Honey, I won’t be home for dinner (again)

Honey, I won’t be home for dinner (again)

Are you one of those people who find themselves working later and later?  You’re repeatedly calling your spouse to explain that the work has piled up and you have to meet a deadline. Then comes a day when the actual workload is not so bad, but you find yourself making work to do. 

Likely as not, you really don’t want to go home. Very often, the busy businessmen and women I treat for problems of stress or depression find it easier to be at work than at home. 

Why?

With a few questions, I typically find problems are accumulating in their relationships that are becoming “too difficult” to confront. Perhaps their partner put some issues on hold until the busy patch subsides. But the work keeps coming. So some of this backlog comes out in an argument about “nothing”. The couple tries to address the problems, and just can’t get anywhere. So the same old argument keeps coming up.

Often the problems are around money, with one partner feeling like the other is frittering away the hard-earned dollars. Another common one is about a lack of attention shown by one partner to the other.

But usually there is a deeper issue underlying the problems these couples have. I call it “the deal”.

Early on in relationships involving an ambitious executive, many couples make a kind of deal. It goes something like this: you go out and work as hard as necessary to be successful and earn big bucks, and I’ll stay at home and run the household. Even in our relatively enlightened era of sexual equality, this same deal is being made by couples across the country (if not the globe). 

There’s a problem with “the deal”: it never gets reviewed. Year after year, each person goes on thinking that they have an understanding between each other and they forge ahead with their roles. Over time, at some point, at least one person in the relationship starts to struggle. They feel disconnected, discontent, rejected, taken advantage of – the list goes on.

Avoiding home is a good litmus test that your relationship is struggling. Poor relationships add to the inevitable stress of executive life, and can lead high performers to sink into depression. (Not a good career move.)

The best cure is prevention, and I’ve assembled some tips below on how to keep “the deal” working and your relationship healthy.

Before that, however, I’d offer this advice: if you’re in a relationship that’s already struggling, consider seeing a marriage counsellor. I know, I know! Most people believe counseling signals the death knell for relationships. That may be. But it is very difficult for people in a distressed relationship to talk without becoming aggressive and destructive.

If there is still a commitment on both sides, be assertive about finding a counsellor you both like and trust. If one or both of you is not happy, try a different therapist. The match between therapist and client is extremely important in this kind of work, and can sometimes take a couple of goes to get right.

If you’re lucky enough to be in a relationship that’s not in distress, try this:

> Have an annual review. Take a weekend, go away from home (without the kids), sit down together and discuss openly how you feel the relationship, and whether the balance between work and “life” is working for you both.

Don’t talk over each other. When you do this you are not listening to the whole message, you’re assuming you know how the sentence will finish.

Treat each other with respect. You got together with your partner for good reasons; remember that when you feel angry.

Argue about the small stuff!  If you let minor irritations build up over a long relationship they can cause real damage to the relationship.

Always adopt the position that the other person has the best intentions for the relationship. So, even if the other person is criticising, it is with the aim of improving the relationship

Never, ever call each other names. Apart from being childish, name calling also causes irreparable damage. If you call your partner a “pig” you might later say “I didn’t mean it”. But the fact is you thought it and you put it out there.

Seek help early.  Early intervention is always the best approach. It means less damage occurs, and intervention is much faster and more successful.

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