This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Protecting your Intimate Relationship from the Impact of Work Stress.” To listen to this episode, click here.
In these blog articles, I bring the tools of Relational Self-Awareness to help you better understand, and transform, complex and difficult relationship dynamics. Today we are going to do some unpacking and exploring at the intersection of intimate partnership and work stress. Let me tell you—this is a busy intersection, indeed!
My team and I spent a lot of time looking at the research and brainstorming how to approach this episode, and I will tell you right up top, we’re going to have to come back to this topic! Given that this is a huge topic, I had to narrow it down, so in this article I am going to talk very specifically about how to protect your intimate relationship or marriage from the grind of work stress. I am going to:
- Look at the big picture and do what I always do which is give some framing for this topic.
- Talk through what the data tells us about the impact of work stress on intimate partnerships.
- Explore the experience of work stress through the lens of Relational Self-Awareness.
- Offer tools to help you and your partner talk, feel, and behave differently vis a vis work stress.
The bottom line up top is this: although work stress lives inside of one partner, the impact is felt, and felt deeply, by both partners. Work stress happens. It’s common. But how you manage work stress matters, and when work stress is poorly managed, it has the power to erode relationship quality.
There is a companion worksheet for newsletter subscribers. If you’re already subscribed, the worksheet for this episode will arrive in your inbox. If you are not a subscriber, head to www.dralexandrasolomon.com/workstress to download the worksheet.
Part I: Framing Concepts
I have five framing concepts for you:
- Today we are talking about jobs, paid labor, workforce employment. That means I am not talking about the impact of invisible labor or domestic labor on your intimate relationship. I am also not talking about the impact of invisible labor or domestic labor on your experience in the paid workforce. I am also not talking about the interplay between one partner’s invisible labor and another partner’s paid labor. Each of those is a huge, meaty, and important topic. Sneak peek: I have a wonderful article in the pipeline about the impact of domestic labor on intimate relationship dynamics, and I know we’ll come back to those different facets over time.
- Although it is the case that not all jobs are paid, for our purposes here, I am defining your job as what you do for money. I’m talking more specifically about your relationship with your job, your partner’s relationship with their job, and the relationship each of you has with your partner’s job. A job is itself a nuanced thing. A job is about survival, self-expression, or some of both. Think about two circles. One circle is survival. One circle is self-expression. When it comes to your job, how much overlap is there between those two circles? Are they totally separate? Is what you do to survive over here, and what you do to express your identity over there? Are they totally merged, like one circle? Is what you do to pay your bills and what you do to express who you are as a person essentially one and the same? Is there some overlap—your job pays the bills AND your job is an important expression of who you are as a person? This is an important point of self-reflection, and a curious point of dialog between you and your partner. What is that blend of survival and self-expression for you in your relationship to your work? What is that blend of survival and self-expression for your partner in their relationship to their work? That blend of survival and self-expression is going to shape how you read this article. If you are the primary breadwinner, you are going to understand this content differently than if you are not the primary breadwinner or not someone who is bringing in an income at all. Although I am not talking directly about money today, money and meaning are always in the mix when we are talking about work.
- We are living through a time of seismic shifts around work. The pandemic has left no domain of life untouched, and this includes the world of work. The dust is far from settled. I’m sure the case can be made that these shifts began before the pandemic, but the pandemic has changed our relationship with work. This really stood out to me when I was hiring this year’s team of graduate teaching assistants for my Marriage 101 undergraduate course. I think nearly half of the almost 20 candidates that I interviewed talked about making a career shift to becoming a marriage and family therapist during the pandemic, one that was inspired by a crisis of meaning. I just heard Nancy Pelosi say that the plural of anecdote is not data, but I have spent a lot of years interviewing teaching assistants, and it was a striking trend! Here is some actual data: the Pew Research foundation says that in the US, April 2021 to March 2022 was a period in which quit rates reached post-pandemic highs, and that these are highs that haven’t been seen since the 1970s. And that 60% of workers who were switching jobs saw an increase in their earnings versus where they were a year earlier.
