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When Work Interferes With Love

Find happiness when your spouse's work seems to come before you do.

Key points

  • As companies make do with fewer employees, many people are overworked and experience relationship stress as a result.
  • Complaining to one's partner that they work too much only adds to the pressure they are under. Expecting a nice reaction is also hypocritical.
  • When one partner works excessively, it helps to rely on oneself for fulfillment until a longer-term solution can be found.

Do you know any employed person who doesn't complain that they are now working the equivalent of two jobs as their company does more with fewer people? We come home mentally and physically spent, often unable to find the energy to participate in a healthy relationship at home. This is what’s happening at my house these days, and it’s given me plenty of time to reflect upon how to respond to the pressures work can put on a relationship.

The good news is that I am fortunate enough to be able to contemplate a full range of options, including radically altering our lives. The bad news is that regardless of income, the problem can remain intractable. So how should you deal with feeling ignored because your partner is so wrapped up in, and exhausted by, work? You might:

Complain You Don’t Get Enough Attention

This is where I started (old habits die hard!). But complaining makes your already exhausted partner even less likely to want to interact with you. Or, as my husband said “Look, what I want from you is support. What I’m getting is pressure, which just makes me more stressed out!”

State Your Case in the Positive

A better approach is to talk calmly with your partner about his or her priorities and how they appear to you. Find out why your partner is devoting so much time to work and whether this is temporary. Make sure your partner understands how you feel about the lack of balance in your lives but don’t whine about it. You’re looking for comprehension and partnership around solving the problem, not guilt and anger.

“Block” Out Some Time

You don’t need tons of attention – only “enough” high-quality attention. Brainstorm ways to capture time when your partner can pay attention only to you, such as a weekend afternoon date, a mini-vacation, or a leisurely dinner together.

Find the Positive and Laugh Together

The more someone is working, and the more intense the pressure is on your relationship, the more important it is to be able to laugh and relax together. Without faking it, regularly seek out activities or discussion topics that are happy, light, or relaxed enough to bring you both joy. Yes, there are many hard things we need to deal with in life, but science suggests that taking time to be upbeat helps us cope better, stay more connected, and get through the hard parts more easily.

Take Care of Your Own Business

Here’s the pattern we tend to follow: My husband works too hard. I feel neglected and start to complain. He hates the complaining and gets cranky and rude in return. I respond, and voila, a lovely negative spiral. But then, I get some perspective. "Wait, I’m asking him not to be cranky with me, while I’m complaining and moaning to him? What’s wrong with that picture?" The bottom line is to make sure your own house is in order! Don’t moan and then expect a lovely, positive reply. Stay positive and constructive, and you will be much more likely to get constructive, positive responses from your partner.

Change Your Own Work-Life

Fifteen years into my career, I opted out of the corporate grind and went solo. That was 18 years ago and I haven't regretted it for an instant. It scared the heck out of me at the time, but I really felt I had no other choice if I was going to make it through the period in which I was embroiled.

Reinvention is a wonderful thing. I know women who have gone solo as consultants, yoga instructors, writers, and more. None of them regret it. All of them appreciate the freedom it gives them to balance their lives as they see fit. (And, yes, I realize that not everyone has the ability to do this.) They feel lucky to have the ability to define their own lives, though there was very little luck involved, in fact.

Insist on Respectful Interactions

Your partner may be tired, but that’s not an excuse for being rude to you. Insist that he or she remain respectful, and be respectful in return. There is much the two of you can do together to solve your joint problems as long as you aren’t engaged in a war of bad feelings.

Remember That Life Goes in Phases

When I look at the bigger picture, I can find some reassuring perspective – this isn’t the only time one of us has been too busy for the other. I remember when we had young children and I was working, and I could barely put one foot in front of the other, let alone find time to be with my husband. This particular work issue won’t last forever, either. Eventually, these imbalances get solved one way or another (see the paragraph above for how I solved that one).

Make Your Own Fun

In reality, I don’t need my husband to have fun and enjoy life. He can still be a partner but be (temporarily, at least) otherwise occupied. I can do all sorts of fun things while he moves through this stage. I’m already starting some: I’m learning to play the cello (I've always wanted to do that but never did until now), taking pottery classes, reading more, and hanging out with women friends. And, of course, I have work that I love, which is challenging and fulfilling. My own priorities are such that I won’t enslave myself to corporate hours and hierarchy, but I recognize that my husband must make his own choices in this realm.

When I suggest that I don’t need my husband to have fun, don’t misunderstand me here. I am in no way advocating abandoning your partner. Rather, I can live life to its fullest without his input. Anytime he comes up for a breath he can join in and we’ll have tons of fun together. And, yes, I’ll continue to remind him that I miss him when he’s too busy with work. But I’m not going to be a sad sack hanging around, basing my life only on whether or not he’s expending enough of his energy on me.

Don't Give Up on Reaching Out

I found myself saying the other day, "I'm going to stop propositioning you. It's humiliating to constantly get rejected because you're too busy or too tired!" That may be true, but if I completely stop reaching out then I have no one to blame but myself if I never get any intimate attention. Pick your times wisely, and be empathetic. I try to remember how I felt all those years ago when I was so exhausted with the kids and that helps.

The Bottom Line

Life goes in phases and finding a good life/love/work balance is tricky at any time. If you are finding that yours is currently out of whack, it will help to stay positive and constructive with your partner, find perspective by looking at the larger picture, and stay healthy by relying on yourself to find fulfillment until a longer-term solution can be found.

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