The Interplay of Work and Marriage

When work and marriage are in balance and going well, the world seems like a wonderful place. So, if one person(or both) has work that is meaningful, relatively well-paying, reasonably flexible, and includes enjoyable relationships with co-workers, then we can imagine that good will be reflected in the marriage. I will have more energy for my marriage if my career is meeting these important needs.

If both spouses enjoy each other, love each other, and enrich each other, that good will spill over into the workplace. I will leave for work with a smile on my face (or at least in my heart), knowing I am loved and I have someone to love. When all goes well, this symbiotic connection is quite rewarding.

According to Judeo-Christian belief, work and marriage were given to humanity by God as gifts that were good: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, NIV), and “Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:22-24).

Unfortunately, most of us experience seasons in which work is overwhelming, and it can be quite challenging for this not to impact our marriages. Scripture tells us work will be hard: “To Adam he said, ‘… through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground'” (Genesis 3:17-19). The reverse is true as well; there are times when the marriage is suffering and this can spill over into work.

One of the courses in my psychoanalytic training, “The Analyst’s Subjectivity,” explored the impact of our work on our internal worlds. I can still recall a very frank and sobering discussion when everyone present — analysts and candidates alike — confessed the toll the work of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapy took on our relationships. “I have absolutely no patience for small talk anymore,” one admitted. “All I want to do is hole up in my house and see and talk with nobody,” another noted. “I have so many fewer friends and very little space for family,” someone else divulged. Meanwhile, I have realized, painfully, how the vast majority of the arguments Renée and I have had across our marriage came at the end of my work week. I was spent, emotionally in the red, and could not listen to or process or feel one more thing, at least for a while.

I would like to explore some of the concerns I hear in my office every week regarding work and its effect on relationships. They can fall into a few categories: 1) working too much, 2) dissatisfaction with work, 3) the spillover effect, 4) inadequate employment, and 5) envy between spouses regarding work.

Working Too Much

Without a doubt, at the top of the list of complaints about work in marriage, is the perception that one or the other is working too much. “Too much,” of course, is often a subjective matter. For some, it is the length of the work day: when preparation for work, commute time, and work consumes all but an hour or two of one’s waking day. For others, it is the umbilical cord to work: always tied to one’s cell phone checking texts, emails, voicemails, and other incoming bombardment from clients, bosses, or colleagues. Still others may work a reasonable workday, but they work just about every day of the week, with very few days off to unwind and spend with family. And some are required to travel, to be away for days and sometimes weeks at a time.

When one or both spouses work too much, the other frequently experiences loneliness and may come to resent both the other spouse and the job. (We have labels for this, such as work widows versus workaholics.) It is easy to see how couples grow apart. In this instance, absence does not make the heart grow fonder; rather, it contributes to distancing.

Why People Work Too Much

For Survival
Many find themselves in work situations in which professional survival requires too much work. In the beginning of many careers when we are starting at the bottom, we may be required to work longer hours with less vacation time than our senior colleagues. However, in many situations, it is the ones who are most senior who feel the weight of responsibility and end up working too much. For some, too much work is episodic or seasonal: accountants simply work more leading up to April 15 than they might during the rest of the year. In other words, the nature of your work is itself a powerful variable regulating the amount of time spent on the job.

Feeling Trapped
But is the responsibility for too much work always outside our control? In psychology we use the term “locus of control” when exploring the source of perceived power in any situation. In other words, is the locus of control external (meaning that I am simply subject to the winds and whims of factors outside of myself) or is the locus of control internal, suggesting that I have the power to change my own life? Colloquially stated, am I a victim or a victor?

In working with highly paid professionals, executives, and business owners, I have found that many of them feel fairly bound by their demanding schedules and long hours. For some, this may be the “golden handcuff” phenomenon in which individuals who are highly compensated also feel strangely imprisoned by the long hours and other demands placed on them. They feel they have no choice.

On the opposite end of the wages pendulum are individuals working as much as they can simply to make ends meet. Their need to work too much is understandably very powerful and they feel this dilemma acutely; “no worky, no eaty,” as the saying goes. Frankly, it often takes a long time before a person is ready to consider a different career, job setting, or simplifying his or her lifestyle. Until such time, many feel they have no choice but to continue their current course, which, by definition, leaves them feeling powerless.