What this means is that you are taking in this content about couples and work stress during a time of great upheaval at both the level of the individual and the level of the system.
- Your relationship with work is shaped by so many factors including your cultural background and identity variables like race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, gender expression. This is true for your partner as well. Work stress is not a monolithic experience. People who occupy one or more marginalized identities often have work stress that is based upon systemic inequality, the experience of workplace microaggressions, and other forms of what psychologists call minority stress. It’s really important for a partner who is experiencing work stress that stems from their marginalized identities to be able to have home be a place of respite and sustenance, including being able to share experiences of microaggression or mistreatment and to have those experiences validated by their partner (For example: “That is really hurtful!”) versus questioned (For example: “Are you sure that happened because of race? Maybe your coworker just misunderstood you.”). This kind of invalidation is more likely to happen when it relates to a domain of difference within the couple (in other words, partners of different races or gender identities), and invalidation likely feels that much worse!
- Finally, work stress doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Work stress is heightened in circumstances in which people are not being paid well or fairly, people are expected to work long hours or unpredictable hours or to be available, people are expected to work in conditions that are inhospitable, or people are being treated like cogs in a wheel, rather than three dimensional flesh-and-blood whole human beings. Feeling stressed, angry, and burnt out about work is an adaptive response to unfair or unresponsive conditions. So I want to name that right up top. Throughout this article, I will be discussing the experience of work stress in a general way, and I will be trusting you to modify the insights and tools to fit the unique contours of your situation.
Part II: What the Science Tells Us
We’re going to talk about some data for a moment, but I’m going to give you the punch line up top: Stress is highly contagious. When you live with someone and build a life with someone and they are struggling with work, it affects you, not because you are codependent but because you are coregulated. We are social creatures, our nervous systems key off each other, especially in an intimate relationship. How you are doing affects your partner. How your partner is doing affects you. I want you to practice stress management because you deserve to feel calm and grounded on the inside. But I also want you to practice stress management because the quality of your relationship rests, in part, on how well you are managing your own stress. The same, obviously, is true in terms of your partner managing their stress, for their sake and yours!
OK, the science! There is a body of research around what’s called work-family conflict which explores two types of conflict:
- Family to Work Conflict: When challenges, crises, or complexities at home impair your ability to work effectively.
- Work to Family Conflict: When challenges, crises, or complexities at work impair your ability to show up fully at home.
Research by Heras and Segovia from 2021 looked at a sample of heterosexual couples and found that there was a significant positive relationship between work-family conflict (in both directions) and burnout. The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” And burnout has three elements:
- Emotional exhaustion: feelings of being emotionally overextended and drained by others.
- Depersonalization: development of dehumanized and cynical attitudes toward people who are recipients of one’s services.
- Reduced personal accomplishment: a decline in one’s feeling of competence and successful achievement in work.
So the study by Heras and Segovia found that work-family conflict and burnout are positively correlated. Correlation is not causation so we can’t say what causes what. But the more work-family conflict you are experiencing, the more you are at risk of burnout. And on the flip side, the more burnout you experience, the more at risk you are for work-family conflict. When work stress comes home to family, there are negative consequences for both men and women in couples.
It’s not just that conflict and burnout are entwined. It’s also about our bodies! Listen to this. In 2019 a team of researchers (Wickrama, Klopak and O’Neal) at the University of Georgia, looked at a sample of 235 working husbands and wives that had been studied over the course 27 years (from 1991 to 2017). So this is longitudinal data. These were couples from rural Iowa. They had gathered a lot of different data on these couples over the years, including tracking their body mass index (BMI) and something called Person-Work Mismatch. Person-Work Mismatch is an aspect of a stressful work environment that is about an incompatibility between the individual and their work. Someone experiencing Person-Work Mismatch would say things like:
- “My job does not match my education and experience.”
- “My job does not allow me to use skills/abilities.”
- “My job does not match what I would like to do.”
