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Home is a sanctuary from work stress, right? Not always. Even if you are able to leave your projects and worries at the office, your spouse may have difficulty doing so — and that stress can rub off on you. How can you help your partner cope? What’s the best thing to say when your partner starts complaining — and what should you not say? Is there a way to help them see things differently? And how can you set boundaries so that home can be a haven again?
What the Experts Say
Dealing with stress is a fact of working life. And when you’re half of a dual-career couple, you have both your own stress to manage and your significant other’s stress as well. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Jennifer Petriglieri, assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. “Two careers can mean twice the stress, but it can also mean twice the empathy and understanding,” she says. What’s more, she adds, helping your partner learn to cope with stress helps you cope with it better, too. “When a couple is good at managing stress, it makes them [as individuals] more resilient.” The key, says John Coleman, coauthor of the book Passion & Purpose, is to move away from the notion that “you’re two individuals managing stress” and move toward the idea that “you’re partners managing it together.” Your goal, he adds, is to “become a constructive outlet” for your spouse. So, whether your significant other is stressing over a conflict with their boss, looming layoffs, or a crazy-making client, here are some pointers on how to help.
When your partner gets home from work and begins recounting their latest office irritation, many of us have a tendency to “only half-listen” to them, Petriglieri says. “It’s 7 PM — you’re trying to make dinner and the kids are around — and so you nod and say, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.” But that’s likely to leave your partner even more frustrated. Instead, she suggests, “give your partner your undivided attention.” Listen and “really focus on what your partner is saying.” Don’t interrupt. “It’s quite likely that your partner just needs to rant for three minutes and get something off his chest,” she says. Don’t offer advice — at least not yet, Coleman says. “You don’t always need to be a problem solver,” he adds. “Sometimes your partner just needs to be heard.”
It’s critical to “show engagement in what your partner is saying,” Coleman says. “Don’t just look at them with a fixed stare.” Instead, “say supportive things and use supportive language.” Empathize and sympathize, but don’t compare your stress to your spouse’s. “When your partner starts complaining, don’t say, ‘Oh, you think your day was bad, listen to what I had to deal with!’ It doesn’t help anything.” Stress endurance is not a competition. Still, it’s not always easy to provide on-demand support and encouragement, and sometimes “you are not mentally ready to deal with your partner’s problems,” he says. If it’s an inopportune time, Petriglieri suggests, offer to “follow up on the conversation later in the evening, the next day, or even at the weekend.” The important thing is that you “leave the door open to further conversation.”
Play career coach (judiciously)
“The benefit of having a spouse is that they know you as well as you know yourself” — maybe even a little better, Coleman says. “So if you get a sense that your partner is misreading a situation at work or heading in the wrong direction, you need to say something.” He suggests “asking good questions that will broaden” your significant other’s perspective. Try probing but nonthreatening lines of inquiry, such as, “’What makes you think that’s the case?’ Or, ‘Is there a situation in which a different response would be warranted?’ Sometimes you have to help your partner identify a blind spot,” he says. Offer advice — but be gentle about it, Petriglieri says. She recommends saying something like, “’I have a suggestion on a path forward. Can I share it?’ It takes the heat out of what you have to say.”
It’s also important to be aware of the type of stress your partner is experiencing, according to Petriglieri. There are two kinds of work stress. “There’s sporadic stress, which is the result of a bad meeting or a client project gone awry,” and there’s “chronic stress, which bubbles under the surface” for a prolonged period. Chronic stress, she says, is a signal that your significant other may “be in the wrong place.” It’s “classic boiling frog syndrome,” she adds. To wit, you need to “notice your partner’s attitude, mood, and patterns,” and help them reflect on their career and professional path. “Ask, ‘How are things going? Are you where you want to be? Are you satisfied?’” Granted, these questions are fodder “for a longer, meaningful conversation that’s more appropriate for a night out or a long walk on the beach.” But if your spouse is struggling, you need to be on top of it.
Encourage outside friendships and interests
And yet, “you cannot be the sole repository for your partner’s stress,” Coleman says. “Typically, partners are the ones we rely on the most. But relying on each other too much can sour a relationship.” That’s why you need to “help your partner have a life outside of home and work,” he says. “Create a third space. Give them the freedom and space to pursue things they enjoy — such as a hobby or a sport.” It’s also critical that both of you maintain an “outside support network” of “folks who can help you work through” professional challenges and serve as sounding boards and sources of counsel. Encourage your spouse to “keep up existing relationships” and “cultivate new friendships and connections,” Petriglieri says. It might also be worthwhile to “encourage your partner to see a therapist or work with a career coach,” she adds. “It could push [your spouse’s] development forward.” Bear in mind, though, the therapist or coach ought to be “a complement, not a substitute” for you.
