Exactly What to Do When Work Stress Messes With Your Relationship

Happy couples draw these work-life boundary lines, and you should too.

You spend eight or so hours a day at your workplace, tackling deadlines while navigating the needs of your clients and colleagues. So it's completely understandable that when the workday ends and you finally walk through your front door, you'll have plenty of craziness to tell your spouse about. But is harping on your high-maintenance manager or stressing over an upcoming presentation good for your relationship?

Not exactly, and new research bears this out. Work stress is the most common cause of relationship unhappiness, with 35% of partners reporting it as their top couples issue, according to a survey commissioned by the dating website eHarmony.

Long-term workplace stress is endemic these days. An American Psychological Association survey found that 65% of people named their job as their top source of stress, and just 37% felt they were doing a good job managing it. Considering the impact it can have at home, work stress is something most of us should get a better handle on. Here's how it can chip away at your relationship, and how to maintain a healthy boundary between your job and your personal life.

How Work Stress Hurts Your Bond

Relationship experts agree that job stress has a sneaky negative effect. "When work stress is carried home, it's essentially unprocessed activation in the nervous system," says Alexandra Katehakis, Ph.D., relationship therapist and clinical director of the Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles. "The stressed person is looking to discharge that energy and their partner is the unfortunate target." Misdirected resentment toward a coworker, for example, could make your partner feel under attack.

When you project your professional problems on your partner, issues can arise. "Stress is the number one libido killer," says Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a New York City-based relationship therapist. The time you spend together outside of the bedroom can take a hit too, as the stressed-out person is likely to snap at their spouse when they have a shorter fuse at home or feel slighted if they feel their significant other isn't showing enough sympathy.

Work stress is especially likely to hurt long-term relationships—when partners expect that they should be able to recount their stressful day and then resent it if the other person doesn't respond the right way. "When people get comfortable with each other, they might start treating their partner differently than they would treat a friend or someone they're trying to impress," says Katehakis.

When It's Okay to Vent—and When It's Not

But wait, isn't your SO the person you're supposed to vent to? It depends on the issue. "Serious considerations such as quitting a job or taking an offer for a new one are good things to talk about with your partner," says Katehakis. Opening up to your partner and asking for their input on a specific issue can have a bonding effect.

Constantly complaining about your annoying coworker, on the other hand, is less productive. Katehakis suggests staying away from retelling all the details of an encounter or event and instead talking about how your day affected you. "It's okay to say 'I'm exhausted from my crazy day,' or, 'I'm angry because I constantly feel taken advantage of [at work],'" she says. "These types of statements allow you to briefly vent without burdening your spouse with every little detail."

If you're the one stressing out about your career, make an effort to decompress after work without turning your partner into your sounding board. Listen to soothing music, make after work your gym time, or meditate before dinner. "People often don't transition well from the workplace, so when they get home, they're running on empty," explains Fleming.

If Your Spouse Is Venting to You

Being on the receiving end of a loved one's work woes isn't easy either. "If one is chronically stressed and always taking it out on you, it can start to feel like you're walking on eggshells every time your partner comes home," says Fleming.

If your SO is always venting to you, broach the topic at a non-stressful time, like during a walk or while you two are catching up on your favorite TV shows. "Let him or her know the effect of their constant unloading on you and the strain you feel it puts on your relationship," says Katehakis. Instead of blaming or shaming your partner, talk about your feelings and suggest a solution, like a 15-minute nightly check-in where you take turns listening to what's on your mind.

"Set an intention before you begin by saying, 'I need advice from you,' or 'I just need to vent, can you listen to me for a few minutes?' Being clear about what you need from your partner can help you feel seen, heard, understood, and satisfied once you're finished talking," says Katehakis.

Once you've done that, you can use the rest of the evening for comfort, companionship, and closeness—the best antidotes to any kind of stress that we know of.

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