Being married to a workaholic can make you feel like the third wheel in your own relationship. If your husband’s job seems to consume all of his attention, that’s not good for your marriage, his health or your health. Today I want to share some advice on how to get things back to a more balanced place. Of course, if you’re the workaholic in your marriage, the information here applies to you too.
What Makes Someone a Workaholic?
All of us in the U.S., men and women, are working a lot these days. Some analyses have even found that maintaining the same standard of living requires working more hours than it used to. This financial pressure can certainly be one reason your husband works so much.
And then there’s the impact of technology on our work. Our image of a workaholic used to be someone who burned the midnight oil at the office. But now — thanks to smartphones and laptops — work can follow us anywhere. Your husband might actually spend more time at home than his father did, but be working more hours.
With these new technologies come new expectations about what being a dedicated employee means. In some fields, workers are “always on,” responding to work communications during evenings, weekends and even vacations. The weight of those expectations drives workaholic tendencies.
Researchers Lieke ten Brummelhuis and Nancy P. Rothbard found that there’s a difference between being a workaholic and simply working long hours. Workaholics are constantly connected to their work, obsessing about it and even feeling guilty when not working. They don’t take regular physical or mental breaks from working.
Workaholic Habits Take a Heavy Toll
Rothbard and ten Brummelhuis also found that workaholics suffer both physically and emotionally. They reported having more health problems and were at higher risk for metabolic syndrome. They experienced more insomnia, emotional exhaustion, and feelings of depression than employees who worked long hours but did not have the same workaholic tendencies.
A new study out of Virginia Tech sounds the alarm that a worker’s significant other and family also suffer ill effects when the expectation to work is constant. The researchers state that “‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”
Work vs. Relationships
Not surprisingly, an excessive focus on work harms your relationship too. In the Virginia Tech study, partners of employees who feel the pressure to always be available for work report that the quality of their relationship suffers.
If your husband is a workaholic, his long hours and the constant intrusion of his work on your life are probably stressing both of you out. And when you’re in a state of constant stress, It is much harder to connect with each other. You have more trouble seeing the positive aspects of your relationship and tend to magnify the negative ones. You become more reactive and defensive. “Little things” could push you right over the edge.
Resentment can also be a problem, especially if you are also working full time. Women still typically take on more domestic responsibilities, and that’s probably even more true in your house if your husband is preoccupied with work. As I talked about in my last post, the mental load of being the household and family manager is exhausting. You might also feel angry if there’s an unspoken assumption that his job is the “important” one and that you should curtail the development of your own career to pick up his slack at home.
Working Together on Change
For all of these reasons, your husband’s workaholic habits just aren’t sustainable. But I also realize that he’s unlikely to suddenly start leaving the office and switching of his work email at 5 p.m. every day. So what’s the realistic solution?
First, start a conversation with your husband about how much of the pressure on him is external and how much is internal. Workaholics can put more expectations on themselves than any boss ever would. He may have grown up with the idea that “the most important thing for a man to do is work hard and be a good provider for his family — even if this means he can’t spend as much time with them.” And he might even assume you believe the same thing.
Talk more deeply about the gender expectations you both grew up with. The revelations might surprise you both. You may be assuming that he works a lot because he enjoys it more than participating in family life. But he might feel that he’s doing the most loving thing for your family.
You can support your husband’s career and also insist that there be some boundaries with work. Discuss with him the considerable amount of research indicating that being a workaholic actually decreases his productivity. If he’s highly driven to do his best at work, he may be surprised to learn that having more downtime will make him more effective on the job.
The two of you can experiment with balancing work and your personal life differently. For example, what happens if he stops checking work email after 8 p.m. for a week? Does he really miss anything? Is he better rested, less stressed and more productive? Use the information you gather to guide future decision making, always negotiating for an arrangement that supports your relationship.
If you were able to enjoy a more leisurely pace this summer, it’s probably becoming a distant memory now that September is here. If you have kids, you’ve taken care of back-to-school shopping. Now you’re filling the calendar with the kids’ school events and other activities while trying to keep the household running and juggling everyone’s packed schedules.
And you’re probably doing most of this on your own, right?