- “I should have a different job with my experiences.”
- “I am overqualified for this job.”
Person-Work Mismatch is subjective and reflects how individuals view their work. It is a psychosocial stressor that has been found to lead to decreased job satisfaction, job performance, and commitment. Person-Work Mismatch has been found to have mental and physical health consequences.
Here’s what these researchers found. Participants who were experiencing Person-Work Mismatch when they were in their 40s had BMI trajectories in their 50s that contributed to multiple physical health outcomes in later life. And, get this, here’s the kicker, when a spouse had a lot of Person-Work Mismatch, it influenced not only their own BMI trajectories but also their partner’s BMI trajectories!!! And it was also tied to poorer physical health in later years for the partner as well. This research highlights the relational element in the experience of work stress and health! What is happening inside of you affects you. And it affects your partner.
Ok. Last one. A 2014 study from King and DeLongis published in the Journal of Family Psychology, looked at a sample of 87 heterosexual couples where one partner is a paramedic. The paramedic’s work stress was positively correlated with them ruminating and withdrawing at home—meaning, the more work stress they experienced, the more they ruminated and were withdrawn at home. And this was linked to increases in their partner’s withdrawal and to increased tension and maladaptive coping strategies in both partners. The researchers point out the feedback loop or cycle.
These three studies make the case that when work stress comes home, there is strain. That strain can be on the person who is stressed out at work, on the partner who is the collateral damage so to speak of their partner’s stress, or on the relationship itself.
So let’s talk about what to do.
Part III: A Relational Self-Awareness Framework for Work Stress
Work stress often sounds like this:
- “My boss sucks.”
- “My coworkers are unhelpful.”
- “The people who report to me are incompetent.”
- “Nothing I do at work is ever enough.”
- “I am bored/disengaged/burnt out.”
As I said at the beginning of the article, there are actual real world root causes for any/all of these experiences. AND you know I am going to invite and challenge you to peel back a layer or two and look at what YOU bring to the table, what you bring to this dynamic or to how you experience your workplace.
You walk into work (or Zoom into work) with a particular set of gifts, tendencies, and growing edges based on your personality, your temperament, your early experiences, your wounds, and your traumas. You are primed (so to speak) to perceive workplace dynamics in a particular way based on your history. You have a particular pair of glasses through which you experience your workplace. By the way, this blog article (Tending to Your Inner Child) will help you understand how and why we need to make these connections.
Bringing Relational Self-Awareness to work stress opens up new possibilities for how you can cope with your work stress. So you can do what the Serenity Prayer asks you to do: find the serenity you need to accept the things you cannot change, find the courage you need to change the things you cannot accept, and find the wisdom you need to know the difference. Bringing in tools of Relational Self-Awareness does NOT invalidate your experience of work stress in any way, shape, or form. It is a process for developing insight into your work stress in the hopes of creating a bit of wiggle room, some new possibilities for how you might experience the work stress.
Here’s what I want to posit to you: Workplace dynamics carry powerful but perhaps unconscious parallels to Family of Origin dynamics. The relationship between you and your boss parallels the relationship between you and your attachment figures (i.e. the Big People who raised you). The relationship between you and your coworkers parallels the relationship between you and your siblings, you and your cousins, you and your peers. The relationship between you and your employees can activate old wounds or patterns that have to do with power and dependence.
Obviously, your Family of Origin and your workplace are NOT the same, but I want you to explore the echoes. And in the places where there are echoes or parallels, your stress might be shaped (a little or a lot) by a part of you that is confusing then and now. A part of you that is importing old feelings into the current situation. And therefore, you are at risk of over functioning, or getting belligerent, or feeling unseen or unimportant. Here are a few examples of how that might look.
If you were a parentified child, you might tense up when the people who work for you need direction from you or ask you a lot of questions. Or you may have a baseline resentment that you are responsible to them because even though you are big and strong and capable now and able to handle being responsible to people, back when you were little, you had people looking to you and leaning on you at a time when you could not be responsible to people. Your emotional work is to let Little You know that you’ve got this. Little You can go rest or play while present day you handles what needs to be handled.
