Can a Partner's Job Make for a Toxic Relationship?
We like to think that a person's stress is their own—but is it?
Posted Mar 06, 2020
You know when your partner is having a bad day at work. Sometimes, it's easy to tell: they're cranky, irritable, and short-tempered. Other times, it's the slow accumulation of chronic work stress that might present as intensity, worry lines, and tension, coupled with poor habits that are reinforced by little time for good sleep or exercise.
According to a recent Gallup poll, over 25 percent of people are somewhat or completely dissatisfied with their stress at work. This means that a quarter of the people you know are suffering from potentially problematic work stress; and even those who said they were satisfied with stress, likely have a day now and then when things don't go so well. Work stress need not be chronic to have negative consequences.
Bad Workday = Bad Relationship Day
Indeed, one often unexpected fallout of a bad workday is a bad relationship day. It turns out that on-the-job stress doesn't always stay on the job. Stress spillover occurs when a person has a bad day and brings their stress and negative mood into other domains in their lives, such as their home at the end of the day. Whether your partner was responsible for something at work and it went south; had to manage difficult colleagues, customers, or a challenging boss; made a mistake on the job; or in other ways had a bad, stressful day, it's very hard to shake off the stress.
There is another interesting outcome of stress, which Bolger and colleagues (1989) termed stress crossover. What was once one partner's stress becomes the other partner's stress. Think of stress as contagious: If one partner has a stressful day, they might be short, argumentative, reclusive, less affectionate—basically, they're not able to do the behaviors that romantic couples use to help maintain their happy, healthy, partnership. Because relationships are fundamentally dyadic, and interactions are experienced by both parties, their partner becomes stressed because of their initial work-based stress.
How Does Work Stress Make for Relationship Stress?
At the end of the workday, partnered people need to be able to shift their attention from their job to their partners and families so that they can do a different kind of work: attending to their partner's and their relationship's needs. A stable relationship can be a supportive backdrop for work and career—but even so, it requires energy to cultivate that healthy relationship. Stress undermines people's ability to devote energy towards their relationships.
Detachment from work appears to be critical to happy relationships. This detachment might happen easily when both partners' jobs are going well: they leave their job and they're done. They aren't thinking about an upcoming deadline, a challenging case, or tomorrow's meeting. Instead, they are present when they are home, focused on their partner and (if they have them) children.
But when work is stressful, people have a harder time detaching. Stressed workers are preoccupied with their jobs, even when at home. Evidence shows that stress makes for less detachment, and in turn, less detachment makes for worse perceived relationship quality, for both the individual and their partner (Debrot, Siegler, Klumb, & Schoebi, 2018). Detachment might interfere with affectionate behaviors, which then predict perceived relationship quality. In other words, work stress may prevent partners from showing their love at the end of the workday.
Other research supports this. Experimental research has shown that people under stress do not give their partners as many relationship assurances—the kind that support healthy relationship functioning—as those who are less stressed. They also may have more difficulty ignoring attractive alternative partners (Lewandowski, Mattingly, & Pedreiro, 2014).
What Should You Do About a Stressful Job?
Different jobs come with different levels of stress, and couples need to be aware of the potential effect that on-the-job stress might have on their relationship. This is particularly true for work-related transitions (leaving an old job or starting a new job) or high-stress periods (e.g., tax season; end-of-year deadlines) that might impact a person's on-the-job stress.
Essential to this story is that, in periods of high work stress, there may be relationship challenges at the end of the day that are not tied to the inherent functioning of the relationship. In other words, people might question their relationship health simply because they are feeling their partner's work stress, not because their partner views them or their family life poorly. A partner may be perfectly satisfied with their relationship but still fail to give affection or assurances, or in other ways be present for their partner at the end of the day, if their stress is making it hard to detach from work.
Bolger, N., DeLongis, A., Kessler, R. C., & Wethington, E. (1989). The contagion of stress across multiple roles. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 175-183.
Debrot, A., Siegler, S., Klumb, P. L., & Schoebi, D. (2018). Daily work stress and relationship satisfaction: Detachment affects romantic couples’ interactions quality. Journal of Happiness Studies, 19, 2283-2301.
Lewandowski Jr, G. W., Mattingly, B. A., & Pedreiro, A. (2014). Under pressure: the effects of stress on positive and negative relationship behaviors. The Journal of Social Psychology, 154, 463-473.