Researchers have long noted that women still spend more time on household chores and childcare than men do (although men are doing better than they did in the past). But there’s another aspect of inequality in domestic responsibilities that’s starting to come to the forefront. And that’s the idea of mental load.
What Is Mental Load?
Mental load encompasses all the planning, scheduling, strategizing and anticipating that go into managing your home and family. It’s all the information you routinely keep track of: your kids’ teachers, best friends and clothing sizes — and on and on. It’s the running list of errands or home projects you keep in your head.
Women carry a higher mental load than men do. Being the only person who knows what needs to be done is extra work for you — even if your husband happily helps with household tasks when you ask.
You might see a lot of yourself and your husband in “You Should’ve Asked,” a comic about the mental load by an artist known as Emma.
“When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores,” Emma writes. Being the household manager and organizer, she adds, is basically a full-time job.
Part of women’s mental load is also thinking more about the “big picture” than their male partners often do. Did you cringe at the scene in the comic where the woman asks her husband to take the baby’s bottle out of the dishwasher? He does — but leaves the rest of the clean dishes inside.
How to Share the Mental Load
Shouldering the majority of your household’s mental load over the long term is a recipe for resentment that will ultimately damage your marriage.
So how can you and your husband redistribute the mental load differently?
First, it’s always best to talk about the situation openly. He may notice that you’re stressed but not understand that this stress is related to your mental load — which means that he doesn’t know what needs to change. And if you’ve been dropping hints, it’s not a very effective way to communicate.
We all go into marriage with our own “scripts” about how things should be. Those scripts are shaped by the families we grew up with and by the culture as a whole. It’s easy to think that our script is the same as everyone else’s, but that isn’t the case. For example, your husband might assume that the way his parents’ marriage worked is just the way that all marriages work.
Remember, though, that inequities in how the two of you handle your family’s mental load could also stem from your script. As women, we grow up hearing lots of messages about how we should tirelessly devote ourselves to the needs of others.
Compare your scripts so that you can understand and empathize with where the other person is coming from. Once you’ve opened the conversation, the next step is working together to negotiate who is fully responsible for managing various tasks. Maybe that means he takes over planning meals and making the grocery list while you cook. Perhaps he takes the lead with your daughter’s gymnastics lessons while you manage her school activities. It doesn’t matter how you distribute the work. What’s important is that it feels fair to both of you.
If particular tasks need to be done by a certain time, identify the time frame so both of you have the same expectations. If one of you is better at a task, go ahead and play to your strengths and let that person be responsible for it. Same thing if you care more about a particular area — you should be the one in charge of it.
As more of the mental load shifts to your husband, you may find yourself having difficulty letting go. You will have to grapple with your own perfectionism or anxiety about not being in charge. If you find yourself micromanaging tasks that you both agreed he would manage, he’s likely to get upset with you.
You have to trust your husband and give him space to figure out his own system for managing his responsibilities. After all, he is an adult. He may not do things in the same way you do, or do them to your standards. But it’s healthier to redefine your definition of “good enough” than to continue to carry your whole family’s mental load.
Talking about mental load with your husband and working together on changes might not be easy. But it will improve your marriage and help you set a better example for your kids. If you’d like more practical advice on balancing marriage, family and career, you’ll enjoy my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Or at least it’s not the first word that comes to mind when you think about the qualities of a successful marriage. Talking about boundaries doesn’t get us as starry-eyed as talking about love, passion and devotion.
Is your whole life about your marriage and family? Is your husband your only source of emotional support? Do you neglect your health, your basic needs or the hobbies and interests you had before you got married? Then you need some healthier boundaries around your sense of self.
Maintaining a strong sense of yourself isn’t selfish. Neither is tending to your own needs on a regular basis. The reality is that nurturing your independence makes you a better partner. You take pressure off your husband because you’re not looking to him to fulfill all of your needs.
Having a life outside your marriage can also bring fresh energy into your marriage by giving you other experiences to share with your spouse besides the household chores. Your separateness also sends a strong message about how much you value yourself – and that can make you much more attractive to your husband. You may even lower the chances one of you will have an affair. Psychotherapist and bestselling author Esther Perel believes that many people stray from their marriages because they are trying to recapture a part of themselves they lost by getting married.
