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Help Your Partner Cope with Work Stress

by Rebecca Knight

Quick Takes

  • Give your partner your undivided attention
  • Be compassionate—not competitive
  • Ask probing questions
  • Consider the difference between sporadic and chronic stress
  • Encourage your spouse to develop their support network
  • Create a haven

Home is a sanctuary from work stress, right? Not always. Even if you are able to leave your projects and worries at the office, your spouse may have difficulty doing so—and that stress can rub off on you. How can you help your partner cope? What’s the best thing to say when your partner starts complaining—and what should you not say? Is there a way to help them see things differently? And how can you set boundaries so that home can be a haven again?

What the Experts Say

Dealing with stress is a fact of working life. And when you’re half of a dual-career couple, you have both your own stress to manage and your significant other’s stress as well. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Jennifer Petriglieri, assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. “Two careers can mean twice the stress, but it can also mean twice the empathy and understanding,” she says. What’s more, she adds, helping your partner learn to cope with stress helps you cope with it better, too. “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 and 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.” Your goal, he adds, is to “become a constructive outlet” for your spouse. So, whether your significant other is stressing over a conflict with their boss, looming layoffs, or a crazy-making client, here are some pointers on how to help.

Listen

When your partner gets home from work and begins recounting their latest office irritation, many of us tend to “only half-listen” to them, Petriglieri says. “It’s 7 p.m.—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 likely to leave your partner even more frustrated. Instead, she suggests, “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 their chest,” she says. Don’t offer advice—at least not yet, Coleman says. “You don’t always need to be a problem solver,” he adds. “Sometimes your partner just needs to be heard.”

Offer support

It’s critical to “show engagement in what your partner is saying,” Coleman says. “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 is not a competition. Still, it’s not always easy to provide on-demand support and encouragement, and sometimes “you are not mentally ready to deal with your partner’s problems,” he says. If it’s an inopportune time, Petriglieri suggests, offer to “follow up on the conversation later in the evening, the next day, or even at the weekend.” The important thing is that you “leave the door open to further conversation.”

Play career coach (judiciously)

“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 probing but nonthreatening lines of inquiry, 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.”

Reflect

It’s also important to be aware of the type of stress your partner is experiencing, according to Petriglieri. There are two kinds of work stress. “There’s sporadic stress, which is the result of a bad meeting or a client project gone awry,” and there’s “chronic stress, which bubbles under the surface” for a prolonged period. Chronic stress, she says, is a signal that your significant other may “be in the wrong place.” It’s the “classic boiling frog syndrome,” she adds. To wit, you need to “notice your partner’s attitude, mood, and patterns,” and help them reflect on their career and professional path. “Ask, ‘How are things going? Are you where you want to be? Are you satisfied?’” Granted, these questions are fodder “for 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 on top of it.

Encourage outside friendships and interests

Yet, “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 critical that both 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 might also be worthwhile to “encourage your partner to see a therapist or work with a career coach,” she adds. “It could push [your spouse’s] development forward.” Bear in mind, though, the therapist or coach ought to be “a complement, not a substitute” for you.

Decompress together

Finally, cultivate “your home as a haven,” Coleman says. This is easier said than done. The ubiquity of mobile phones and laptop computers and the 24/7 nature of work are big obstacles. 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 suggests helping your partner “develop a good end-of-work habit.” It could be encouraging them to listen to an audiobook or music or just take a walk at the end of the workday. “You both need time to decompress.”

Adapted from “How to Help Your Spouse Cope with Work Stress,” on hbr.org, August 20, 2018 (product #H04I6P).

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