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Juggling Under Pressure

I am one sandwiched woman. Between living with a retired mother with health concerns, trying to manage two preschool-aged boys, and balancing a full-time career, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the demands of life (hence the absence of my column the last few months!). Mix in my mother’s recent knee replacement surgery (bad) and an upcoming promotion at work (good), I have struggled the last few months to carve out quality time with The Consultant. Although an intimate relationship is very important to me (and everyone), my career and family take priority; I can juggle only so many proverbial balls at a time!

Because my past relationships failed, I recently had a long discussion with the Consultant about my past experiences with the hopes of preventing a similar demise with him. For example, I shared with him the time my ex gave me the ultimatum: “If you attend that professional conference next week, then I do not see how our relationship can continue.” The threat of losing my job and being able to support our family (I was the sole breadwinner), contrasted consistently with the threat of the loss of my relationship, was one of the hardest challenges I have ever had to navigate.

What impressed me was The Consultant’s response. He told me that he supports me entirely. He feels it is important for me to have career success, as it makes me happy. He said that the prioritization of my roles (mother to my boys, daughter to my mom, work, and then girlfriend to him) are what they should be, and he believes I am juggling them well. I think that maybe the difference between my relationship with The Consultant and my previous relationships is that he and I have more of a communal orientation – i.e., we each feel we benefit from the achievements of the other. In my other relationships, there was always an “I do for you, you do for me” approach, or what is commonly referred to as a social-exchange orientation.1 By encouraging each other to pursue whatever makes us happy (e.g., hobbies like fishing), and in not making each other feel bad when we are tackling things that cannot be delayed (e.g., work or parenting responsibilities), we are both left feeling supported as individuals in the context of our relationship.

There are few research or intervention programs designed to identify and address the specific needs of sandwiched individuals like myself to help them cope better.2 We know that members of the sandwiched generation (who care for young children and aging parents) often face burnout in their marriages,2 which is feeling emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted about the relationship.3 One group of researchers found that sandwiched couples who withdraw socially (e.g., pull away from friends) tend to have the worst well-being compared to those who do not withdraw.4 Although sandwiched women typically reduce the their work hours (or quit their jobs altogether) more than men in order to cope with stress,5 I have never had that luxury due to always being the sole breadwinner. 

Therefore, it seems like one strategy to buffer from sandwich stress is to have a communal orientation with your intimate partner. When sandwiched couples experience relationship benefits like love and support, they tend to be the most resistant to burnout in their relationship,1 so there might be hope for me yet!

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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1Van Yperen, N. & Buunk, B. (1991). Equity theory and exchange and communal orientation from a cross-national perspective. Journal of Social Psychology, 131, 5-20.

2Pines, A. M., Neal, M. B., Hammer, L. B., & Icekson, T. (2011). Job burnout and couple burnout in dual-earner couples in the sandwiched generation. Social Psychology Quarterly, 74, 361-386.

3Pines, A. M. & Aronson, E. (1988). Career Burnout: Causes and Cures. New York: Free Press.

4Neal, M. B., & Hammer, L. B. (2009). Dual-earner couples in the sandwiched generation: Effects of coping strategies over time. The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 12, 205-234.

5Daatland, S. O., Veenstra, M., Lima, I. A. (2010). Norwegian sandwiches: On the prevalence and consequences of family and work role squeezes over the life cycle. European Journal of Ageing, 7, 271-281.

Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr.  Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.

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