Work Issues at the Heart of Couples’ Conflicts

Exploring Our Relationships with Our Jobs

Magazine Issue
January/February 2024
PHOTOS © ELENATHEWISE/DEAGREEZ

What would you guess divorced couples typically fight about most before their relationship ends? Of seven categories that include finances, parenting differences, and division of household labor, data from a 2023 Forbes survey indicate that the most common conflict—46 percent of respondents—was about work.

I’ve often been struck by a tendency, particularly in our field, to accept the separation of work and love to the point where work issues are commonly assumed to be distinctly nonrelational, the domain of career counselors, occupational therapists, and executive coaches—not therapists, and certainly not couples therapists. In my work with couples of all ages and all professions, however, I frequently hear things like, My spouse works too many hours. My partner doesn’t respect my job. My boyfriend has a dead-end job. My partner’s been competing with me since I got a promotion. I work the same amount as my partner, but I pick up the slack at home. My girlfriend’s coworkers call her on weekends when we’re supposed to be spending time together.

As clinicians, many of us were trained to prioritize couples’ internal experiences, family-of-origin dynamics, and emotion-regulation skills above everything else. If we end up asking about work with clients, the exploration is often superficial—sometimes no more than a question or two on an intake form. Despite evidence indicating that work has an enormous impact on our relationships, how many of us explore partners’ academic and professional histories? Do we ask about their work life? Do we wait until our clients bring it up? Or do we ignore it completely?

Curious to pursue my hunch that my colleagues and I were missing something important, I combed through the brand-new edition of The Clinical Handbook of Couples Therapy—my most treasured and trusted textbook. It offers no chapter on work-related couples conflicts, and in the entire 700+ page volume, only one sentence referencing the effect of work on couples’ stress! Why is this? Most of us spend at least a sixth of our waking hours at work—more, if you live in the US, where, let’s face it, we tend to be work obsessed.

“Love and work . . . work and love, that’s all there is,” Freud said in the early 1900s. Even taking into account the limits of Freud’s frame of reference—individualistic, capitalist, colonialist, steeped in the beliefs of cis heteropatriarchy—this statement rings true a century later. How can work issues not affect our relationships, and vice versa? When family conflicts are carried to work, productivity is compromised. When burnout—now a recognized medical condition in the ICD-11—comes home from the workplace, couples and families suffer.

Back in the late ’90s, in Love, Honor, and Negotiate: Making Marriage Work, the groundbreaking feminist therapist Betty Carter and her coauthor, Joan Peters, drew attention to the hidden ways work issues fuel couples’ conflicts and the importance of exploring work issues. Her unique perspective inspired journalist Vince Bielski to write, “Not learning about a client’s relationship to work, time, and money is as glaring an omission today as ignoring evidence of substance abuse or marital infidelity.” The “today” Bielski was referring to took place nearly 20 years ago. His call to rectify the omission of a focus on work in therapy remains largely unanswered.

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The Four Relationships

Marcia and Geraldine are a week away from celebrating 15 years together as a couple. They’re seated in front of me looking tired. Marcia gazes out the window. Geraldine shakes her head and shrugs.

“Quinn used to be an A student,” Marcia begins, unprompted. “Now she’s bringing home C’s. She’s got absolutely no ambition. How’s she going to get into a good college if—?”

“She’ll be fine,” Geraldine sighs. “She’s only 12. It’ll all work out.”

“I know it’ll all work out,” Marcia says, clearly frustrated. “But as parents, we need to scaffold her. We need to guide her and help her focus. We can’t just sit back, say ‘It’ll all work out,’ and expect her to do well in life. We need to help her develop good work habits.”

“You worry way too much about—” Geraldine begins.

“If I don’t, who will?” Marcia interrupts. “When I get home from the office, I’m exhausted, but then I have to deal with Quinn and her homework because nothing has gotten done.” Marcia turns to face me and starts talking about her partner as if she were in a different room. “Geraldine works from home as a freelance web developer and has plenty of free time to sit down with Quinn, but she has this laissez-faire approach—to her own work, to Quinn’s work, to everything.”

It’s tempting to prioritize how this couple functions as coparents or the way they communicate. Diving into these domains would probably lead somewhere worthwhile. But the references to grades and lack of ambition, and to Marcia’s anxiety about Quinn’s future and Geraldine’s laid-back approach, alert me to a different undercurrent—one that’s about differences in Geraldine and Marcia’s orientation to work.

After Marcia mentioned coming home exhausted from work while Gerardine seems to be more relaxed and flexible in her approach to her job and career, I wondered, Are differences in their work-related values, perspectives, interests, and goals contributing to their relationship difficulties and their challenges with their daughter?

“The two of you have a relationship with each other,” I noted. “But you also each have a relationship with your job. And you also each have a relationship to your partner’s job. All these invisible relationships are at play within and between you.”

Geraldine raises her eyebrows. Marcia nods. “Yeah, so?”

“So, could we look at these different relationships?” I ask.

Marcia glances at Geraldine, who shrugs. “Sure, if it’ll help us,” she says.