I Love What I Do!
Many work too much because they simply love their jobs! We may call these people workaholics, but truthfully, many of their psychological needs are met at work. They feel accepted, respected, worthwhile, and productive. Their sense of identity, who they are, is more clearly defined by their work than anywhere else. Some at their jobs feel a sense of community, even family, with coworkers.

Finally, some work too much because they feel ambivalent about intimacy. Work is a way of hiding from the demands of an intimate relationship or, at least, regulating the closeness with an intimate partner. Growing up they may have learned that while intimacy is something they cannot live without (what with being human and all), it is scary, unpredictable, smothering, and/or dangerous. Working a lot is a great strategy for regulating closeness with a spouse.

Now for the bomb. What if we work too much at times for all of the above reasons? What if our psychological realities more than our financial ones are responsible for much of this? Just something to consider.

Dissatisfaction with Work

Honestly, some work situations are completely toxic. Competition is cut-throat. Bosses are under unbelievable pressure to produce higher goals with fewer resources. The workplace is filled with every neurosis in the DSM-V, and proud of it. The company’s stated goals are in conflict with each other: “In theory, my company talks about work/life balance, but in reality, all of us have to do more than ever with fewer resources than ever. And each year we are evaluated, not on how well we have struck the work/life balance, but by how much we have produced.”

When I hear my patients talk about some of their dysfunctional work situations, I often cannot believe that they are able to live any semblance of functional lives outside work, unless, I suppose, they learn to develop powerful compartmentalizing super-skills, which, in the end, is only sweeping the dirt under the rug of one’s soul.

Most cannot accomplish the task of complete compartmentalization. They find ways to numb and to forget. I have listened to several who work for a highly competitive company tell me how they and almost everyone they work with use cocaine just to survive. Other executives admit that without alcohol they could not survive. Many drink occasionally during the week, but binge on weekends, sometimes going on benders a few times a year that last several days at a time.

The Spillover Effect

As most of you know, prior to my work as a psychologist, I was a pastor. During my training in the mental health profession, my daughter would occasionally scold me, “Dad, you’re doing it again! Stop it!” I was so engrossed in learning this complicated new endeavor that apparently I would talk with my children as if they were my patients. They did not like that. And I was clueless until I was reminded. These days my wife is a little more subtle. She simply says, “Is that right, Dr. Graham?,” emphasis on “doctor.” I hate that I do this!

Just about everyone who has invested a great deal in their professions or careers is vulnerable to this. Attorney spouses complain about being given “the third degree.” CEO and executive spouses angrily insist they are NOT their spouse’s “employees.”

But spillover can have other faces too as I discussed in the beginning of this article. What is the impact on someone’s psyche after dealing all day long with the suffering, the lawbreaking, the violent, the scheming, the threatening, the demanding, the patronizing people in our work worlds? I listen to highly trained professional teachers complain about being evaluated in their classrooms six times each year according to some new rubric the school district has devised. They are graded, just like their students. How humiliating and intrusive and infantilizing and, on a salary that barely makes ends meet.

Inadequate Employment

Likely some of the most painful conversations I have had over the years deals with those who are under-employed or unemployed. These people cannot find adequate work to meet the financial needs of their families. Some work two or three jobs. Some deal with spouses who degrade them for not earning enough money. Others try to utilize governmental programs to help subsidize them. Still others wind up moving in with family, causing hardship on everyone. The pressure on these people simply to survive is such that a marriage has at least two strikes against it from the start.

Envy Between Spouses

Obviously, the issue of envy between spouses regarding work has more to do than simply with work. When one spouse decides to quit working and the burden of income is almost completely on the other spouse, the spouse who continues to work may quickly envy the freedom not to work the other spouse has. Then, ironically, the non-working spouse envies the financial power and meaning that comes from work that the working spouse enjoys. Yikes!

Even in dual-career marriages, one spouse may envy the other’s income, freedom, power, flexibility. No two jobs are exactly alike. The essential complain is: “You’ve got it better than I do and I resent you for it.” It sets up the spouse who envies as an embittered victim. This is poison for any marriage!

The interplay between work and marriage is dynamic and complex. It is important to remember that the balance we seek is a moving target. It helps when we intentionally move with it, making the changes needed for both rewarding work and a rich marriage.