“Karen from sales is such a bitch!” your wife laments when you’re washing the dishes. You already know this. You’ve heard all about Karen. You’ve also heard about the office’s shitty hours, the company’s lack of employee care, and your wife’s overall frustration with her current situation. She hates her job.
It’s frustrating to hear your partner complain about her job, because you feel for her and want to help her but also because listening to anyone gripe about work for extended periods of time is worse than watching Kevin Can’t Wait for 12 hours straight. You want to help, but all you feel useful for nodding like a Bobblehead and repeating, “That sucks” and “I’m sorry” until your sound chip fritzes out.
This is to say that it’s easy to feel unable to help someone who’s frustrated with their position — or that you’re adding to their frustration by not knowing what to say. That’s why we spoke to several experts — relationship gurus, career coaches, and even a quitting specialist — who gave us a handful of real, actionable tips you can implement when things start nearing a boiling point. We know you just want to be there for your partner. Here’s how you can.
Withhold Problem Solving
When you have a partner who hates her situation, your first instinct is to try and fix it, right away and for good. Ignore that urge. “Problem solving is socialized in boys from a young age,” says Elizabeth Earnshaw, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. “When people have problems, they don’t want problem solving at first. They want understanding.” To show that understanding, Earnshaw suggests telling your partner her feelings resonate with you. “Simply saying something like, ‘It makes sense to me that you don’t like it there. I wouldn’t like it either if my boss acted like that.’ shows that you’re trying to communicate without solving the problem. It’s validating, and validation makes people feel understood. That’s what your partner wants.”
Always Ask If Your Partner Wants Advice
“Let your partner finish venting before you offer suggestions,” advises Earnshaw. “At that point, phrase your willingness to help by saying, ‘I have some ideas…are you open to hearing them?’” According to Earnshaw, any solution you’ve considered, your partner probably has too. You can still hear what she’s considered, and try to understand why she hasn’t acted on those ideas. “If your partner doesn’t want to hear your ideas,” says Earnshaw, “and she’s driving you nuts because she’s not taking any action, let her know that in a kind and tactful way.” Try something like: ‘It’s been so hard to watch this, and know how unhappy you are. Would it be okay if I emailed you the ideas I have?”
Limit and Schedule the Griping
You don’t want to silence your partner, of course, but dwelling on such a negative situation will inevitably do more harm than good for both of you. “Make it clear to your partner that you can only listen to so much complaining,” says Corlata Zee, Career Success Strategist. “Arrange a daily ‘griping session’ with her. She’s got 15 minutes to say whatever she wants, no questions asked. Then, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Finish the day and be done with it.’” Earnshaw agrees. “It’s important to set a boundary,” she says. “Doing so creates space from the issue, which allows you to let her know you want to listen to her attentively, but you also need time to decompress and have fun with her.”
Have an “Us Against Them” Attitude
“You have to let your partner know you’re on her side,” says Earnshaw. “Whatever happens, you have to let her know that you’ll be there. It’s really a matter of taking a stance that aligns with hers, and you can do this a number of ways.” Some of the more juvenile ideas — mocking her boss or annoying co-workers, or constructing a dartboard with the company logo on it — can help lighten the mood, albeit temporarily. “Even though it may be immature, sometimes mocking the boss along with her can de-escalate the situation while helping you bond,” says Earnshaw.
Ask Clarifying Questions
Earnshaw suggests using questions from the Gottman Method of couples therapy to help illuminate the specific whats, whys, and whos of your partner’s job woes. “Reduce your partner’s stress around the situation with these questions,” she says. “What’s most upsetting about work these days? What specifically don’t you like about it? How is it making you feel? What do you think you need to be in a better place? What’s the worst thing that can happen in this situation? Is there anything I can do to support you?” Asking these specific questions, which will lead to more in-depth conversations, helps people discuss their feelings fully, and feel more understood.
Start A Journal
According to Lynn Marie Morski, MD, Esq., author of Quitting by Design, and host of the Quit Happens podcast, a journal is the perfect way to pinpoint the source of your partner’s strife. “You need to figure out exactly what part of her day brings her from equanimity and a place of peace to a place of stress or anxiety,” she says. “Is it just the boss? The coworkers? The commute? Or, is it her entire career? Scan back over the day and help your partner write down any time she felt anxious, upset, angry, nervous, etc.”
A smaller issue — like a gnarly commute — could possibly be remedied by asking to work from home here and there. “For me, prior to quitting a startup I had co-founded, I noticed that, every time my email notification would go off, my stomach would drop,” says Dr. Morski. “The goal is to tune into those types of occasions, and decide whether the entire career needs to go. Or just the job. Or just your department. And so on.”
Set a Quit Date (To Plan Your Finances)
Hopefully quitting will fall somewhere near a last resort for your partner. Even still, it’s good to have a plan for the worst. So plan a quit date. Until that time, Dr. Morksi advises, you and your partner can see what it’s like living on a lower salary than you’re living on now. This strategy is helpful for two reasons. First, it will help you pare down what you actually need so that you can look for a certain salary range in a new job, and second, it will help build up a financial reserve in case finding a new job takes time. Dr. Morski also suggests analyzing month-to-month, taking into account how much you both spend in the winter versus the summer, for example, and how much reserve would suffice during your job hunt.
Don’t Just Suck It Up
“Rarely is there anything that you should have to ‘suck up’”, says Dr. Morski. “If your partner’s venting is driving you to dread, distress, anger, or annoyance, then it’s quite likely that her situation is starting to affect your mental health. Maybe even your physical health.” Dr. Morski advocates confronting the issue, in a calm, tactful way. “If your partner cares about you, she shouldn’t want to be negatively affecting your health. Have a calm discussion, but focus on the effects, rather than your partner’s actions. Try something like, ‘I understand you’re under a lot of stress from this job, and I’m always here for you to talk to, but the fact that I can’t do anything to help makes me feel useless. Would you be open to working together to make a plan to get you out of that job so you won’t be under so much stress anymore?’”