Dear Captain Awkward:
I’ve been with my partner for close to a decade now. In the past year or three, they’ve been getting way more into their career, to the point where they are barely home. Even when they are home, they’re not dependably home, if that’s clear — they’re sometimes present and delightful and wonderful, and sometimes exhausted or continuously busy or distracted as hell.
To compare, I don’t have a career. I have my job, and I enjoy my job fine, but it’s a job. I come home and I don’t continue jobbing, except for infrequent requirements. (Every two or three months.) My partner is investing in their career, which I applaud as both a feminist and their partner, but also am dismayed by. Unhelpful too is how they sacrifice personal care for their career, like sleep or eating regularly. That is even less my business, but I’m still concerned, and I’m not sure if I’m right to be concerned.
I don’t even know what question I’m asking. How can I deal with this resentment in order to be more supportive? I feel both proud/pleased and resentful, and these emotions are not conveniently mutually exclusive. Given that I love them and want to be with them for the “long haul”, given that when my partner’s present I genuinely enjoy my time with them, what can I do to reduce my resentment and increase my usefulness?
There are certain rituals that are relationship glue. Mealtimes. Bedtimes. Maybe a daily text message or email. Regular Skype dates for long-distance partners. Specifics may vary from relationship to relationship, but you need some touchstones that you can count on. When those rituals don’t form or get disrupted, the relationship can go to a bad place pretty quickly.
For example, I lived with a partner who had a really different sleep & meal schedule. We managed it quite sensibly by having separate bedrooms and bedtimes, but it meant that we missed out on that ritual of going to bed together, which threw off our sex life. It meant that his breakfast was my lunchtime, so I wanted lunch foods and he wanted breakfast foods (or wasn’t hungry when I was, or was hungry when I just ate), so we ate at vastly different times and in vastly different ways and spent way too much money on delivery and takeout.
To other people (military spouses whose partner is deployed, for one example), our problems would have looked ludicrous, like, “You mean you got to share the same space every day and you couldn’t make that work somehow?” The thing ended because we weren’t right for each other, period, but I think that lack of routine really affected us and made it harder on us. I learned that having regular meals together, and going to bed and waking up together are really important to me in a relationship, and while I could deal with a temporary disruption in that because of an awesome career opportunity or a crisis I wouldn’t want it to become the new normal. Michelle Obama insists on the President of the United States eating dinner with his family at a set time every night, and I think that family time is part of what is keeping them all sane. Other people have different priorities and different ways of managing this stuff, and as long as it works for everyone in the relationship, awesome – I definitely don’t think everyone needs the same things I need. But I don’t think it’s selfish or wrong to need the things I need, either.
What I’m reading in this letter is that you are concerned for your partner’s self-care, but need to tread gently. You don’t want to concern-troll them or try to parent them, and any attempts to do so are likely to be met with defensiveness.
What I’m also reading in this letter is that you are doing most of the work of keeping the relationship going, and a lot of the time when you see your partner you’re not getting the best of their energy or time or attention. You want to be supportive, but your needs are not being met in certain ways and it’s making you resentful.
I suggest that you work with a journal and write down some of your feelings and needs from your relationship. When your partner schedules time with you but is distracted the whole time, or exhausted from work, how does it make you feel? In an ideal world, how would you like to spend your free time together? What kind of rituals would make you feel more connected? You can put all the annoyance and resentment you want into that journal, you’re not going to show it to anyone, and you need to get those feelings out somewhere. Also, if you have a therapist, this is a good topic to talk about with that person, right? However you work it out, find yourself a place where you can fully feel your feelings without judgment or guilt, and then start to see if you can put together some ideas for how things could work better for you.
And then you have to talk to your partner.