Finally, you need to cultivate “your home as a haven,” Coleman says. This is easier said than done. The ubiquity of mobile phones, laptop computers, and the 24/7 nature of work are big obstacles. That’s why “you and your spouse need to practice good mobile device habits,” he says. “There need to be times of day where you both put down your mobile phones; you need to draw a distinction of when a work device can be used at home.” He also suggests helping your partner “develop a good end-of-work habit.” It could be encouraging them to listen to an audiobook or music or just take a walk at the end of the workday. “You both need time to decompress.”
Principles to Remember
- Put down your mobile phone and give your partner your undivided attention.
- Offer advice in a gentle way. Help your partner identify blind spots.
- Develop calming end-of-the-workday habits and rituals. You both need time to decompress.
- Rush to solve your partner’s problems. Sometimes your partner may just need to vent.
- Overlook broader patterns. Notice if your partner seems stuck in a rut.
- Expect to be the sole repository for your spouse’s work stress. Support your partner in cultivating hobbies and outside interests and friendships.
Case Study #1: Identify calming rituals and be a supportive coach
Alex Membrillo, the CEO of Cardinal, the Atlanta-based digital marketing agency, knows very well the challenges of helping a significant other manage work-related stress. “My wife works for a big IT company, and she’s been under a lot of pressure from her boss for the past couple of years,” he says. “It’s been tough.”
So Alex has come up with a few strategies to help his wife cope. First, he listens. “The first 15 minutes after she gets home from work, I just let her unload,” he says. “She tells me about what her boss said that day, and I just hear her out. I don’t get emotional and I don’t offer advice. It’s not the time for my suggestions.”
Second, he offers support. “Once she’s calmer, I remind her of her strengths and all the things she’s great at,” he says. “I try to be a source of positivity.”
Third, he and his wife decompress together. “After dinner, we like to unwind by going for a drive around the city,” he says. “When I was going through stressful time at work a while ago, we starting doing it, and we’ve continued the ritual. It’s something about the constant motion — it’s a great way to get our minds off of work.”
Fourth, he encourages his wife to have a life outside of her job and home. “Church is very important to her and so is teaching ballet to young girls — I encourage her to do both those things,” he says.
Finally, he also offers professional advice and counsel. “She’s been in a rut, and I want to help,” he says. “So I use the word ‘imagine’ a lot — as in, ‘Imagine what life would be like if you felt energized by your work.’”
Case Study #2: Set limits on work talk — but let your spouse vent
Jessica McClain, a public auditor based in Washington, D.C., helps her husband manage his work stress — and vice versa. “If I am being honest, I am a bit of a workaholic,” she says. “My job is very demanding and sometimes I don’t know how to turn it off. Earlier this year, he said to me that he feels like he’s the mistress to my job.”
They both realized they needed to work together to figure out how best to cope with the pressure. “We had a deep conversation, and we set some ground rules,” Jessica says.
The first rule: No work talk in the early evening. “It used to be that we’d come home and immediately start talking about our days at the office — I was especially guilty of that,” she says. “Now, instead, we have a drink, we watch TV, we eat dinner, and we talk about everything else except work.”
The second rule: Pay attention to what the other person needs. Jessica’s husband works for the government. “He feels stress, but he doesn’t talk about it every day,” she says. “When he talks about problems he’s dealing with, [my inclination] is to give him advice and say how I would handle the situation. He finally said to me, ‘I’m not asking for advice. Just let me talk.’ Now I know to just listen.”
The third rule: No comparisons. “I used to compare his work issues to mine,” Jessica admits. “If he was talking about a problem, I would say something like, ‘I’ve dealt with a situation that was 20 times worse.’”
She realizes her husband didn’t appreciate that. “The last time I said it, he told me, ‘We’re not talking about you. We’re talking about my situation.’ So I’ve learned not to compare. My role is to be a supportive ear.”
Jessica says she’s also taken note of her husband’s good work balance. “He has hobbies, he goes to the gym four or five times a week, and he spends time with his friends,” she says. She’s making a concerted effort to incorporate more downtime into her life.