Boundaries around Privacy
True love doesn’t necessarily equal being a completely open book. You and your husband can have very different boundaries around privacy.
For example, let’s say both you and your husband were married before. You feel comfortable talking freely about your ex with your husband. No detail is off limits. On the other hand, your husband is more reticent in talking about his previous marriage. He does share information that’s relevant to your relationship – like how his ex’s overspending affects his behaviors around money in your relationship. But overall he keeps most things about his first marriage private.
Your approach may baffle him, and vice-versa. But neither of you is necessarily wrong. The important thing is that you can each maintain the privacy boundaries that feel healthy to you and that you understand and respect each other’s boundaries.
Boundaries around Behavior
Every marriage has rules about off-limits behaviors, whether those rules are spoken or not. Almost all of us would agree that having sex with other people and physically or emotionally abusing your spouse are clear boundary violations in a marriage.
But beyond these common rules, there are some other, lesser-known boundaries that are critical to a healthy marriage. Specifically, fighting dirty and openly disrespectful behavior should be unacceptable in your marriage. Displaying contempt is one of the top warning signs that your relationship is headed for divorce. Tolerating disrespect in any form will ultimately damage your relationship, so it is vital you put some clear boundaries around it.
Other behavior boundaries in marriage are important to negotiate. For example, different couples might set different boundaries around social media use. You may need to discuss how you feel about each of you having friends of the opposite sex. You may even have boundaries you want to set around how often you have sex or how household responsibilities are shared.
It’s essential to talk about what the boundaries are in your marriage and to make sure that you’re both playing from the same rule book.
This week, take some time to think about the boundaries in your marriage. Are there any boundaries you want to change? Are there boundaries that you and your husband need to communicate more about?
You can get more useful insights on boundaries and other ways to keep your marriage healthy in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Your phone is probably never far from you. It keeps you connected to the office, to your kids, to what’s going on in the world. If you’re stressed, it’s there with a relaxing game or some cute puppy photos in your Instagram feed. It’s your partner in daily life — and that’s a problem.
As helpful as our phones are, technology can also be a source of tension in a relationship. According to one study, couples with high technology use reported more conflict and lower relationship satisfaction. The study even indicated that when one partner spends a lot of time using the phone, the other partner can feel more depressed. Another study echoes those findings. It concluded that people who describe their partners as dependent on their cell phones are less satisfied with their relationships.
Why do mobile phones have such a powerful effect? We can find the answer to this question in past research about what makes relationships succeed or fail.
It’s All About ‘Bids’
I’ve written many times in this blog about the work of John Gottman, who has extensively studied the behavior of married couples. One thing Dr. Gottman observed is that we all make “bids” for connection in our relationships. A bid is “any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection or any other positive connection.” When spouses respond to each other’s bids, they make deposits in the emotional bank account of their marriage. This is important, Gottman says, because successful couples have 20 positive deposits for every “withdrawal,” or negative interaction, in their relationship. If you and your husband regularly respond to each other’s bids for connection, you’re 88 percent more likely to stay married.
So where do our phones come in? As you’re probably all too aware, phones are powerful distractions. You don’t even have to be using your phone for it to steal your attention. When your focus is on your phone screen, you’re less aware of the world around you — and the people around you. That means you’re less likely to even notice your spouse’s bids, let alone respond to them. As a result, he may feel rejected, even if you didn’t intend to hurt his feelings.
How to Reclaim Your Relationship
If you’re worried that your phones are coming between you and your husband, what’s the solution? Admittedly, this isn’t an easy question. In just a couple of decades since they first became widely used, cell phones are now an inescapable part of life. But while you can’t get rid of your cell phone (and probably don’t even want to), you can change the way you relate to it so that it doesn’t detract from your marriage and other important relationships.
Above all, make it a priority to spend more time being truly present with each other. Now this doesn’t mean you have to book a two-week vacation at a remote beach resort without cell phone service. I’m talking about steps that are much more realistic. For example, put away phones when you and your husband reconnect with each other after work. Share a meal together while your phones are in the other room. Or when you are using your phone, take a moment to send a sweet note, rather than the grocery list. These may seem like little steps, but they can make a big difference in your marriage.
