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Taking Your Relationship To Work

It is often easy to see how your job influences your relationship. If you work long hours, you have less time to spend with your partner. If you have a particularly hectic or demanding workweek, your work stress can easily spill over into your relationship.1 However, chances are you pay less attention to how your relationship influences your job. If you do in fact “take your relationship to work” with you by letting your personal life influence your job, this may have important implications for your career success. It’s also possible that your relationship doesn’t directly undermine you at your job, but rather negative relationship experiences could harm you emotionally or undermine your physical health, which then compromise your job.

How They Did It

Researchers from Brigham Young University investigated how couples’ interactions influence their work satisfaction across two studies that included over 280 heterosexual couples who were mostly married, in their 40’s, with 2 kids on average.2 Ninety-four percent of men and 52% of the women reported working over 40 hours a week. Couples participated in 25 minute discussions about their relationships, during which they were prompted to cover topics such as, ‘‘what do each of us find most enjoyable, pleasant, or rewarding about our relationship?’’ and ‘‘what was one of our last disagreements? How does each feel about the way we handled this disagreement?’’ A trained coder watched the interaction and rated each partner’s hostility level based on what each person said and did during the interaction. Each couple member also completed self-report measures about his or her general physical health and depressive symptoms, as well as questions about work satisfaction (‘‘How satisfied are you with your current job?’’ ‘‘How satisfied are you with your current salary?’’).

What They Found

Males from couples with more negative interactions reported lower work satisfaction. But women from those same couples did not report lower work satisfaction. Women and men who reported better health and fewer depressive symptoms also reported more work satisfaction. The researchers ran additional analyses to determine why negative interactions harm men’s work satisfaction. They found that negative interactions increase men’s depressive symptoms and worsen health, both of which decrease work satisfaction. The data also revealed that negative couple interactions coincide with men’s increased depressive symptoms. Men’s increased negative mood hurts women’s health, which in turn correlated with women’s lower work satisfaction. So in other words, fighting in a relationship harms women’s work satisfaction. But it’s mainly a result of men’s depressive symptoms hurting women’s health (i.e., dealing with a depressed partner may make women more likely to get sick, which decreases how much they like work). It is important to point out that the statistical techniques they used allow us to make a reasonable case for what is causing what. However, the researchers did not do an experiment and thus cannot definitively say one thing causes the other.  

What the Results Mean For You

Men who experience more hostile interactions in their relationship are likely to experience lower work satisfaction. The study also suggests that when men suffer depressive symptoms due to negative interactions, women’s health and work satisfaction suffer as well. More generally, many people strive to achieve a “work-life balance” by creating clear boundaries between home life and work life. The goal is to keep the two worlds from influencing each other, but the focus of most people (and researchers) has been to try to avoid work’s negative influence on home life. The results of this study suggest that keeping different parts of our “lives” separate is more difficult than we think -- we should also consider how what happens at home (and in our relationships) affects our jobs.   

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1Neff, L. A., & Broady, E. F. (2011). Stress resilience in early marriage: Can practice make perfect?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 1050-1067. doi:10.1037/a0023809

2Sandberg, J. G., Harper, J. M., Hill, E. J., Miller, R. B., Yorgason, J. B., & Day, R. D. (2013). “What happens at home does not necessarily stay at home”: The relationship of observed negative couple interaction with physical health, mental health, and work satisfaction. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 808-821. doi: 10.1111/jomf.12039.

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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