I guide couples in exploring how their work is affecting their marriage by introducing them to a framework I call The Four Relationships, which I help them visualize by giving them a worksheet featuring a two-by-two table. My relationship to my work is in the first quadrant; my relationship to your work is in the adjacent quadrant; your relationship to your work is in the lower-left quadrant; your relationship to my work is in the lower-right quadrant. “Do you have a sense of how you both feel about these four different relationships?” I ask Marcia and Geraldine.

Marcia goes first. “I love being a journalist,” she says, “but I also love the routine of my job—waking up, going to the office, having meetings, leaving work at 5 p.m. I don’t understand Geraldine’s lack of interest in what she does. It’s no wonder she’s always floating around, changing jobs and companies. She blames it on the nature of working in tech, but I think it’s her. A job should be meaningful.” She goes on to say that she’s glad Geraldine works from home—which allows her flexibility to do the after-school childcare, but she believes Geraldine is a poor role model because she sees a job as just a way to pay the bills.

Then it’s Geraldine’s turn. “I resent Marcia’s work,” Geraldine admits. “It overtakes her. When she talks about her articles at dinner parties—even if it’s just a piece on the local butcher going under—it sucks all the air out of the room.” Geraldine recognizes that her resentment shows up in passive-aggressive comments and emotional detachment. “I don’t know. Sometimes she just sounds so arrogant when she talks about it.”

“I’m confident, not arrogant,” Marcia interjects.

When it comes to her own work, Geraldine admits, “I’m pretty indifferent to it. And that’s fine with me, but sometimes I get pangs of guilt about not caring more, especially since Marcia values her shiny, 9-to-5 gig so much. But that’s not me. I’d feel completely trapped.”

The Three Couples Work Types

I want to help couples like Marcia and Geraldine explore, understand, and honor their work-orientation differences. To do this, I often introduce them to the three couples work types I see the most in our culture: the slasher and the traditionalist, the coaster and the climber, and the meaning-maker and the moneymaker. These types provide a shorthand for framing a particular kind of mixed-orientation couple—in this case, a couple with a different way of being, thinking, and doing things in the arena of their respective jobs and careers—offering a relational lens through which to view polarizing work differences.

Typically, in the slasher–traditionalist type, the slasher wants to have the freedom to try out new, short-term, creative jobs that are riskier and less predictable in salary and benefits, while the traditionalist values socially acceptable types of reliable work that provide safety and security. In the coaster–climber type, the coaster appreciates the comfort of maintaining the status quo, while the climber focuses on the excitement of change and upward mobility. In the meaning-maker-moneymaker type, the meaning-maker wants to do meaningful work that feels like an expression of self, while the moneymaker prioritizes wealth building.

Marcia and Geraldine identified primarily with the slasher and the traditionalist, and secondarily with the meaning-maker and the moneymaker. For Geraldine, freedom is a top priority, aligning her with the slasher (I borrowed this term from Marci Alboher’s 2012 book One Person / Multiple Careers: The Original Guide to the Slash Career, where people use the forward slash to separate different roles or jobs, as in “coach / yoga teacher / business consultant.”) For Marcia, engaging in reliable, consistent work that provides stability and safety is a core value—which aligned her with the traditionalist. But Marcia saw herself in the meaning-maker in that she believes work should be a calling. Geraldine, in contrast, saw herself as the moneymaker—someone who views work as a means to an end, a job rather than a vocation, and a way of taking care of boring, everyday obligations so she can do what she really enjoys.

Using their type as a springboard, I invited them to look at the resentments they’d expressed through a systemic lens. What if their complaints about one another were actually symptoms of something deeper? Did Marcia resent Geraldine because she herself was craving more leisure time? Could Geraldine’s resentment toward Marcia signify that some part of her envied the passion Marcia felt for her job, and that part of her longed for meaningful work that energized her? What if, by expecting the other to share the same orientation toward work, both partners were missing an opportunity to leverage the complementarity offered by this difference between them?

Couples tend to get into work-related conflicts because they’ve “split the ambivalence”—taken an existential and unresolvable human dilemma and cleaved it into a too-simple better/worse framing. As a result, unexamined and misunderstood relational tensions emerge. For the slasher and the traditionalist, the tension might be framed as novelty versus consistency. For the coaster and the climber, it’s being satisfied with the present moment versus striving for more. For the meaning-maker and the moneymaker, it’s relishing the process versus focusing on the outcome. Each case presents risks and benefits. Because holding tension and paradox are psychically tiresome, splitting the ambivalence tends to happen in systems, but at the cost of connection and empathy. When we help couples see and acknowledge the tensions, they can unearth and explore the gifts, wounds, and fears underlying seemingly opposite perspectives. The goal is to help them reclaim lost or projected parts of self, and accept and honor their differences, recognizing how generative they can be.

In my work with couples, I use a golden equation: My stuff + your stuff = our stuff. When your stuff = our stuff, the outcome is blame. When my stuff = our stuff, the outcome is shame. But when we see the ways we both contribute to our combined, dynamic, evolving stuff, we’re holding ourselves and each other firmly and lovingly accountable, and we’re doing it with maturity and compassion. We’re taking ownership of the relationship we’ve cocreated and can therefore improve. Although this can be a hard thing to do in love relationships, it’s empowering.

