We often think of the home as a sanctuary from work stress. But as many of us know from lived experience, that isn’t always the case. Even if you manage to leave your work worries at the office, your spouse or partner may not be able to do so — and that stress can sometimes rub off on you. So what is the best way to help your partner cope? What’s the right thing to say when your spouse starts venting about their rough day at work — and what should you not EVER say? Finally, how can you set boundaries so your home can once again serve as a haven?
What the Experts Know
Managing stress is a given in our modern work lives. And when you’re one half of a two-career couple, both of you will have your own stress to manage in addition to the challenges faced by your significant other. But that isn’t always a bad thing, says Jennifer Petriglieri, professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. “Two careers can mean twice the stress, but it can also mean twice the empathy and understanding,” she writes. What’s more, helping your partner manage stress often helps YOU cope with it better as well. “When a couple is good at managing stress, it makes them [as individuals] more resilient.” The key, says John Coleman, coauthor of the book Passion & Purpose, is to move away from the notion that “you’re two individuals managing stress” and move toward the idea that “you’re partners managing it together.” The ultimate goal, he explains, is to “become a constructive outlet” for your spouse. So, whether your significant other is dealing with tensions with their coworkers or boss, looming layoffs, or a nutty client, here are some pointers on how you can help.
When your partner walks through the door work and starts to list off the latest office drama, many of us tend to go into “half-listening” mode, Petriglieri says. “It’s 7 PM — you’re trying to make dinner and the kids are around — and so you nod and say, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.” But that’s semi-neglect can leave your partner even more frustrated. Try instead, to “give your partner your undivided attention.” Listen and “really focus on what your partner is saying.” Don’t interrupt. “It’s quite likely that your partner just needs to rant for three minutes and get something off his chest,” she says. Try to refrain from offering advice — at least for now, Coleman says. “You don’t always need to be a problem solver,” he adds. “Sometimes your partner just needs to be heard.”
#2: Offer Support
It’s vital to “show engagement in what your partner is saying,” Coleman explains. “Don’t just look at them with a fixed stare.” Instead, “say supportive things and use supportive language.” Empathize and sympathize, but don’t compare your stress to your spouse’s. “When your partner starts complaining, don’t say, ‘Oh, you think your day was bad, listen to what I had to deal with!’ It doesn’t help anything.” Stress endurance isn’t a competition. At the same time, it can be quite challenging, at times, to provide on-demand support and encouragement, and there are times when we “are not mentally ready to deal with your partner’s problems,” he says. If it’s not the right time, Petriglieri suggests, offer to “follow up on the conversation later in the evening, the next day, or even at the weekend.” The most vital part is to “leave the door open to further conversation.”
#3: (Carefully) Play Career Coach
“The benefit of having a spouse is that they know you as well as you know yourself” — maybe even a little better, Coleman says. “So if you get a sense that your partner is misreading a situation at work or heading in the wrong direction, you need to say something.” He suggests “asking good questions that will broaden” your significant other’s perspective. Try inquisitive but nonthreatening questions, such as, “’What makes you think that’s the case?’ Or, ‘Is there a situation in which a different response would be warranted?’ Sometimes you have to help your partner identify a blind spot,” he says. Offer advice — but be gentle about it, Petriglieri says. She recommends saying something like, “’I have a suggestion on a path forward. Can I share it?’ It takes the heat out of what you have to say.”
It’s also important to understand the specific kind of stress your partner is going through, according to Petriglieri. There are two types of work stress. Intermittent stress, “which is the result of a bad meeting or a client project gone awry,” and then “chronic stress, which bubbles under the surface” for an extended period. Chronic stress, she explains, is a sign that your significant other may “be in the wrong place.” It’s “classic boiling frog syndrome,” she adds. In short, you need to “notice your partner’s attitude, mood, and patterns,” and help them objectively assess their career and professional path. “Ask, ‘How are things going? Are you where you want to be? Are you satisfied?’” Of course, these questions can ignite “a longer, meaningful conversation that’s more appropriate for a night out or a long walk on the beach.” But if your spouse is struggling, you need to be aware of it and respond proactively.
#5: Encourage outside friendships and interests
An important thing to remember is, “you cannot be the sole repository for your partner’s stress,” Coleman says. “Typically, partners are the ones we rely on the most. But relying on each other too much can sour a relationship.” That’s why you need to “help your partner have a life outside of home and work,” he says. “Create a third space. Give them the freedom and space to pursue things they enjoy — such as a hobby or a sport.” It’s also vital that each of you maintain an “outside support network” of “folks who can help you work through” professional challenges and serve as sounding boards and sources of counsel. Encourage your spouse to “keep up existing relationships” and “cultivate new friendships and connections,” Petriglieri says. It’s probably also of great value to “encourage your partner to see a therapist or work with a career coach,” she adds. “It could push [your spouse’s] development forward.” But don’t forget that the therapist or coach should ultimately to be “a complement, not a substitute” for you.
#6: Decompress together
And Finally, we all need to be vigilant about protecting “our home as a haven,” Coleman says. That’s no easy task these days. The ubiquity of mobile phones, laptops, and the 24/7 work culture present huge challenges. That’s why “you and your spouse need to practice good mobile device habits,” he says. “There need to be times of day where you both put down your mobile phones; you need to draw a distinction of when a work device can be used at home.” He also recommends helping your partner “develop a good end-of-work habit.” That might be as simply as reminding them to listen to an audiobook or music or just take a run when they get home from work. “You both need time to decompress.”
Tips to Remember
• Put down your mobile phone and give your partner your undivided attention.
• Offer advice in a gentle way. Help your partner identify blind spots.
• Develop calming end-of-the-workday habits and rituals. You both need time to decompress.
• Rush to solve your partner’s problems. Sometimes your partner may just need to vent.
• Overlook broader patterns. Notice if your partner seems stuck in a rut.
• Expect to be the sole repository for your spouse’s work stress. Support your partner in cultivating hobbies and outside interests and friendships.