If you grew up in a Family of Origin where you felt like you needed to compete with your sibling for the scarce resource of parental attention, being part of a team that reports to a boss might activate that little part of you. That part might fight like hell for attention. That part might get petty or envious when a colleague is getting attention. That part of you might be so sick of having to fight for the limelight that it opts out or sabotages or disengages. Here again, your emotional work is to notice when the old feeling gets stirred up and remind yourself “that was then, this is now.”
Finally, if you grew up with a parent or caregiver who was unpredictable and punitive, Little You may have a tendency to track your boss’s moods really closely. That was quite literally a survival strategy back then. Even if you have a mercurial boss, it is not about survival in the same way, so you can remind your younger self that you can do your job and deal with whatever shenanigans your boss might pull.
Part IV: Strategies to Protect Your Relationship
Reminder that there is a companion worksheet for newsletter subscribers. If you’re already subscribed, the worksheet for this episode will arrive in your inbox. If you are not a subscriber, head to www.dralexandrasolomon.com/workstress to download the worksheet. Let’s talk now about some strategies to protect your relationship from the grind of work stress. I have broken these strategies down into three categories:
- Strategies for the stressed out partner
- Strategies for the one whose partner is stressed out
- Strategies for the couple
I broke these strategies down in this way knowing full well that sometimes you may be the stressed out partner, sometimes your partner may be the stressed out partner, and sometimes you both might be stressed out.
Strategies for the Stressed Out Partner:
The central thesis of this article has been that work stress lives inside of one partner but affects the dynamic between partners. So here are strategies for how you can take responsibility for your work stress and the fact that it has an impact on your partner, not because you suck, but because that’s what it means to link your life with your partner’s life. These strategies are offered not as a guilt trip, but as an invitation to self-compassionate responsibility.
- Get real about your self-care. Are you moving your body regularly? How is your nutrition? How is your sleep hygiene (putting away your phone for a bit before bed, stopping caffeine, trying to keep the same hours for sleep, etc)? How is your use of alcohol and drugs?
- Know what calm feels like so you know what stressed out feels like. When I had my friend, Jayson Gaddis on my podcast, he talked about how some of us don’t even really know what feeling good in our bodies feels like. What calm feels like. What present feels like. It may be the case that you have been in overdrive for so long that you really don’t know what “normal” feels like. Or it may be the case that when you get stressed out, you get sort of numb and disconnected from your body so that you aren’t really “coding” that you are stressed out. Keeping up with your self-care practices helps you feel your way into the difference between calm and stressed. That way, you know when you are stressed and you can take responsibility for it. When you can own that you are stressed, you change the whole dynamic. See if you can say something like this: “I am not going to be good company right now because I can feel all of this stress in my body. I am going to lay down for 30 minutes and then let’s connect.” Owning it is so preferable to withdrawing or snapping because you aren’t even aware that you feel stressed.
- Be careful of the cards you pull. “My job is… more money, more risk, more high stakes, than your job.” These might not be things you even say out loud to your partner, but they might be things that rattle around in your head when you and your partner are talking about your stressful days. Notice if you are making a hierarchy in your head and maybe holding back on empathy for your partner because of your story that they have it easier or the stakes are lower. Or conversely, notice if you’re perhaps silencing yourself about something challenging or exciting about your day because of a story that you have it easier or your stress counts for less because you earn less money. Your relationship is going to be stronger if you both have the mindset that: work is work. Do not make a hierarchy.
