Workplaces threaten our relationships

Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, CGT

Workplaces threaten our relationships

Our workplaces are one of the biggest threats to our relationships. And no one is talking about it. Week after week, I meet with couples who believe they are failing - they can’t keep up with the laundry, they don’t have time to plan the birthday parties, they haven’t had energy for sex - and week after week they try the things that should work.

  • They work on communicating better about what needs to be done
  • They divide the labor more fairly
  • They let go of the things that aren’t priorities
  • They outsource
  • They make efforts to show their partner love

And, yet, no matter how hard they try, they are still completely overwhelmed.

I was working with a couple named Leann and Cora.* They were telling me how frustrated they were with the number of tasks they have to complete in their daily life - how it all seems unending and how they aren’t sure what to do about it.

When couples express to me that they are jointly overwhelmed and not sure exactly what to do to make their daily lives more manageable, I do an activity with them. I rip 5 sheets of paper out of my notebook and label them one by one:

1. Magic (Eve Rodsky introduced this one)
2. Housework
3. Childcare
4. Worklife
5. Unpredictable

I ask the couple to take some time together to fill each paper with all of the tasks they currently have in their daily/weekly life in each category.

As I watched Leann and Cora work together, I saw them fill the unpredictable category:

  • School keeps calling us to pick up Liam for the sniffles
  • Every week there seems to be an issue with an appliance in the house
  • When our wifi isn’t strong enough, we have to run to the office

And the worklife category:

  • I have to submit my hours by Friday at 5
  • I need to send in my name change so we still get to keep our insurance
  • I have to update my license before it lapses
  • My CEU’s are due by next week

And childcare:

  • Baths
  • Teeth
  • Book reading
  • Rocking
  • Playing

And Housework:

  • Dishes
  • Laundry
  • Cleaning the guinea pig cage
  • On and on and on and on

And then they got to magic.

“What’s this one mean?” Leann said. “It’s the category for the tasks you complete to make sure the special stuff happens in your life,” I responded.

Leann and Cora looked blankly at each other and then at me. “You know,” I said, “picking up each other’s favorite bagels on Sunday morning or having a tradition of planting a new bush each year or changing the wreath on the door for the new season…the things that make life feel special, fresh, and magic.”

Leann immediately started to cry. “What’s going on Leann?” I asked.

“I don’t think we have anything magic in our lives right now and it makes me really sad. Liam deserves magic.”

“So do you,” I said, “you deserve magic too.”

Leann and Cora shared with me that they don’t have any rituals and they haven’t had time to do the things they used to - surprising each other with treats, hanging lights in the winter, setting up a beachy mantle spread in the summer.

[Want to deepen this exercise? Get Eve Rodsky's Fair Play game cards here]

A dull, but sharp life.

For Leann and Cora, recognizing that there is no time for the sparkle made them realize how dull life had become. And this was not the life they had set out to create. Yet with all of their efforts they felt they couldn’t get their heads above water.

No matter how much Cora wanted to hang the wreath, the continuing education credits had to be submitted for work first.

No matter how much Leanne wanted to take a trip to Dunkin Donuts to grab their partner’s favorite coffee on a Saturday morning, she needed to get her fingerprints notarized at the local pack and ship first.

No matter how much they both wanted to surprise Liam with a scavenger hunt in the backyard after school, they had to plop him in front of the TV first because both of their jobs required “notes” to be submitted by 7 PM.

“Our workplaces,” I said, “have become the dullest, sharpest knives for many couples. Dull, because they’ve filled, without limit, our lives with endless and mundane tasks. Sharp because it really hurts to recognize what it’s taking away - the things that really matter.”

Somewhere, we went from families ending their work day, coming home, eating dinner together and being done for the day to having 24 hour work days, with shifts for breaks. Let’s take Leann’s, who is a teacher, workday:

  • 7:30 AM - 4PM:
    Teaching (all lesson planning time has been removed by the school district)
  • 4:00 PM - 6:30 PM:
    Pick up Liam and “have a break from work” to play with him.
  • 6:30 PM -7:30 PM:
    Hand off Liam to Cora + spend time lesson planning
  • 7:30PM - 8:00 PM:
    Take a break from work and make/eat dinner
  • 7:00 PM - 8:00 PM:
    Get back to parent emails
  • 8:00 PM+:
    Break from work to put the baby down.

Let’s look at Cora’s schedule. Cora is a pediatrician:

  • 6:00 AM - 6:00 PM:
    Meeting with patients (all time for doing required notes has been taken away in order to see more patients)
  • 6:00 PM - 7:00 PM:
    Drive home and play with Liam
  • 7:30 PM - 8:00 PM:
    Eat dinner
  • 8:00 PM+:
    Start on medical notes, let Leann put the baby down.

Leann and Cora are on a 24 hour work cycle - although they are not being paid for it. And, within that work cycle they have gaslit themselves into believing it’s an individual or relational failing that they can’t quite figure out how to get all of the tasks done and still have sparkle.

For many couples, they are trying to emulate an older paradigm - come home, eat dinner together, watch the news - but they can’t because the Slack pings never stop. And they are lead to believe they are failing…everywhere.

While we’ve been taught to lean in, I think couples need to start leaning out. What needs to happen to be fully supported at work and at home? And how can people who dedicated their lives to each other because of the sparkle get it back?

“I am not sure of the answer” I told Leann and Cora, “but as a couple I know you’re going to need to find a creative solution to this…otherwise this just isn’t going to work for you or your family.”

Some questions we came up with together to try to figure this out:

  • What in life really matters to us and how much time have we had to actually allocate to that?
  • Are there areas we can adjust, without much effort or cost, that would give us more time and space to spend time on what matters?
  • Are there areas that require major adjustment? If so, what are they and what will be sacrificed? (i.e. will we be making less money? Will it take longer to reach the career goal? Will it force us to build new habits?)

We also explored the concept of thirds. Thirds are what Stan Tatkin calls anything that can disrupt the security of a relationship - this could be work, family, friends, hobbies, or vices. In this case, Leann and Cora’s third was the workplace - it was violating their boundaries around home life and it was impacting their connection with each other.

When thinking about “thirds” we want to explore boundaries.

Definition: Boundaries are the lines we have around ourselves and our relationships to keep ourselves safe and healthy.

Sometimes, we violate our own boundaries - we might say “I know I will become burnt out if I hop back into a work document every night but then we do it anyway."

Relationally, we might know that if we spend the entire weekend working on a project for the office, we are going to negatively impact intimacy and yet we pick up the project anyway.

It can be really hard to have boundaries - it sometimes means letting other people down - but it also might mean lifting your family up.

If this is something you resonate with - explore what matters, look at boundaries, and consider the hard work that you might have to do together - because your workplace isn’t going to save your relationship for you.

*Names, dates, timeline, and details have been changed and combined to create a story that is not the story of any specific client, but the stories of many, many couples I have met with.

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