It’s really hard to hear “You don’t spend enough time with me” or “You don’t pay enough attention to me” from a partner, especially when you’re stressed out and overextended. “Enough” could mean a lot of things! Once you say that to someone with a more avoidant attachment style (I love whoever linked me to this originally, thank you!), they instantly start panicking and thinking “Oh shit, my partner is going to CONSUME MY ENTIRE SOUL will anything I do ever be enough to satisfy them?” and start flailing about for an escape. Conversely, if a partner says “I need some more alone time” or “I need a little space” to a more anxious partner, the partner hears that as “OH GOD THEY ARE LEAVING ME FOREVER AND PROBABLY HATE ME” and try to find ways to cling tighter. The cling-or-flee reaction reinforces the other partner’s fears and it becomes a vicious cycle.
I think the most helpful way to look at the attachment styles is as part of a spectrum. Some people can see a pattern in all of their relationships where they have one dominant style, but I know personally that I’ve been the more anxious-insecure (clingier) person in some relationships and the more avoidant person in other relationships. I realize, Letter Writer, that your question has a lot of external factors like your partner’s career at play, but it might be worth thinking about how your attachment styles shake out relative to one another before you talk.
I think it’s helpful when asking for “more time together” or “more space” is to ask for some very concrete things that would give you what you want and make you feel okay. What rituals could you create together that allow you to feel close and happy even when things are stressful and busy?
- Are your partner’s evenings full of work, but maybe you could eat breakfast together every day? Or could you take a set dinner break?
- Do you need a weekly date night?
- Could you work out something where, right when s/he comes home, you greet each other with a hug and a kiss and focus on each other for a little while before s/he jumps back into work tasks?
- Do you need a nightly text or phone call when s/he travels?
- Who is doing the household chores and keeping the house running? Are you doing all the meal planning/shopping/cooking/cleaning? Is it time to outsource some of this to take a load off of you?
- Who is doing all of the date planning and social calendar maintenance? I tend to be more of a planner (and my friends are definitely planners), so sometimes what I want is “I don’t care what we do, but I want you to make all the plans and work out the logistics and I want to get to be the passenger.”
- Do you need to have more sex? Do you need to put that on a schedule or make an agreement to try to have sex a certain number of times per week or month?
- Do you need some sacred time each day or each week where cell phones are switched off and laptops are closed?
- Is there something specific you could do to help them and make them feel more supported? My mom was the one with the longer hours at work and eventually graduate school, so my dad was the one who picked us up from soccer practice and had dinner on the table 5 nights/week (often with a plate waiting for her in the microwave). She did more of the bill-paying and paperwork. They split the cleaning and the yard work and the weekend cooking/driving/parent stuff. It was definitely a negotiated agreement, but not in a tit-for-tat way, more in a “this is what will work for everyone and keep things running” way.
This is all concrete negotiable stuff that doesn’t necessarily flow easily and effortlessly from feeling love or romance or massive pantsfeelings for someone. Paraphrasing one of my favorite quotes from Walk The Line:
Johnny Cash: These things will work themselves out.
June Carter: No, these things don’t ‘work themselves out’. Other people work them out for you, and you think they work themselves out.
So forgive yourself, and your partner, for needing to actually sit down and work them out. You’ve been together for a long time and some of the stuff that seemed automatic early on has shifted in the last 2-3 years. Assume good faith, assume that you will be able to work this out. Assume your partner loves you. Maybe they miss you, too, but just don’t know how to express it and need you to be the one to start the discussion.
I think there are some more specific questions you could ask your partner or think about with regards to their time and attention.
- Is this a startup? Is this a period when they have to work ridiculous hours but later things will even out? When will “later” be in effect?
- Is this a seasonal business, with a busy production season (like TV “pilot season”) followed by lulls? What does that yearly cycle look like? Can you schedule periodic vacations?
- Could you make some kind of three-month plan for how things will work and then agree to visit the plan every three months?
Also, is your partner a freelancer by any chance, or running their own business?
Freelancers make the mistake of thinking they *have to* be available 24-7 or they will lose work. Clients are very happy to feed into this expectation. Then the freelancer gets overloaded and starts blowing deadlines.