Finally, I want to leave you with an article from Thrive Global that really stayed with me. In it, psychotherapist Katherine Schafler cites the four questions that Maya Angelou believed we are unconsciously asking each other all the time:
Do you see me?
Do you care that I’m here?
Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
Can I tell that I’m special to you by the way that you look at me?
Angelou’s questions poignantly articulate an essential truth: We all need to be seen, to be affirmed, to be valued. We all need attention, reassurance and connection with each other. When you half-listen to your husband while you scroll through your Facebook feed, how are you answering these questions? And what are the answers you’re receiving from him if he’s checking headlines or email while you’re talking?
Don’t let the technology that keeps you plugged into the world rob you of true human connection. Always make connection a priority to keep your marriage strong. For more practical advice about maintaining your marriage amid our hectic, busy lives, check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Today I just want you to find a way to lighten things up.
The weight of all our daily tasks and worries can wear us down — even when we think that they’re no big deal. Have you ever read the “How heavy is your glass of water?” story. The point of it is that we all have to put down our burdens sometimes.
Now that we’re in the heart of summer, maybe there’s some extra space for you to do this. If the pace of your work life and family life is a little slower right now, don’t rush to fill that freed-up time with things from your to-do list. Your world won’t fall apart if you take a break from being responsible and mature. Really.
What does lightening up look like? Go on an impromptu vacation or staycation. The next time the kids want to have an adventure or just hang out, put down your phone and join in. Goof around with your husband. Remember how fun it was to be silly together? (If not, the video with this post is a good refresher course.)
Giving yourself a break from the routine stress we are all under will help keep your marriage healthy. You’ll also reconnect with a side of yourself you may have forgotten.
You — and your marriage, and your family — need joy. Don’t put it off.
It might not sound romantic, but Helen Fisher has love down to a science.
Fisher is a biological anthropologist and a scientific advisor to Match.com. She and her fellow researchers have spent a lot of time using MRI scanners to look at the brains of people in love.
While all of Fisher’s work is fascinating, her findings about people in long-term relationships who report that they’re still in love are especially intriguing. We usually think of new love as the most exciting and swoon-worthy. But the brains of Fisher’s subjects — mostly n their 50’s and married an average of 21 years— clearly showed their passion still burning.
“Psychologists maintain that the dizzying feeling of intense romantic love lasts only about 18 months to—at best—three years. Yet the brains of these middle-aged men and women showed much the same activity as those of young lovers, individuals who had been intensely in love an average of only seven months,” Fisher writes in O Magazine.
What’s keeping their love alive? And what can the rest of us learn from Fisher’s findings?
Does Your Brain Wear Rose-Colored Glasses?
Because our brains are wired to keep us alive, we naturally tend to look for the negative in order to quickly spot anything potentially risky or dangerous. Unfortunately, this thinking bias can cause problems in our relationships if we’re not careful.
Fisher found that longtime lovers have reduced activity in the part of the brain that skews negative, which suggests that they’ve honed their ability to see the positives in their partner.
“Men and women who continue to maintain that their partner is attractive, funny, kind and ideal for them in just about every way remain content with each other,” Fisher writes. “Perhaps this form of self-deception is a gift from nature, enabling us to triumph over the rough spots and the changes in our relationships.”
Does your brain need some training to accentuate the positive? Make an extra effort to notice the good things that your husband does and to remind yourself of all the reasons you fell in love with him in the first place.
(A quick note here: In no way is Fisher suggesting that you overlook serious issues, like abuse.)
How Active Are Your Mirror Neurons?
Another interesting thing about the brains of Fisher’s subjects was the higher activity of the mirror neurons which are nerve cells linked with empathy. That’s not surprising. We all long to feel heard and understood in our relationships.
Unfortunately, life gets so busy and draining sometimes that it depletes our ability to be empathic with others. To improve your ability to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, there are a couple of exercises you can try. First, there’s the “marriage hack” that takes only 21 minutes per year. You can also work through the 36 questions that build closeness (which you may have seen featured in The New York Times).
