At least 50 percent of Americans work more than 40 hours a week. Eighteen percent work 60 hours or more. That’s according to a recent Gallup poll. Long hours at work put in day after day can put a strain on a marriage, whether it’s by one or both spouses.
If you’re the spouse spending evenings and weekends without your husband or wife week after week, that can hurt. You see friends and neighbors enjoying evenings and weekends together with their spouses. You’re alone, or with hands full taking care of the kids, wondering what is the point of being married when your spouse is at work most of the time.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics say that many jobs demand longer hours. Truck drivers can work up to 60 hours a week. Real estate brokers and sales agents often work more than 40 hours a week logging many of those hours in the evening and on weekends to accommodate their clients. Many physicians and surgeons put in long hours with irregular shifts and overnight hours. Entrepreneurs and executives can work every waking hour trying to make a business profitable.
If your spouse has one of those jobs that demand long hours, you may be keeping your feelings to yourself. After all, your spouse has an important job. But negative feelings like loneliness and resentment still gnaw away at your attempts to keep a smile on your face. Some spouses go ahead and complain, then find themselves feeling more resentful or distant than before.
It’s not a given that you have to sit back and keep silent and accept your spouse’s long absences from your life. It’s also not necessary to put your spouse on defense with your complaints.
Many spouses who were unhappy with their marriage partner’s long hours at work have discovered how to express their feelings in a way that resulted in a stronger, more satisfying relationship, rather than one that felt strained or distant. It doesn’t happen overnight, but they’ve learned how to make progress. Sometimes it leads to changes in their spouse’s work habits. Other times it leads to an understanding partnership that feels good to both spouses.
Husbands and wives who do this successfully have learned to resort to these helpful tactics when less subtle approaches aren’t helping.
1.) They don’t criticize. Husbands or wives who work long hours and then get criticized once home for working too much will not want to stay home. They’ll get defensive. They may stop coming home. Criticism between spouses puts emotional distance between them.
2.) They’re curious. People who work long hours don’t do it for the work. The work is a means to an end. The work fulfills a purpose greater than the work itself. Often they’re pursuing dreams.
In a marriage, when spouses ask about and discover the driving purpose behind a partner’s work, it allows understanding and cultivates intimacy that can strengthen a couple’s emotional connection. They ask questions like these:
- What does your work mean to you?
- What positive feelings does your work give you?
- What purpose or dream do you want to fulfill through your work?
Taking time to understand before trying to be understood is a way to follow the Golden Rule in a marriage. Remember, do to your spouse as you would like done to you.
3.) They express appreciation. It may seem impossible to appreciate spouses when the purpose behind their long work hours isn’t understood. It’s only when husbands or wives understand the drive behind the spouse’s extra labor that they’re able to express meaningful appreciation for their spouse. Their curiosity may reveal that the hard-working spouse’s dream is to get debt-free, to provide a better home, or to make a positive difference in somewhere in the world. Husbands and wives wishing for more time with their spouses can express appreciation for admirable goals like these.
4.) They share their desires and dreams. Many husbands and wives whose spouses work long hours keep their wants and wishes hidden. When with their spouses, they cover up what’s in their heart with small talk about things like weather, work, neighbors, and what the kids are doing. But by avoiding talk about the bigger issues, intimacy dies.
Husbands and wives who open up to their mate about their desires and dreams, instead of stuffing them, open the door to emotional connection. Coupled with an appreciation for their partner’s hard work, they use positive statements to express their feelings. They’ll say things like this:
- “I’m impressed with how hard you’ve been working this week.” (appreciation)
- “I need some quality time with you soon.” (desire)
- “It means a lot to me when we spend time together.” (appreciation)
- “When can we have a date night — just the two of us having some special time together?” (dream)
- “You’ve worked hard for the last six months. You deserve a break.” (appreciation)
- “I want us to make some memories together with the kids.” (desire)
- “What can we do to fit in a family vacation in the next six months?” (dream)
Notice the blending of appreciation with desires and dreams. It may not feel natural in the beginning. With practice, it can become second nature.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”