Marcia and Geraldine began developing the ability to hold both sides of the tension inherent in their couple work type. Marcia accepted that for Geraldine, work was a means to an end; for work to be sustainable for her, she needed freedom and novelty. Geraldine begrudgingly appreciated how consistency at work could provide Marcia with a sense of stability, and how having a meaningful job could be deeply fulfilling. As a couple, they began feeling safer sharing hidden resentments, longings, and needs. Gradually, they learned to take a collaborative approach when it came to work differences. When couples map complaints onto an unmet need, it’s easier to see what each person brings to the table, release polarizing views, and embrace complexity.

Our Original Love Classroom

With Geraldine and Marcia, the four relationships provided an entry point for exploring key learnings they’d absorbed in their families of origin, which I think of as our original love classrooms. We looked at roles they’d assumed growing up, the function those roles played, and the gifts and growing edges they bring into their relationships today as a result of having inhabited those roles. I refer to this process as ghostbusting, since it involves looking at some of the invisible ways our past plays out in our present outside of our conscious awareness. Through our exploration, Marcia discovered she’d been “the perfect one” in her volatile family—a role she realized she was still taking on in her job as an award-winning journalist. In Marcia’s case, the gifts of that role included being highly successful, reliable, and productive. The growing edges included a tendency to be demanding, critical, and impatient.

Geraldine’s parents had immigrated to the US from the Philippines when she was two years old and her twin sisters were seven. She’d taken on the role of “the rebel,” even before she’d learned to speak. She’d barely gotten by in middle school with C’s and D’s while her sisters were winning academic awards. By the time she was a high-school senior, she was in a band and defying her parents’ wishes by staying out late to perform shows in bars where she couldn’t legally drink but often did. She dropped out of college after two years to join a tech startup that ended up doing extremely well, but after five years she’d gotten so bored that she’d asked for a severance package and quit. After her initial financial success, she’d bounced around from company to company, earning just enough to pay her bills, putting in the minimum number of hours required by her bosses, and focusing on relaxing and having fun.

“I can see why work isn’t all that important to you,” Marcia said, taking Geraldine’s hand. “You’re still in that old rebel role. And I respect that role—I really do. Your parents were so anxious all the time—kind of like me!” Marica laughs. “I’m guessing you didn’t want to be like your sisters and have your life constrained by your parents’ ambitions and insecurities.”

“All true,” Geraldine says. “But I’m still trapped in that role. I’m a 45-year-old rebel. Is that what Quinn needs? I want her to live her own life and feel free, but I also want to support her in the right ways. She does need to learn to focus and complete tasks.”

Work differences had been the elephant in the room for Geraldine and Marcia—influencing their attitudes toward their own and one another’s careers and professional values, the jobs they pursued, the money they earned, the boundaries between work and leisure, and how much time they spent at home. As they explored their relationships to academics, job choices, and the roles they’d assumed growing up, it became clear that Marcia’s fights with Quinn—and Marcia and Geraldine’s resentments toward one another—were symptoms of unexplored dynamics related to work and career that had stoked tensions in their relationship for a long time.

Ultimately, Geraldine began coaching Quinn’s field hockey in her free time, an activity that combined work and play, structure and freedom. Though Marcia and Quinn still argued about schoolwork occasionally, Quinn began taking more initiative and expressing pride when she did well on school projects she cared about. Marcia set boundaries at work so she could spend more time at home with their daughter and couple time with Geraldine. By the time they took a break from therapy, five months after they’d first come to see me, they’d begun accessing what I call their power-couple potential: the dynamic combination of the best of what they’re both capable of as people and partners.

Contrary to a longstanding view in our field that addressing work issues is the purview of other professionals, we need to widen our lens to encompass work issues as central and important. The move beyond “Where do you work?” “How much do you work?” and “How’s it going?” is long overdue. It’s time to help our clients reach their full potential in work and love.

See Alexandra Solomon and more than 70 other leading experts in the field at the 2024 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium–live in Washington, D.C., or online.

 

PHOTOS © ELENATHEWISE/DEAGREEZ

Alexandra Solomon

Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, is internationally recognized as one of today’s most trusted voices in the world of relationships, and her framework of Relational Self-Awareness has reached millions of people around the globe. A couples therapist, speaker, author, professor, podcast host, retreat leader, and media personality, Dr. Solomon is passionate about translating cutting-edge research and clinical wisdom into practical tools people can use to bring awareness, curiosity, and authenticity to their relationships. She is a clinician educator and a frequent contributor to academic journals and research, and she translates her academic and therapeutic experience to the public through her popular and vibrant Instagram page, which has garnered over 200K followers. She is on faculty in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University and is a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Her hit podcast, Reimagining Love, has reached listeners across the globe and features high-profile guests from the worlds of therapy, academia, and pop culture. Her latest bestselling book is Love Every Day. You can visit her online at DrAlexandraSolomon.com and on Instagram at @dr.alexandra.solomon.