Are You Caring For Yourself?
Finally, Fisher’s subjects showed notable activity in the brain regions associated with controlling emotions. Again, this makes a lot of sense. As I’ve written before, respect is the often-overlooked ingredient in lasting love. And it’s a lot easier to be respectful with your partner when your emotions don’t feel out of control.
If you do lash out at your husband frequently, take a look at the rest of your life. I’m betting that you’re pushing yourself hard and may not even realize the pressures you face. To get a better handle on your emotions, look at the factors that put you at risk for “flipping your lid” and engage in more self-care. As women, we’re often taught that tending to our own needs is selfish. But the truth is we can’t be there for others with love and respect if we don’t care for ourselves.
Be sure to take a few minutes to watch Fisher’s full TED Talk. I think you’ll come away with a fresh appreciation of the power and wonder of love. And for a guide to writing your own lasting love story, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love
For around 30 years, researchers have studied how having children affects a marriage, and the results are conclusive: the relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along. Comparing couples with and without children, researchers found that the rate of the decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than for childless couples. In the event that a pregnancy is unplanned, the parents experience even greater negative impacts on their relationship.
For most people, marital discontent after having kids occurs because of the loss of their intimate friendship with their spouse. This friendship is naturally taken for granted when it’s just the two of you. Maintaining this bond is harder amid all the demands of parenthood. But it’s not impossible. Here are a few strategies for keeping your marriage strong after you become parents.
Moms Are Overburdened
Research shows that the primary childcare responsibilities still fall on women, who also do considerably more housework and spend more hours multitasking than their husbands do. It’s hard to feel romantic and connected to your husband when you’re exhausted or resentful all the time!
Talk openly about household responsibilities and how the two of you and can keep everything from falling on your shoulders. This may mean that your husband takes on additional tasks or that you rework your budget so that you can afford to hire a housekeeping service.
You Need Couple Time
In many families, life revolves around the kids’ schedules, needs and desires. This happens because of parents’ desire to do what’s best for their kids, but this isn’t best for anyone. Children do not want to be — and should not be — the center of the universe. More than additional time, most children need parents who are more relaxed, emotionally attuned to them and involved in a loving, respectful marriage.
As a couple, you need time together to keep your relationship vibrant, but may feel guilty taking away from “family time.” Just remember that if you never prioritize your marriage, it is at greater risk for deteriorating, and that is not good either for you or your children. Children benefit from any effort you put into your marriage. For kids, seeing their parents happy with each other is an extremely stabilizing experience. That steadiness gives them a solid foundation from which to flourish.
Spending time as a couple does not have to break your budget. If you can’t afford a babysitter right now, make sure the kids are in bed early and spend some quality time with your husband in the evening. Have lunch together or take a little time here and there when the kids are in school. If you have friends in the same boat, trade babysitting every few weeks. Give yourself permission to put your needs first at times and bring some fun back into your marriage.
Families Are Overextended
Another way to free up time for your marriage, and to change the whole atmosphere of your family, is to simplify life. As parents, we’re under tremendous pressure to do everything “right” for our kids. There’s an underlying message that you must give them every opportunity to develop their talents and interests and that you must fill their lives with memorable experiences. So we spend hours carting kids all over town to various activities, and we spend money on lessons, tutoring, elaborate birthday parties and over-the-top vacations.
Let me take some of the pressure off: Pushing children to develop every talent and excel at everything is not good for them, especially if you are forcing them well beyond their personal limits. You will not damage, deprive or prevent your child from thriving if you do not provide the “perfect” childhood as portrayed in magazines, parenting blogs and your friends’ social media feeds. Take back control of your parenting so that you and your husband are not frantically attempting to meet the latest fabricated need. Scale back activities to the ones that are truly meaningful for your family.
Despite its challenges, parenting is an experience that is truly life changing. The depth of love you can feel for a child can be absolutely breathtaking, and sharing that bond with your husband can be another source of intimacy. Children have a way of helping us become aware of our place in the life cycle and can bring tremendous joy and meaning to life. Balancing your own needs with those of the vulnerable little humans for whom you are responsible requires tremendous maturity, planning and commitment, but is entirely doable if you stay focused and simplify. Need a guide to caring for your marriage as you nurture your family? Pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Whatever you’re doing right now, take a quick break to watch this video of older women looking back on their lives and reflecting on what’s really important. It’ll take just a couple of minutes.
