Relationships and Work Demands: Finding Time to Connect

Photo shows cropped view of couple's legs in bed, lying close together, with phone and tablet left at end of bed out of reachEditor’s note: How do egalitarian couples with a shared goal of equal partnership navigate differing work demands? This series will consider common power struggles in such relationships, tools for peaceful communication and establishing mutual support, and how to seek outside help when you need it. Part I of this series approaches the topic of sex and physical closeness when one partner is under a huge amount of work-related stress.

I’m a license-eligible marriage and family therapist who is also the partner of a second-year resident in obstetrics and gynecology. I love the stories my partner brings home, but there are days where I’ve struggled with feeling like her day-to-day reality is bigger than mine, feeling like there’s not enough room for her commitments both to residency and to me. Of course, these quantifying metaphors of time and space aren’t literal—rationally speaking, she is quite committed to us both. It’s clear she’s made sacrifices to her career for our relationship, and vice-versa. Still, it took us time to get accustomed to how the stress of residency would impact us, and it’s always a work in progress.

This experience has also helped me to think about my own expectations for relationships and where they come from. Following the feminist movement and national strides toward marriage equality, romantic partnerships are increasingly diverse and egalitarian. There is liberation in knowing we get to make conscious decisions about how we “do” relationships, putting deliberate thought and flexibility into the roles we occupy within them. Change happens naturally, too: within the course of a year, a partner may move from the role of primary caretaker to that of primary earner. A partner who once wanted sex less often may find he or she wants more, or wants sex differently.

Same-sex and queer partnerships have the benefit and added confusion of lacking traditional scripts and standards. Who initiates sex? Does the more masculine partner become the breadwinner, or does being the breadwinner put that partner into a more traditionally masculine role? What if there isn’t a masculine partner to begin with? What if both partners are unemployed?

No matter how we’re employed (or how masculine we are), my partner and I are committed to a mutually respectful partnership. I’m not touting us as the golden standard of happy couples, but I like to practice what I preach. We’ve commented to each other that this year’s work-life balance feels better for many reasons: I’m happier, she’s happier, and the way we communicate has improved. If you’re in a relationship with a partner whose job is more demanding, or if your job is more demanding than your partner’s, all hope is not lost! This series is for you.

My first shared post in this series is about developing and maintaining sexual intimacy.

***

Some days when my partner walks in the door, details of her day just start pouring out of her. It’s compulsive, the result of being “on” for more than 12 hours straight that day. Sometimes I’m afraid I won’t be able to interrupt her stream of consciousness, so I’ll make my announcements first. This might make me a hypocrite for bringing up the bigger problem: that it’s hard to connect when there’s no room for us to exist independently of the day’s work. We’ve approached different ways of dealing with this—some more successful than others—but usually our favorite is to greet each other by wordlessly holding one another. Sometimes it’s a short hug and sometimes it’s longer, but keeping up with this ritual gives us the ability to connect before one of us becomes the word sponge for the other person’s experience.

I take the stance that emotional intimacy and sexual practice go hand in hand. Some people do indeed use sex to escape their differences, and people can be emotionally invested in one another without being sexually intimate, but for the most part, sexual health is predictive of emotional health and vice-versa. Like everything else covered in this series, keeping an open line of communication helps. Be honest with your partner about your comfort zone and interests. As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t anticipate hours of marathon sex, but maintaining an active, mutually supportive emotional connection lends to better, more sensual physical relationships.

It’s important to understand that your sex life will be impacted by demanding work schedules. During residency and major time-constrained work projects, it’s normal for couples to go one or more weeks without having sex in favor of sleeping or watching an hour of a favorite television program. When resources are limited, the frequency of sex won’t be at its all-time high. This doesn’t mean the quality has to suffer, however.

With this in mind, some couples may choose to wake up an extra hour early one day a week or stay up late in favor of having sex. Be honest when you’re not in the mood or too tired, and look to your partner for signals before propositioning him or her for sex. Understand, too, that sleepy sex or “period sex” can be awesome sex. Other days, you may only want to masturbate side by side, and that’s OK—it’s not an inferior expression of sexuality. Masturbate alone, too, and if you don’t know already what works for you, learn. Having an intimate sexual connection with your partner is great if that’s what you’re after, but it’s not fair to rely on your partner to meet all of your sexual needs in the instant that you have them.

Obviously, much of this applies to all sexually active couples at one time or another. Dropping glamorous expectations for sex can take some of the pressure off if you feel you and your partner are in a rut or a “dry spell.” Practicing nonsexual touching and brief periods of intentional abstinence can also help couples who are struggling with sexual intimacy. Sometimes, though, despite your best efforts, you might feel like you’ve reached a dead end. If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, facing the same problems over and over, but you’re both committed to making things work, a couples and/or sex therapist might be a good option.

Obviously, communicating openly and effectively is critical for good sex and good relationships at any stage. Having a third party present to guide the session can keep loaded conversations digestible. Chances are, if you’re on GoodTherapy.org already, you’re in a good spot to research therapy options in your city.

***

I hope you enjoyed Part I of my series about balancing relationships with unmatched work demands! Stay tuned for a chapter next month on a brand-new topic.

