Stress easily spills over into family life. Besides the obvious effects of bringing problems home from work, there is the less-obvious stress on a family caused by a hard-working spouse or parent.
“I'm doing it for you and our son, can't you understand? I promise it won't last forever,” Peter sighs.
“Oh yeah?” Joan says in an angry tone. “How many times have you promised me to cut down your work? I can't stand it anymore!”
This is one of the arguments Peter and Joan go through every few months. Joan has been threatening to leave Peter unless he does something about his work.
Peter is in his early thirties. He and Joan have been married six years and have a three-year-old son. He was a middle-ranking officer in his management company back in England. Peter was transferred overseas four years ago, for a two-year posting, which he renewed at the end of his contract. Presently Peter is one of the top executives of his local branch office.
Both Joan and Peter were very happy to arrive in their foreign posting. Even though the new job demanded more time and energy, Peter was full of enthusiasm to meet new responsibilities and challenges. Joan was very encouraging, as she realized that career-wise it was a step up for Peter. For her it was a nice change of lifestyle which provided much variety.
By nature Peter is not a workaholic. However, he soon found himself being absorbed by his duties as an executive. He stays after work to try to catch up, always promising himself and Joan to return to a normal work schedule “after this project is over.” Invariably, a new, urgent project always comes up.
He constantly struggles to strike a balance between work and family. He finds that work always has clear tasks and deadlines, whereas his wife and child don't have any definable problems which require his urgent care. Without realizing it he yields the first priority to the job's demands, choosing to resolve them before turning his attention to the family.
In the beginning, Joan was understanding. She kept a positive attitude because she realized that Peter worked for the sake of the family. She tried to remain cheerful and understanding when he was too exhausted to talk with her or spend time with their son after work. Slowly Joan's frustration started piling up but she remained silent in order not to burden Peter.
Peter is aware that his overwork has caused some frustration for his wife. He feels guilty for not being able to spend as much time with the family as he wishes. He keeps reminding himself and Joan that it is only a short-term trade-off. “I'll only work like this for a few years to save up some money. By the time we return home we'll have a better life there,” he explains. With such an idea in mind, Peter gradually lets himself get sucked deeper into his work.
When Peter was about to renew a third two-year contract, Joan's patience finally ran out. All her anger and frustration burst forth together. She felt betrayed and taken for granted. She blamed Peter for being insensitive and using the excuse of “the family good” to fulfill his own ambition and desire. By the time the argument erupted their marriage was on the verge of breaking up.
It is rather tragic that a marriage has to come to such a stage. Ironically, Peter feels he is overworking for the good of the family, while Joan feels she is remaining silent about her frustration for Peter's good. Obviously they care for each other. But they make assumptions about what is good for the other and intentionally avoid conflicts. “Trying to do what's best for the other” is actually killing the marriage.
Couples in a similar situation need to confront the real issues. Working spouses need to prioritize their lives and make a clear division between work and family life. When off-duty, begin by turning off the portable phone, pager, home computer, fax and other outside distractions, to be exclusively with the family.
The other spouse needs to voice her or his feelings and not let things build. Otherwise, unresolved feelings will eventually leak out which can be even more damaging to the marriage. Open communication - the most vital ingredient in a marriage - will not only help resolve conflicts such as Peter and Joan's, but prevent them from arising in the first place.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.