It can be difficult for both people in the relationship when one partner is out of the house and the other is a stay at home parent. At day’s end, both partners are tired from their various responsibilities, and each has different, often combating, needs (One, say, might need a human being to talk to and the other to be left alone). Then there are larger issues that crop up, too: both, for instance, can feel taken for granted in different ways (I’m not appreciated for what I do at work! I’m not appreciated for what I do at home!). The issues are complicated but solvable. So, to help you, we talked to some experts to get the lowdown on the most common arguments that come from a one-working-partner relationship, what they really mean, and how to work them out.
The “What Did You Do All Day?” Fight
Why It Happens: When one partner is out of the house all day, they tend to make the assumption that, since the other partner is home, they’ve got time to handle all of the household duties, from doing the dishes to handling all the shopping. The reality, of course, is that keeping the household running and raising kids are two full-time jobs. That means that their time is just as valuable and they may not always be able to get to every little thing that crops up under a roof.
How to Work It Out: “The key here is to ask rather than assume that the person at home has the time take on additional duties,” says Nicolle Osequeda, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the Executive Director of Lincoln Park Therapy Group in Chicago, IL. “This validates that they are busy and have commitments, and doesn’t express entitlement.”
The “I Need Someone to Talk to!” Throw Down
Why It Happens: When one parent is at home taking care of the kids, adult interaction is necessary to maintain sanity. As a result, when the partner who works out of the house comes home, they’re immediately bombarded with questions and conversation. The problem here is that when the other partner who’s been out of the house all day has been in and out of meetings, fought traffic, slugged it out on public transportation often needs time to decompress.
How to Work It Out: In this situation, each person needs to see the other one’s perspective and try and appreciate it. For the partner who’s been cooped up at home all day, they might need to accept that their spouse needs 10 or 15 minutes to unwind before hearing a rundown of the day’s events. Similarly, the partner who works might want to do some of that decompression before they walk in the door. Listening to an audiobook, trying a mediation app or journaling on the train can be ways to get your head out of the office so that when you’re home, you’re ready to engage with your partner. “Again—empathy, understanding, perspective taking and generosity of assumption is helpful,” says Osequeda.
The “I Feel Like We’re Roommates” Spat
Why It Happens: When one partner is out of the house during the day, then comes home dead-tired and beaten down from the rigors of their job, an emotional rift can often form between them and their partner. It can also be very easy to fall into the rut of working, coming home and then falling asleep in front of the TV together. Often this routine and roommate phase can lead to big arguments and feelings of boredom.
How to Work It Out: Dr. Sherrie Campbell, a licensed counselor, psychologist, and marriage and family therapist and author of Success Equations: A Path to Living an Emotionally Wealthy Life says that couples in this rut have to shake things up as soon as they can. The best way to do that, she advises, is to approach your marriage like you would your job. “Look at your relationship as a company and have monthly check in meetings,” she says. Another suggestion? Make time for fun. “Those who play together stay together,” says Campbell.
The “You spend more time with your work wife/husband” Blow-Out
Why It Happens: Jealousy can easily creep up when one partner is stranded at home, often removed from adult contact, while the other one is out and about engaging with people their own age and, more troubling, different genders. Relationships that form at work, even if they’re completely platonic, can lead to feelings of abandonment and a sense that the working partner prefers the company of his or her peers to that of his spouse.
How to Work It Out: To combat this, Dr. Sherrie recommends always being open and honest about your work friendships, letting your spouse know not only where you stand with them, but where he or she stands with you. “Try and understand the vulnerabilities your partner has that may make him or her jealous,” she says. “Reassure your partner of your love and fidelity.” And, most importantly, she says, “don’t engage in flirting behavior that can appear harmless but be hurtful to your partner!”
The “I’m Not Your Assistant” Argument
Why It Happens: This argument falls somewhat under the heading of one partner expecting the other to do household chores, but Osequeda notes that often times a partner working outside the home will turn to their spouse, whether they’re working at home or just taking care of the kids, and ask them to mail letters, send faxes, or pick up packages.
How to Work It Out: Honestly, just quit the behavior. “Save the request for when it counts,” she says. “Realize your partner also has responsibilities.”
The “Why Are You Always In Sweats?” Spat
Why It Happens: While one partner is busy dressing their best and heading to work, the other, stripped of the need to impress anyone, spends the day in sweats and a tee shirt, wearing only what they need to take care of the kids and avoid being arrested at the supermarket for indecency. After a while, the so-called ‘relaxed’ look can become too relaxed. Fights flare up when comments ensue.
How to Work It Out: While Osequeda says that this predominately applies to people who are working from home (parents who are forced to spend their days covered in spit-up can get a pass), the mentality is the same. “Shower, shave, shine each day regardless if you’re leaving the house or not,” she says. “Treat yourself like you’re going to work so at the end of the day you feel better about yourself and adhere to a routine that benefits you and your significant other.”
The “You’re More Interested in Work Than Me” Throw Down
Why It Happens: Work, again, can create distance between couples and distance can breed disinterest and an unwillingness to support each other.
How to Work It Out: Bill Chopik, the director of Michigan State University’s Close Relationships Lab says that it’s important to actively listen and validate each other’s feelings. If your partner says that they received a promotion at work, tell them how happy you are for them and remind them that the promotion came because of the great person that they are. There, of course, destructive ways of responding. For instance, Chopik says uttering a dispassionate, ‘that’s great.’ without even looking up from the computer screen isn’t the most inspiring response. The same goes for saying things that deflate the experience, i.e. ‘I’m sure they just felt bad for you.’ “It’s shocking to think that partners do this to each other, but they do,” urges Chopik. The solution is understanding how to actively participate in your partner’s life without making them seem second best.