In the meantime, check out the resources below.

Related reading:

  1. Imago Relationships International (2013)*. Same sex couples. Imago Relationships International. Retrieved from http://pub.imagorelationships.org/AboutImagoTherapy/FreeResources/SameSexCouples.aspx
  2. Ludwig, R. (2011). How to cope when your partner’s job comes before you. com, A Production of NBCNews.com. Retrieved from http://www.today.com/id/44842820/ns/today-today_health/t/how-cope-when-your-partners-job-comes-you/#.VF1hrDTF_Yl
  3. Rogers, B. M. (2006). Keeping love alive during medical school. The New Physician, 55(4). Retrieved from http://www.amsa.org/AMSA/Homepage/Publications/TheNewPhysician/2006/tnp39.aspx

*Imago therapy provides a great dialogue style for discussing loaded topics at a mutually agreed-upon time. You can learn more about it in the book Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, or at an Imago couples workshop near you.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cami

    Cami

    November 24th, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    There are days when I have to hold back a little more than I would like because I know he has had a rough day too and so me talking about how terrible mine was is not going to do anything to help make his better.

    So I come in and pour us both a glass of wine and then once we have both had a little time to unwind, then we can start getting off all the yucky stuff off of our chests.

  • thomas

    thomas

    November 24th, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    There are times in my marriage where I think that both of us allow work to overshadow our relationship. If we have had a hard day then we both tend to clam up and really have nothing positive to say to each other. And sex is definitely off limits. It is at times like this that I need her the most but we both seem to want each other the least. How can we reverse that?

  • Jason

    Jason

    November 25th, 2014 at 3:57 AM

    Even though my wife does not work outside of the home, she still feels the same pressures with everything that has to be done with the kids and the house like I do with my job. I try to be very mindful of that, I used to think that she was the one who had it made and I guess I gave off that vibe to her. Not appreciated you can imagine. Now that I stay very focused on all the things that I know she does to keep the household running? Let’s just say that there are days where I am very grateful that I get to work outside the house.

  • Margie L.

    Margie L.

    November 25th, 2014 at 10:55 AM

    There must never come a time when you forget to make your marriage with one another your top priority. There will always be a hundred things pulling you in the same amount of directions but no matter what you have to remember that your very first commitment has to be to your spouse and to your family. That is the way that you will ensure that things do not go under, because if you ignore them for too long there may come a point when you look at all of the problems that face you and determine that they are too far gone to ever repair.

  • Katy

    Katy

    November 26th, 2014 at 4:12 AM

    My career is just getting started and there are times when I know I put work before home, but I feel like I don’t have a choice.

  • Dawn

    Dawn

    November 26th, 2014 at 2:37 PM

    Katy- I know that your career is probably very important to you, if you have found something to do with your life that you love then that is totally understandable.

    But you have to remember that this is your marriage that you are talking about here, not just any old run of the mill relationship.

    To make it last it takes some work, and if you ignore it for something that he thinks you might consider more important than he is, then that could lead to a whole lot of problems for the two of you in the future.

    Just a little something to think about…

  • danna

    danna

    November 27th, 2014 at 1:35 PM

    I do work outside of the home but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my husband’s work is far more important and more stressful than mine. I try to make the time for him that I know that he needs but I also feel like there are times when he says stuff that kind of demeans the fact that I work too.
    I contribute to the household, maybe not as much monetarily as he does but I do bring home some income and it makes me feel bad that he thinks that maybe I don’t pull my own weight form a financial standpoint.

  • Corie

    Corie

    November 28th, 2014 at 11:32 AM

    There are certain times of the year when my husband has to travel more than others and it is hard on all of us, especially now that we have kids together. But just because it is hard doesn’t mean that we get to stop trying to make things work. It just means that we may have to work a little harder to keep it all together. And we do, we try not to let things get avoided and pushed under the rug.

  • phoebe

    phoebe

    November 29th, 2014 at 12:19 PM

    Finding a good job can be so hard right now that even if this is something that strains life at home you almost feel as if you have to learn to live with it because who knows how hard it might be the eventually land another great job. As much as we hate it most of us depend very heavily on that next paycheck that we receive so it is hard to think about just giving all of that up only because it is causing some tension at home.

  • anna

    anna

    November 30th, 2014 at 12:13 PM

    Like it or not if you want to be with someone then there are likely to be some sacrifices that have to be made along the way. Some you will like and some you won’t, and that’s all just part of the whole marriage deal. No one said it would be wine and roses every single day, and if they did, then they were seriously lying.

  • Esther

    Esther

    December 28th, 2014 at 10:23 AM

    Marriage is a commitment that requires input from both partners. Communication is vital and the couple have to communicate their needs to each other instead of assuming that the spouse “knows”. When dating, the couple managed to find time to appreciate each other, meet and talk. It is possible to continue the same trend even after marriage. The couple must create time every week for meeting their emotional and affection needs as well as sexual fulfillment. For spouses who are travelling phone calls are crucial. One way or the other a couple has to find what works best for them to keep their marriage alive

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