let you down once, express your disappointment but be forgiving. This can be tough when there’s a long history of disappointment, but it can teach you vulnerability where you both need it most.
WHEN TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
Working through differences that involve careers and personal time can be difficult. Many couples find themselves fighting as each one blames the other for issues that have built up over time. When discussions turn into repeated arguments, it’s time to find a couples therapist who can create a safe, objective space for you to examine the issues and find shared solutions.