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Demanding Careers & Marriage


Many couples tell us that their careers and the related stress are a significant challenge for their relationship and they’re not really sure what to do about it. It’s hard to do something about this chronic issue without knowing what will improve the situation. So what are some of the insights that marriage success research reveals for the work-challenged relationship?


Using your career skills in your marriage


You can apply many of the same planning, time management, goal-setting and communication skills that make you successful in your career to your marriage. Scheduling and structure can help make communication more constructive and satisfying for both partners.


Keep your marriage 'brand identification' positive


As you consider how to do this, be guided by the need to maintain what the researchers call 'positive emotional override' in your relationship, so that little problems don't become big ones. Once you understand that a happy relationship requires a minimum of five positive exchanges for every (inevitable) negative interaction, you can focus on managing your exchanges with your partner to limit negativity and enhance positivity to keep your 5 to 1 ratio in the healthy, constructive range. Couples who dip below the 5 to 1 tipping point, begin to experience ‘negative emotional override’ where neutral interactions take on a negative feeling and start to snowball.


Avoid tactics that produce poor results


Applying appropriate communication skills and strategies will help you avoid the most destructive marriage dynamic, the pursue-withdraw pattern, where one partner (often, but not always, the woman) keeps approaching the other about an important need or problem, while the other becomes overloaded and withdraws or superficially complies. The pursuing partner becomes more and more frustrated leading her to increase the pressure, while the withdrawer becomes more and more overwhelmed by it, resorting to flight or fight to escape. Both partners feel caught in a terrible script that just keeps replaying.


Schedule and plan important 'meetings' for constructive outcomes


Scheduling sensitive discussions at a mutually agreeable time is one approach that helps with pursue-withdraw problems. Confine these conflict discussions to times when you are both rested, more resilient and not preoccupied. Being careful to raise issues in a soft way, rather than with a criticism or attack, can also help to produce a more constructive outcome. Experts call this the soft start-up. If one partner becomes overloaded, call a time-out. The overloaded partner must take responsibility for resuming discussion after a reasonable recovery period, so their partner doesn’t feel avoided.


Target resources to achieve your goals


Probably one of the most important related research insights is the fact that happy relationships require a minimum of 12 hours of non-sleep, non-TV face-time per week on average (so if you’re behind one week, you can make it up the next, but don’t get behind indefinitely). Meals together, working out together, talking, sex -- these all count. If you want to keep your marriage bond strong, you need to understand and plan for the required time commitment. Many couples are surprised to learn that this much time is required. You can make do with less, but your bond will be at risk.


Build up positivity and stay connected by setting aside a specific time each day for non-conflict communicating—even if it’s only a few minutes in the morning or evening or a mid-day phone call. Talk about things that are happening for either of you and things that you both find interesting. The idea is to keep in touch and deepen your familiarity with each other’s day to day lives. Don’t mix this bonding time with discussing problems or conflicts.


Travel: Stay connected & reconnect


Busy careers often involve periods of separation. Manage your separations--business travel for example, or just long days. Developing rituals for staying in touch during and renewing your bond after can be important to minimizing the impact of necessary separations. Don’t take your reunion for granted, even just at the end of the day. Take a few minutes (or more) to explicitly reconnect. How you handle separation can be just as important as how much you are separated.


Time pressure & sex


How can you make sure that time pressure doesn't disrupt your sex life (which is critical to keeping your marriage strong—it renews your bonding brain chemistry among other benefits)?


Again scheduling and time management are a key skill to apply if sex has become infrequent. Dating is a more romantic name for scheduling sex. One of the biggest errors that many couples make is to stop ‘dating’ when they start living together and/or get married. Dating can include other activities that you both enjoy—just like when you first got together. One great advantage of dating is that it lets you anticipate being with your partner. And anticipation is a terrific sexual stimulant. If necessary, consider making some of your 'dates' brief -- even very brief. Even a 20 minute encounter that both partners have been anticipating for a couple of days can work for many couples.


Manage conflict


Make your fights productive rather than destructive. Work-related and other stress can lead to more disagreements and fights. The most important part of fights is what the experts call 'repair' -- keeping in bounds (not getting too negative) during a fight and then getting back on track afterward without letting feelings fester too long after a fight.


Don’t beat your heads against the wall by repeating the same fight about an issue that’s giving you trouble. Set it aside for a while, if you can. Otherwise, you’re just building up negativity without resolving anything.


Know when to stop being in charge


As much as professionals can apply the time management, communication, scheduling and organizing skills that make them successful at work to their marriage, there are also some areas that don't translate well to marriage. Probably the number one thing that executives and other professionals have difficulty getting beyond is their control-orientation.


Realize that you are not the CEO (or CFO, unless mutually agreed) of your marriage. Avoid being in charge in your marriage. Avoid evaluating, supervising or critiquing the 'performance' of your partner--even in (or maybe especially) in areas that you have both agreed will be your partner’s responsibility. Your teamwork skills are much more valuable than executive behavior when it comes to marriage success.


For more thoughts on the potential pitfalls of problem control issues (especially, control-control, control-compliance patterns) see our article on control issues.



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Copyright 2003-2007, Patricia S. & Gregory A. Kuhlman. You may copy this article for non-commercial use provided that no changes are made and this copyright notice, author credit and source citation are included.




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