Do Work and Married Life Fit Together?
by David Gibson
A marriage benefits if a working wife and husband find their jobs outside the home satisfying or fulfilling. It is no secret, though, that many husbands and wives find their jobs disappointing, frustrating or just plain boring, but do not feel at liberty to leave them. How does this affect their marriage?
I posed that question to marriage researcher Benjamin Karney, a noted psychology professor at the University of California Los Angeles. “Life within the couple is affected by life outside the couple,” he responded. But he said this truth “is easy for couples to overlook.”
If a husband’s or wife’s workday proved highly stressful, it is to the couple’s benefit to have a conversation about this later at home, according to Karney. He explained:
“At the end of the day, we see our partners, but we cannot see the days they had or the stressors they experienced, even though they affect how our partners behave and interact with us. Making those invisible forces visible requires a conversation – not only, ‘How was your day?’ but also, ‘How are you doing?’”
Research “suggests that being aware of stress limits its power over us,” Karney said.
If a wife or husband has been unhappy at work, the couple will be rewarded in more ways than one by a conversation they have about this, Karney believes. Awareness of the stresses and demands the other person is facing can open “the door for couples to give each other some slack, some room to be irritated or difficult to reach at the end of a long day.”
How Increased Workload Affects Spouses
Research on “how work and married life fit together” has just been published by Karney, together with Elianne Steenbergen and Esther Kluwer of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, in the Journal of Family Psychology. Their study focused on 169 couples in the first four years of their marriages.
The researchers wanted to know how an increased workload affects spouses who are and are not parents. Furthermore, the study looked into the ways each parent’s role at home is affected by the couple’s workloads.
The researchers’ basic goal was to “identify the conditions under which having a demanding job may enhance or detract from the quality of marital relationships.”
While it commonly is believed that job demands deplete energies couples need in order to enhance their life as a couple, the researchers point out that according to another theory work satisfaction actually can be energizing. This is where happiness at work is all to the good.
The study findings suggest “that handling high demands at work is more likely to leave partners energized when the work is perceived to be fulfilling.” It may be that for the newlywed couples in the study who had not yet had children, “working hard” was energizing and complemented their roles as spouses, the researchers proposed.
Increased Workload Is Problematic for Fathers…
But the researchers noted that their findings “highlight the profound ways that the dynamics between work and marriage differ for couples who become parents and couples who do not.” Apparently fathers are a special concern here.
For fathers, “more time and energy devoted to work had significant effects in the opposite direction,” the researchers said. Perhaps this is because “attending to increases in workload can interfere with meeting family obligations, diminish time spent together as a couple (and family), and possibly cause tension and conflict between parents,” the researchers said.
…But May Be Advantageous for Mothers
Somewhat surprising, perhaps, was a finding that “mothers were happier with their marriages during periods when their workloads were higher than normal.” Why?
The researchers cited a recent study of couples with children showing that “when their wives had high demands at work, fathers increased the time they spent on child care.” The researchers speculated:
“To the extent that wives usually engage in a disproportionate share of child care and household tasks, such a response from husbands during periods of high workload for wives may move couples closer to an equitable distribution of labor within the home.”
In other words, the frustrations or fatigue a mother may experience in juggling work and home life may lessen somewhat when fathers undertake more of this juggling themselves.
Employers Should Pay Special Attention to Fathers
There is a challenge in this entire situation both for couples and their employers, the researchers said. It is the challenge “to recognize the role that circumstances play in determining how work and married life fit together, and to bring about circumstances in which both roles can enhance, rather that detract, from each other.”
The report advises workplace supervisors “in discussing these topics with employees” to “pay extra attention to fathers, as their workload had especially detrimental effects on marital life.”
Karney told me that for husbands today, “the expectations of being an ambitious worker and an involved father are hard to fulfill at once, and that’s relatively new for them. Wives have been struggling with the same challenges for a longer time.”
Contemporary couples still are “working out for themselves how they will balance all these roles and demands,” Karney said. But it is mistaken in his view “to think that they should do all of this balancing alone.” Karney insisted that today’s workplace “must also adapt” to its employees’ “needs and expectations.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.