Is Your Job A Third Wheel In Your Relationship?
What happens at work should stay at work, according to research.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 09, 2024
Do you often ask your partner to repeat what they just said because you keep replaying your boss' snarky comment in your head? You might be ruminating about work, and what's worse, it could be chipping away at your relationship.
A 2023 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies examined the effects of "work rumination" on romantic relationships.
Due to work rumination, one may develop the inability to mentally disengage from work matters. This can include rehashing work-related conversations or events with a partner or constantly analyzing past actions and decisions made at work. Researchers suggest that work rumination takes attention away from one's partner, thereby affecting the quality of the relationship.
On the other hand, talking about work can also be an essential source of support that helps a person work through rumination, signaling the need for a balance in emotionally engaging with work once the work day ends.
Here are two signs that work rumination is affecting your relationship and how to improve it.
1. You Only Bring Up Work
One of the most evident signs of work rumination impacting one's relationship is if conversations with a partner consistently revolve around work. Whether it's discussing office politics, venting about work stress or analyzing professional challenges, when an individual repeatedly steers discussions toward work-related topics, it leaves little space for personal or intimate conversations, undermining the emotional connection between partners.
Researchers suggest our minds can remain fixated on workplace matters even in moments meant for relaxation or intimacy due to the cognitive load imposed by work thoughts on one's capacity for attention, especially if they are burdened by a heavy workload.
Based on the load theory of selective attention, researchers suggest that whether work thoughts are positive or negative, they compete for the limited mental resources a person has, reducing their ability to attend to anything or anyone else. This lack of attention has been linked to lower relationship satisfaction for both individuals in the relationship.
The non-working hours where such rumination occurs usually coincide with the only available face-to-face interaction time romantic partners have in a day. One's work and personal life must then also vie for limited time resources, compromising the quality as well as quantity of meaningful engagement and positive, affectionate interactions with a partner.
The study confirmed that on the days one of the partners had lower work rumination, they paid more attention to their partners, leaving both partners feeling more satisfied in the relationship.
2. You Are Less Emotionally Available Than Before
Emotional availability for one's partner also requires emotional availability to oneself, which is affected by work rumination. Excessively dwelling on work matters can make an individual more irritable, frustrated, anxious and exhausted, lowering their well-being and their ability to be emotionally present.
Research shows that a cognitive preoccupation with work hampers an individual's engagement in private activities and reduces their psychological availability for their partners, contributing to marital tensions, anger or even withdrawal.
The lack of emotional availability can create emotional distance and reduce one's "perceived partner responsiveness," referring to how caring, validating and supportive one's partner perceives them to be, which is crucial for relationship satisfaction.
A lack of emotional availability diminishes the empathetic support one can offer a partner and makes them less attuned to the other's needs and desires. An ongoing conversation about work stifles opportunities for the other partner to share their own feelings or experiences and restricts the exploration of the full spectrum of emotions—such as joy, sadness, fears and aspirations— that contribute to a nuanced and intimate connection.
How To Save Your Relationship From The Cycle Of Work Rumination
Here are a few ways to address the impact of work rumination on your relationship.
- Prioritize self-care. Managing work-related stress is essential to curbing rumination. Reflect on why work may be taking up excessive mental space for you and what needs to change for you to feel more at ease. Prioritize self-care by engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation.
- Communicate openly. Talk to your partner about how work rumination is affecting your relationship. Regularly check in about how you can offer each other support. Explore a variety of conversation topics together.
- Establish boundaries. Creating clear boundaries between one's work and personal life is essential. Designate specific times to work or discuss work-related matters. Dedicate quality time to your relationship without work interruptions. Avoid overcommitting to work responsibilities that can encroach on personal time.
- Create rituals for connection. Establish routines or rituals dedicated solely to your relationship, like having a weekly date night or making dinner together as well as taking some time to reconnect with yourself after work, so that you can feel more present after.
The persistence of work-related thoughts outside the workplace diminishes an individual's ability to fully engage with their partner during shared personal time, ultimately influencing the quality and satisfaction of their relationship. Recognizing the signs and taking proactive steps to create work-life boundaries is vital to maintaining and nurturing one's relationship.
Concerned about the status of your romantic relationship? Take the evidence-based Relationship Satisfaction Scale to find out where you and your partner stand.
A similar version of this article can also be found on Forbes.com, here.