“So I take it you won’t be home for dinner again tonight?”
“Didn’t you have to go into the office last weekend, too?”
“Gotta say I don’t feel like I’m much of a priority lately.”
Balancing a demanding job with your personal relationship–whether it’s with a significant other, spouse, partner, children, or some combination of the above–is something millions of people do every day, some more successfully than others.
Much of the time, when one partner sees the other as working too much, there’s no ill will intended but it can still create a lot of hurt. The hurt leads to anger, making conflict just about inevitable.
And while every relationship is different, and sometimes work is more of a proxy for other issues than a source of discord in itself, there’s no doubt that work-life imbalances can put a strain on couples and families. Here are a few steps to help you set things right when your ballooning work hours are hurting your partner, or vice versa.
If you’re the one who works more, step one is to step back and think about what matters most to you. No-brainer, right?
Not exactly. Whatever we think our values are, our calendars tend to tell an unvarnished story. For some, the honest answer is that work is the top priority, and you fit in whatever else you can around it. Others place a higher premium on their families, their health, and their life outside the office.
If you fall into the latter category, think through how your priorities are expressed in your time investment. If you genuinely care about spending time with your loved ones, it’s important for you to own that yourself, and make it a goal to work toward–not just something your spouse or partner is pressuring you to do. If it isn’t your personal priority, though, you’ll never stick with it, so you need to be honest with yourself above all.
Your next step is to take some time to talk about it–try not to ignore these issues or just let them bubble up out of frustration. When you hash things out, validate your partner’s feelings, even if you disagree with them. If you’re the one who wants your significant other to work less, make sure you look at the broader picture before concluding he or she just doesn’t care as much about your relationship.
In my work as a time management coach, I’ve found that overwork sometimes has unselfish motives; sometimes a busy spouse worries that if they don’t perform well in a high-pressure job, they won’t be able to provide for their families as well as they’d like–or worse. To some, not being able to support somebody means not being able to love them well. Most people are just trying their best, but they may not have the job environment or the time management skills to pull it off.
Conflicts often occur because of clashing expectations. If one partner is quite happy with the balance, she may be completely unaware that there’s an issue. You might have a big blind spot; don’t just assume that your husband or wife is fine with things because you are. And if your work responsibilities change, make sure to ask on a regular basis to make sure everything’s working–even every couple of weeks.
If there’s a gap in your expectations, it’s often due to one of two things. Either your partner has a higher need for quality time than you do in order to feel cared for, or else there are practical issues sucking up your time together. If it’s the former issue, maybe you can commit to a 30-minute one-on-one conversation each evening, call during your commute home, plan a weekend getaway, or do a weekly date night.
If it’s a practical matter like getting laundry done, running errands, or shuttling your kids from one activity to the next, think about what you can outsource. If your budget allows, it’s often better to pay someone to ease these routine burdens than to argue about them. The only time this might not work is if your partner finds some “acts of service” meaningful. If he or she finds it thoughtful–not merely useful–of you to unload the dishwasher, since that’s a chore he or she hates, do it.
On the other hand, some couples get by just fine when one has a more grueling professional life than the other. The fact that your partner travels almost every week or isn’t home for dinner most nights isn’t a universal sign of a broken relationship. Those who thrive in these situations are good at accepting the constraints of their partners’ jobs and can find things they like doing on their own–whether that’s exercising or just hanging out with their own friends.
Of course, the proportion of solo time that works for a given partner in a relationship varies from person to person. And it’s okay to want your spouse or significant other to be around more–that’s why you’re with them. But does it have to make you miserable when they’re not? Not necessarily. If you can pin down your own needs and expectations and your partner can do the same, you’ll have two baselines to compare.
Plenty of couples worry that falling into routines is a sign their relationship has flatlined, become boring, or lost its spontaneity. And for some, it is.
But the fact is that when one partner loses control of their work schedule, it often starts to violate the sense of trust the relationship is founded on–no matter how unscheduled and freewheeling your lifestyles are already. Every relationship needs some consistency, and every partner deserves some reliability. Without it, you may begin to feel you can’t count on the person you’re supposed to be able to count on most.
These may seem like “small” things when you’re dealing with a work crisis that seems like a really big deal. But relationships aren’t built or broken in a fell swoop; they develop or erode over time. Each time you make a commitment and then break it–no matter how small–you’re chiseling away at that underlying trust. Each time you make and keep a commitment, you’re doing the opposite.
So consider setting some routines that work for both of you. Maybe it’s that you eat breakfast together before you both head into the office, or you avoid your work computer or smartphones on Sundays, or you always call and chat for 30 minutes when one of you is traveling. The exact routines you decide on aren’t as important as the fact that they’re deliberate, consistent, and meaningful to both of you. Sure, it may seem silly to be so ritualistic about routines you set voluntarily, compared with mandatory directives from your boss, but you need to take them just as seriously.
Keep in mind, too, that there’s no such thing as a perfect score. (In fact, don’t keep score–that’s how things get petty.) If she makes it home earlier three nights a week, celebrate that and let go of the other two. If he’s doing better overall but let you down once, explain how you felt disappointed, forgive him, stop talking about it, and move on. This can be tough when there’s a history of disappointment to contend with, but it can teach you vulnerability where you both need it most. Be honest, but be encouraging.
Finally, at their core, these work-life issues are never one-sided. If your partner is concerned you’re working insane hours, that’s not just their problem–there may be something in yourself that’s worth examining, too.
For those who do have demanding jobs (including those who don’t mind that–or even like it), it’s good to remember that your worth is still intrinsic. It isn’t something you earn through your performance on the job. The fact that you are more than your paycheck or your performance review is alarmingly easy to lose sight of during the daily grind.
And for those who date, marry, or are involved in any other type of long-term personal relationship with somebody who works too much, it’s often the case that you’re cared for more than you may realize. That doesn’t mean accepting less attention than you need or deserve, of course. But it helps to remind yourself, too, that your worth is also intrinsic. You might feel hurt because your partner hasn’t made it home for dinner, and that’s worth talking about. But you aren’t less worthy of love because of it.