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Bringing Home More Than Just the Bacon: When Work Life Collides with Home Life

“Leave your troubles at the door.” 

It’s a standard rule of thumb to leave your emotional baggage behind when you clock in at your job. You can’t concentrate on your daily tasks if you’re worried about whether Little Danny will remember his lines in his school play audition. You can’t smile and talk up your proposal to a highly coveted client if last night’s argument with your significant other is still replaying itself, every hurtful word, over and over in your mind. Unless you’re a Method actor or perhaps some incarnation of a brooding songwriter-comedian-artist, your personal life has no place at your job.

The reverse is also true. Imagine you bring your work troubles home: That looming deadline, or your boss’ heart-to-heart about your (un)likeliness of getting a promotion, hangs in the air between you and your loved ones. You may not be discussing these work-related issues with your partner, but workday experiences like these still affect your relationship via your psychological availability, or whether people have enough mental resources (i.e., ability and motivation) to give active attention to their partners.1 To illustrate, let’s say Neil comes home tired from work. He can’t stop thinking about how his boss gave a project Neil wanted to an annoying coworker. Because he is busy mentally berating himself, Neil only half-listens to his partner, Nellie, as she describes a problem she had.  Nellie thinks that Neil is bored or unhelpful, when he is actually distracted (and not psychologically available).  Feeling neglected, Nellie retreats from Neil in cold silence.

To study this idea, researchers found couples in which both partners had jobs in order to study how the psychological remnants of one’s workday (e.g., coming home in a bad mood), led to changes in psychological availability and its influence on the treatment of the significant other. Each couple picked a day on which both of them (1) went to work and (2) later interacted with each other at home, then both answered a survey that same night about their workday, psychological availability, and behavior toward their partner that day and what they thought of their partner’s behaviors. For example, Neil and Nellie chose a day when they both worked and also interacted with each other. That night, Nellie completed the survey, thinking about her psychological availability toward Neil; the mood, energy, and brooding she experienced resulting from her workday; her own perception of her positivity, anger, and withdrawal when with Neil; and her perception of Neil’s positivity, anger, and withdrawal when interacting with her. Neil answered the same questions about his day from his point of view.

Negative thoughts, mood, and tiredness resulting from workday experiences reduced one’s ability to be psychologically available for one’s partner. In turn, partners reported more negative relationship behaviors, and less positivity, in their interactions that evening. Thus, if Nellie was exhausted, in a bad mood, and still stewing about her workday, she might have less ability and motivation to focus her attention on Neil, and he might then perceive that Nellie is angry or withdrawing in their relationship interactions that night.

In contrast, bringing home your professional triumphs may not be a bad idea. Greeting your partner with enthusiasm can be a lot easier when you’re feeling buoyed by successes at your job. The researchers reported that positive mood and energy resulted in greater psychological availability to one’s partner, and the partner was more likely to perceive positivity and less likely to perceive anger and withdrawal in the couple’s evening interactions.

So, when you get ready to head home at the end of a long day, leave the overflowing inbox and coworker squabbles behind, and focus on what you’ve accomplished instead. In those (hopefully) rare situations when your work manages to follow you home (hey, it happens!), let your partner know you may not be “all there” mentally that night.

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1Danner-Vlaardingerbroek, G., Kluwer, E. S., van Steenbergen, E. F., & van der Lippe, T. (in press). Knock, knock, anybody home? Psychological availability as link between work and relationship. Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2012.01396.x

Dr. Helen Lee Lin - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen's past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects.

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