- Transition from work to home. What helps you transition? For a lot of people it’s the commute—listening to music or a podcast during your drive, or resting your eyes if you take the train home. Be intentional with that transitional time. Your body is changing locations. Set an intention for your mind to also move from work to home. Obviously trickier if you work from home. You’re just changing rooms. What else can you change to signify that you’re crossing over. Can you change clothes? Can you have a snack or a drink? I love a 5pm kombucha. Even if you go back to do some work later in the evening, I still want you to be intentionally making a delineation (inside yourself and with your partner): I am working now / I am not working now. This helps your partner know what to expect from you and it prevents that icky feeling of thinking your partner is there with you but their mind is on work or they are checking a work email while you talk to them. This is objectively confusing and hurtful, but even more so for those who grew up in a Family of Origin where they felt unseen or not a priority.
- Make sure you complete the Stress Cycle. Dr. Emily Nagoski and her sister, Amelia, wrote a book called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. They emphasize the importance of completing the stress cycle with an embodied practice. My family has this little Schnoodle named Sawyer. When we take her for a walk and she has to pass a big barky dog, she gets stressed. And then, once we have passed the dog and she knows she is safe, what does she do? A big shake that goes from her wet nose all the way to her little nub of a tail. She completes the stress cycle. The Nagoski sisters say that even though we are mammals, we tend to leave the stress cycle incomplete, especially when it is chronic stress, which so easily just feels like the status quo inside our bodies. The Nagoskis suggest incorporating body-based practices that help our bodies shift out of that defensive, hypervigilant posture that we need when there is a threat. Here are six suggestions from Dr. Emily and Amelia:
- Breathe: Breathe in for a slow count of five, hold that breath for five, then exhale for a slow count of ten, and pause for another count of five. Do that three times.
- Socialize. Have positive social interactions with coworkers or with the person making your coffee. These friendly exchanges remind your brain that you are safe and that there’s goodness in the world.
- Laugh. You cannot laugh and feel defensive or unsafe.
- Seek affection. A nice warm hug, like for at least 20 seconds, or what I call it with my niece, “Hugging til it’s awkward.” Cozying up with a pet also does the trick in terms of helping quiet your stress response.
- Cry. Crying completes the stress cycle. Even if it doesn’t change the situation, it changes your body which changes how you relate to the situation.
- Engage in creative expression, however that looks for you. As the Nagoskis say, creative expression creates a “context that tolerates and even encourages big emotions.” And, they say, “Arts of all kinds give us the chance to celebrate and move through our big emotions.”
Strategies for When Your Partner is Stressed Out
Having a stressed out partner is no fun. People who are stressed out have different ways that stress “shows up” in their mood and behavior. Some of us become withdrawn, becoming quiet and unreachable. Some of us become needy, wanting to vent and process. Some of us become irritable, taking out our frustrations on the closest (and safest) people, like our partner.
Here are some strategies to help you cope, specifically centered on how your partner tends to manifest their stress:
- If your partner becomes withdrawn, tend to yourself and speak to the distance. If your partner becomes withdrawn, you might have the urge to become an entertainer, offering a steady stream of activities or questions designed to draw your partner out. That might be fine for a time, but notice if you’re starting to feel resentful. Honor the hurt or anger you feel and then pivot and do something that makes you feel good or calm or occupied. You can only invite your partner’s attention, you cannot demand it. If it is a big or enduring pattern, speak to it. At a separate time, when your partner feels more approachable, ask your partner to talk through this dynamic with you. You could say something like, “Hey when you’re stressed, I feel like you tend to pull away and shut down. I feel caught. Part of me wants to keep knocking on your door and enticing you to come out and part of me wants to pull back too. I know I am at risk of taking this personally even if I rationally or logically, I know you’re stressed about work, but my feelings get hurt when you feel so far away. Can we talk about how we can stay more connected even when you’re stressed?”
- If your partner needs/wants a lot of emotional processing, be honest about your capacity. You are likely a very important resource for your partner—for validation, for processing, for troubleshooting. But you are not perfect, and your patience is not limitless. If your partner wants to talk about the drama of the day and you are too maxed out or depleted, you can be truthful and tactful, saying something like, “I am sorry. I know you’ve had a shit day. I don’t have a lot in my tank right now. Can we do a 10-minute debrief and then put it away for the night? Even if I don’t have a lot of capacity for processing your work stress tonight, I do however have a lot of capacity for Yellowstone and ice cream! How does that sound?”