One thing that’s especially poignant and fascinating about this video is that the women point out that standards are different now than when they were younger and that there’s an expectation of “perfection” in the culture that they didn’t have to contend with.
Take parenting. Did you know that even though more women are in the workforce now, we spend more time with our children than women did in the past? We also deal daily with what seems like an ever-longer list of things we are supposed to do to parent the “right” way.
And then there’s social media, which can make it seem like you’re the only mom without exciting vacations, overachieving children, a blissful marriage, the ideal job, magazine-worthy meals and flawless holiday decorations.
When we constantly chase perfection, we miss the flawed but, in many ways, lovely lives we already have. That isn’t to say, of course, that you shouldn’t pursue what’s important to you in life, whether that’s career fulfillment or a strong marriage. But as you do, remember to get out of your head and come into the present moment with the people you love and life you’ve created.
Amid all the doing, take time for simply being. Right here. Right now.
As the women in the video remind us, the years will pass quickly. And you don’t get a second chance to recapture the moments you lost.
He’s talking a lot about his new co-worker. What if they’re having an affair? He always gets so mad when I ask him to do things at home. What if I push him too hard and he leaves? He isn’t taking care of himself like the doctor told him to. What if he gets really sick and I’m left to deal with things by myself?
Do you ever get scared and then lose yourself in doubts about your husband? Sometimes “what ifs” can be a sign that there are some trust issues in your marriage. But the person you mistrust may not be the one you think.
Is This Really Something to Worry About?
If you’re often troubled by worries like the ones above, a good first step is to investigate how valid your fears are.
Let’s take the example of that new co-worker your husband is chatting about. If you feel like this is part of a bigger pattern (he’s had an emotional affair before, there are other issues in your relationship), then there might indeed be reason for concern. But if he’s loyal, reliable and generally happy in your marriage, it’s a good sign that he is talking to you about her. He is probably worthy of your trust. Similarly, an irritated husband may be trustworthy, but simply overwhelmed by the pressures of work and just needing some breathing room, not a divorce.
If you can’t quell your anxieties even though you know on a rational level that they’re baseless, then it’s time to ask yourself another question.
Instead of pondering whether you trust him, consider whether you trust yourself.
The Root of Your Fears
When you’re constantly plagued by irrational fears about your husband, that insecurity may come from lack of trust in your own ability to handle life. On some level, you might literally believe you won’t be able to cope if he really is cheating (or if whatever other scenario you’re worried about turns out to be true).
It’s important to remember that everyone will let you down sometimes, in big or small ways. You can’t keep that from happening. But you can cultivate your own resilience and confidence in yourself. Without self-trust, you risk becoming clingy, needy, or jealous, making it much more likely your husband would need to get some distance from you. Desperation and mistrust are good ways to drive off even the best of men.
As psychotherapist and author Cynthia Wall writes, you have to trust yourself before you can develop trusting connections with others. Learning to take care of your own needs — something busy wives and moms often forget — helps build self-trust. So does being kind and compassionate with yourself, the opposite of the perfectionism that pervades our lives these days. Little crises with others, including your husband, will seem less catastrophic when you feel more confident in your own skills.
Reminding yourself that your husband can’t be there for you 100% may seem depressing at first, but doesn’t necessarily make him untrustworthy. Rationally examining his devotion to you is important. If you figure out that you have mistakenly assumed the worst about him, don’t forget that research affirms the power of couples to repair big and small rifts in their marriages. If others can do it, so can you!
One resource that can help you trust yourself and your relationship is my book Strong Women, Strong Love. In it, you’ll find many more practical strategies like the ones in this article.
When a woman makes the choice to marry, to have children,
in one way her life begins but in another way it stops.
You build a life of details.
You become a mother, a wife and you stop and
stay steady so that your children can move.
And when they leave they take
your life of details with them.
And then you’re expected to move again
only you don’t remember what moves you because
no one has asked in so long.
Not even yourself.