There are few topics in couples therapy more carefully researched than the elusive pursuit of a work-life balance.
A work-life balance is a harmonious blend of work and other life roles. It is a state of equilibrium in which the demands of your personal life, professional life, and family life are appropriately addressed.
This is because career stress is often transmitted from to spouses, impacting the emotional and physical well-being of both partners.
Work-life balance issues differ for men and women. Research tells us that women are more vulnerable to role overload and stress, while personality traits (i.e. what’s commonly described as Type A) in men often decide the impact that their work stress has on their home life.
The Heyday of Work-Life balance research was the decade of the Go-Go 1980s and early ’90s. But we should approach this aging research with care.
Back then, researchers noticed that the transmission of occupational stress was highly gendered. For example, one study found that increased job stress in husbands was correlated with more anxiety and depression in their wives (Jones & Fletcher, 1992).
Another study of the same era (Dunne & Mullins, 1989), found that wives were more dysregulated on weekends than their husbands. Dunne and Mullins suggested that this was due in part to a vertical “transmission” of stress.
The less able you are to find a Work-Life balance, the lower your overall degree of marital satisfaction (Bedeian, Burke & Moffat, 1988). Work and family conflict is a greater predictor of marital stress than even parenting differences.
Work-Life balance struggles play out in 3 distinct domains; the intra-psychic, the inter-personal, and the corporate culture of embedded expectations. Research points to a number of familiar coping strategies (Gilbert & Holohan, 1982):
Couples who are more successful in achieving a work-life balance take a longer view.
A characteristic of couples that fail in achieving a work-life balance is that they are quick to blame their spouse rather than to empathize with them.
Healthy couples strategize about their situational dilemma of inappropriate workplace expectations (Beach & Osgarby, 1966).
Healthy couples also have “Stress-reducing” conversations. They freely share complex feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, guilt, and frustration. They are more keenly aware of external pressures on career and family roles.
Burke & Greenglass (1987) found that scheduling conflicts, particularly those that differed from the common social pattern (i.e. working on weekends) increase sleep disturbances, psychological distress, and a poor social life (Toterdell et al., 1995).
We’ve also known for quite a while that work-related separations erode the marital bond. An emotional dynamic of resentment and anger for the “abandoned” spouse and a feeling of guilt by the “departing” spouse is a common dynamic (Vormbrock, 1993).
Repeated separations magnify emotional reactions, as does periodic unemployment (Liem & Liem, 1988). The common thread here seems to be unpredictability and emotional contagion.
The problem with this pre-internet work-life balance research is that while the emotional contexts are more or less unchanged, the work context is utterly transformed. For example, resentment for feeling “abandoned” no longer requires a partner’s physical absence. Your spouse today might be obliviously sitting across from you, utterly engrossed with texting a co-worker on their phone. Distraction and disconnection are the new threats to achieving a work-life balance.
As early as 1987, researchers were noticing that resolving power issues with dual-career couples was a daunting task (O’Neil, Fishman, & Kinsella-Shaw, 1987). Now 32 years later, Power Couples dominate the couples therapy landscape. The blurring of roles and responsibilities makes decision-making more difficult.
Career trajectory imbalances are an emerging new issue.
When one spouse is advancing quickly, and the other spouse is stalled, how does the power dynamic change? Back in the late 1980’s researchers were quick to notice that marriages in which wives were more successful than husbands were particularly vulnerable.
Although that’s less true today, lopsided career success is still problematic for many couples.
One of the challenges in revisiting this research from 30 years ago was the obvious gender bias. Researchers were far more interested in the lived experience of men than women.
For example, Burke & Greenglass (1987) reviewed the literature of dual-career couples at that time and concluded that a husband’s mental health may be adversely impacted by his wife’s career success and that this was most likely due to his feeling “inadequate.”
Parasuraman et.al, (1989) doubled down on this idea and suggested that men with working wives reported lower life and career satisfaction. However, a major study in the mid-90s (Wolcott & Glezer, 1995) suggested that a man’s life satisfaction was not at all correlated at all with whether or not his wife had a career.
I hope we’re culturally past most of those sexist notions. As the Pew Research chart indicates, dual-income households skyrocketed during the 1980s, eventually becoming the stable norm it is today.
That’s why researchers of that era were so focused on understanding this phenomenon.
But today we live in a technology-rich environment that presents a different challenge.
Some men and women nowadays believe that earning more money should justify their having more influence on marital decision-making. It’s a common marital belief, even today, that earning more dollars means having more decisional power.
Lopsided income promotes power struggles and emotional gridlock between many partners.
For example, research on infidelity tells us that the more disparate the income, the more likely the marriage is to be impacted by infidelity. Workplace infidelity is the most common symptom of a severe work-life imbalance.
Achieving a work-life balance relies on being a good team.
The more a couple can reduce and externalize stress, clarify their values, and work together, the more likely they are to achieve a work-life balance.
Good couples therapy can help you achieve a healthy work-life balance. The first thing that we will unpack is your style of marital conflict, and help you to acquire these 2 essential skills:
It’s a paradox that to achieve a work-life balance…sometimes you have to counter-balance. Let me explain what I mean. There may be times when one partner will require more accommodation and flexibility from the other in order to achieve a specific career goal.
Couples that function well as a team invest time and energy in one another, comfortable in the knowledge that the investment will at some future point be reciprocated. This “give and take” requires a high degree of trust, clearly defined goals and expectations, and excellent communication skills. Good couples therapy can help with that.
Burke, R.J., Weir, T. & Dowors, R.E. (1980) Work demands on administrators and spouse well-being. Human Relations, 33, 253-278.
Burke, R.J., & Greenglass, E.R., (1987). Work and Family. In C.L. Cooper and I.T. Robinson (eds) International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (pp.273-320)Chichester: Wiley.
Dunne, E.A. & Mullins, P.M. (1989). Sex differences in psychological and psycho-physiological arousal patterns: a study of working couples. Work and Stress, 3, 261-268.
Gilbert, L.A., & Holohan, C. K., (1982) Conflicts between student/professional, parental, and self-development roles: a comparison of high and low effective copers. Human Relations, 35, 635-648.
O’Neil, J.M., Fishman, D.M. & Kinsella-Shaw, M. (1987). Dual career couples’ career transitions and normative dilemmas: a preliminary assessment model. The Counseling Psychologist, 15, 50-96.
Parasuraman, S., Greenhaus, J.H. & Granrose, C.S. (1992). Role stressors, social support, and well being among two-career couples. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 13, 339-356.
Toterdell, P., Spelten, E., Smith, L., Baton, J. & Follard, S. (1995). recovery from work shifts: how long does it take? Journal of Applied Psychology, 80, 43-57.
Vormbrock, J.K. (1993) Attachment theory as applied to wartime and job-related separation. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 122-144.
Wolcott , I. & Glezer, H. (1995). Work and Family Life: Achieving the Integration. Melbourne, Australia: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.