- If your partner becomes irritable, take space. Being stressed out does not give someone license to say whatever they want or act any old way under the guise of being stressed. If your partner is lashing out at you, resist the urge to retaliate or escalate. You can simply say, “I understand you’ve had a really bad day and you are under a great deal of stress. I have a lot of empathy for what you are going through. And, I am having a really hard time with your tone of voice and how you are talking to me right now. I am going to take some space.” At a separate time, see if the two of you can do some problem-solving for how to handle that sequence differently in the future. Is there a code word you can agree to that will flag to your partner that their tone has gotten really sharp, and they need to pivot or step away.
- Resist the urge to turn your partner’s stress into something you need to fix. Much as you might crave a magic wand and make it go away (for their sake and yours), you cannot fix or erase your partner’s work stress. In fact, if your partner is talking you about their work stress and your go-to move is to put on your superhero cape and try to save them from their stress, it will likely backfire with them feeling invalidated and saying, “It’s not that easy” or “You just don’t get it “ or “Don’t tell me what to do.” And then when they do that, you’ll likely feel hurt and frustrated, like, “I was just trying to help!” Don’t underestimate the power of empathy and a patient listening ear.
- Explore what their stress triggers inside of you: Yes, it is objectively challenging when your partner is stressed. And, do a little bit of what I call “ghostbusting.” What does your partner’s withdrawn or needy or irritable behavior remind you of from your past? Perhaps your partner’s irritability reminds you of a parent who took out work frustrations on you when you were little. Or perhaps your partner’s irritability feels indulgent and careless because you were expected to keep your emotions locked down when you were little. Maybe your partner’s neediness is hard for you because you were overly responsible for taking care of your younger siblings or a parent who struggled with depression, and part of you wants to just say, “enough already! Take care of yourself!”
Making this connection between past and present can help you understand your sensitivity and gives you the chance to tend to Little You. You can also approach your partner, letting them know about how your history affects this relationship dynamic. We share this information not as a cudgel (like “How could you do this to me after what you know I went through as a kid?”) but as an invitation (“How can we honor your work stress and my sensitivity?”)
Strategies for the Couple
- Practice empowered communication. We’ve talked a lot about empowered communication, but a couple of good reminders. If and when you want to process something stressful from work with your partner, do what I call “going meta” first. Ask, “Can we talk about a work issue?” Also, set your partner up for success by articulating up front, as best you can, what it is that you want from them: a sounding board, sympathy, advice.
- Resource yourselves. Who else can you be processing work problems with besides your partner? Turning to others can protect your relationship from becoming overburdened.
- Put work talk under stimulus control. In behavioral psychology, stimulus control is about pairing a stimulus with a certain context or setting. If you feel like work talk is taking over your relationship, you and your partner could put work talk under stimulus control meaning that you only talk about work for X number of minutes as you clean up dinner dishes or sit in the bath together or talk the dog for a walk.
- Talk DIFFERENTLY with each other about your jobs. Perhaps you feel like you are stuck in a rut. Maybe it feels like a lot of the space between the two of you is filled with complaining about your jobs. See what happens if you have a different kind of conversation with your partner about work. Here are eight RSA-based Discussion Questions to spark a new dialog with your partner about work:
- Tell me something about your work history that I don’t already know.
- What was your first job? What do you remember about it?
- What do you enjoy about your job? Why?
- When do you feel most confident and relaxed at work? Why?
- What do you dislike most about your job? Why?
- What is your dream job? Why?
- When do you feel least supported by me with respect to your job? Why?
- When do you feel most supported by me with respect to your job? Why?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of the impact of work stress on couple dynamics, and how to protect your relationship. There is a companion worksheet for newsletter subscribers. If you’re already subscribed, the worksheet for this episode will arrive in your inbox. If you are not a subscriber, head to www.dralexandrasolomon.com/workstress to download it.