If you’re a freelancer, it is more than okay to set office hours and times that you are available by phone and by email. It is also okay to charge more for work done after a certain time or a certain number of hours. “My available business hours are roughly 8am-8pm. If you need me to be reachable outside of those hours, or if the project requires work of more than 8 hours/day, those additional hours will be billed at 2x the base rate.” This comes in super-handy when you’re waiting for the client to approve something and they want you to be available to work on it the second they approve it but the approval doesn’t come until 10pm, so you wasted an entire day being on call and now have to stay up all night.
In the US, especially with the economy in the shape it is, there is more and more pressure to work long hours. This is terrible for us and not actually better for productivity or making money. I worked for a workaholic earlier in my career, back in D.C. He had NO life and was in the office for at least 12 hours/day, and he loved to walk the halls at 9pm and see everyone still hunched over our desks like fucking Bob Cratchitt. It was MISERABLE. We did not need to be there. We did not need HIM to be there. There was 90% turnover in his department in one year. It was bad for his health and bad for our health. None of us could use our awesome employee benefits like free tuition and free workouts at the Y because we were always at work. At times we became totally exhausted and unproductive. He probably thought we all expected him to be there and were hanging on his every word, when really, it was like “Take a night off. Please. Please take a night off.”
Not knowing what business your partner is in, it’s hard to know exactly what the culture and constraints are. For example, on a feature film 12 hour+ days (+ thinking about the movie and planning the next day at night) are normal for a few months, and unless you have a lot of clout you can’t really demand to go home early or block out certain times. But you’ll probably have substantial downtime between gigs.
But it’s easy to get into that startup mode, where everything is a crisis, and not know how to transition out of it when things settle down more. And it’s easy to make assumptions that your boss expects you to work all the time just because you have been working all the time, or assume your staff expects you to work all the time, when really you could arrange to be unreachable for certain hours simply by logging out of things and setting an away message on your phone or chat app or whatever. And it’s easy to be the person who says yes to everyone and everything at work because they have a supportive, willing partner at home and it’s easier and more comfortable to say “no” to that person. And it’s easy to get in the habit of checking “Just one more thing!” before bed and end up on the computer until 3 am while your partner falls asleep in their sexiest sleeping outfit that they put on because they thought you were going to do it and you’ve totally missed the window. Don’t be this song! It’s a sad song!
When talking about work, it’s easy to start using language like “I can’t do that” or “I have to do that” because the habit of authority and requirements and needing to ask permission is so ingrained. But often you CAN do that. Often no one will notice if you don’t pick up the phone between certain hours or if you log off the computer at certain times. So for the workaholics among us, I suggest you start framing it in terms of “I’m choosing to do x” vs. “I have to/can’t” and see if anything changes in your attitude or how you use your time. “I’m choosing to stay available to my staff all the time.” “I’m choosing to sit here at the computer even though I’m pretty sure my partner is waiting for me to come to bed.” How many of your choices are just habits?
All this is my way of saying that boundaries about how and when you work are good for people. If your boss/industry/job isn’t good at defining boundaries and expectations, you get to try to define them, and as you get more success and power at work it’s easier to define them for yourself and for the people who work for you. If you create the expectation that you’re always free, people will expect you to be always free. Letter Writer, I’m not sure that knowledge is directly transitive to your partner, but it’s something to keep in mind when you talk to them. How much “I can’t/I have to” language are they using? How much of the things they think they can’t/have to do are really requirements vs. choices? Can you ask them to re-evaluate that if it means being kinder to you and they can still be successful at work?
There’s a lot of framework here, I hope it helps you in having a discussion and figure out what rituals are the glue in your relationship.
Finally, I think it would be good for you and your partner (and take some pressure off) if you looked at your relationships with friends & family and also your own interests outside of couple time and work. In exchange for one sacred date night/week, is there one night a week you could be out of the house doing your thing, giving your partner some alone time to stay up working as long as s/he wants? If what you’re feeling is general loneliness and not just relationship-loneliess, there is maybe some stuff you can do about that for yourself.
I really hope you are able to work this out. You are far from the only one with this problem, so I’d love to hear how other couples solved this or are negotiating this in comments.