I know at least three couples who have split up recently because of work. No cheating, no fighting, but rather one or both parties in the relationship burying themselves in their careers to the point of letting everything else around them slip away. It's been a sad thing to observe. However, when I mention in conversations that these splits happened, not to desk jockeys in some giant, cubicle-filled corporation, but to people who are creating a career out of something they're passionate about, somehow the mood changes. "Oh", they say, "Well, if you're following your dreams..."
What's the completion of that thought? If you're following your dreams, it's okay to let your relationship disintegrate? That being passionate about work means that you sacrifice yourself completely? I don't buy it.
Sacrificing your relationship for your career sounds noble and romantic from the outside, but the reality is that it can create a pattern of self-destruction that will ultimately burn you out on the career you've worked so hard to build. It's a trap, and for some, an easy way out of having to maintain relationships under stress.
Anyone who tells you "You have to be single to be a _______" is wrong. That doesn't mean that the person you're with as you climb your career ladder is the best person for you, the person you must stay with, it just means that having a great career and a great relationship at the same time is not impossible.
And since I'm a freelance writer/comedy producer married to a comedian, and therefore have some personal thoughts on the matter, I am here to offer you eight tips on how to not let work be the reason for your split.
1. Determine if this relationship is worth the maintenance, or if you'd rather pursue only your career.
This is one of the most difficult steps to take, but it's the most important. You have to make the decision to fight for a relationship, and if you can't find the fight in you, cut the ties now rather than trying to limp along, faking it.
2. Have a talk with your partner about what you are and aren't willing to sacrifice for your career, and come to an agreement.
The truth is that you will have to sacrifice certain things if you're working towards a promotion/starting a business/launching yourself in a new field, so be honest: How important are dinners together? How important is sleeping together, or going to sleep at the same time? When is it okay for laptops to be on in the house, and when is it not okay? If you're going to be late, what is the protocol? You might learn some things about what your partner values in your relationship (watching a movie with no Blackberry/laptop action may not mean anything to you, but may mean a lot to him/her), and by setting those boundaries, you'll feel like your lives are more under your control. Write this list out and re-evaluate it often.
3. Don't treat your partner as the thing you do when you're not working.
This is very important. Having your partner see you fret and obsess over work can sting if they don't see you putting similar mental effort into time with you. Even if you have to fake it, even if it adds to your stress level some days, make the effort to make your partner feel as if the night at home with you is just as valuable as the workday. Because you don't want to wait until it's gone to realize that they both are equally valuable.
4. Keep your rituals intact and important
I'm a huge believer in rituals as the easiest and loveliest way to express your connection to another human being. Whether it's visiting a pet store to pet puppies, taking a walk to get ice cream, singing a "have a good flight" song as you board a plane, texting each other what meals you're eating--there are millions of things you can establish with a partner that are shortcuts to saying "I love you, and am thinking about you." Don't go overboard in setting up elaborate rituals that may only fail as things get busy--just make them heartfelt and consistent.
5. Get involved in your partner's career, and have your partner get involved in yours.
My husband and I think of our individual careers as things, separate from us, that we have created together (bonus: this helps us to not blame each other when work things come up--it's not us, it's our stupid careers that need feeding). We solicit each others' advice constantly, from large decisions down to how to word certain sentences. We have the option of deferring if we're too busy to help out, but for the most part, we like being involved in those decisions. It helps us to feel connected and to appreciate what the other person is going through.
6. Communicate your needs.
It's easy to isolate yourself when you're buried in work, or to rely only on work friends for empathy. And while your work friends will always "get it" more than your life partner, they don't know how to comfort you like your partner does. If you've had a busy, hectic day, be honest-- tell your partner that you need to decompress by, a) sitting quietly on the balcony together b) having a night of distraction, c) getting a backrub, d) playing video games alone. If there's household business to be dealt with that one person wants to handle immediately and the other person can't handle, say so, and request that the topic be revisited in an hour. Just remember, being busy in your career does not exclude you from the task of comforting your partner if he/she has had a bad day.
And on that note--if you're the person in the relationship whose partner is focused on work, please advocate for yourself, and please remember that your problems and thoughts are just as important as the other person's career. Putting yourself behind your partner's career can lead to you feeling abandoned and resentful, without ever giving your partner a chance to improve.
7. Have a safe word, and don't overuse it.
Sit down with your partner and come up with a word or phrase that, when uttered, means the following: It is incredibly, vitally important to me that you stop the work you're doing and focus on us. I don't ask this of you often, but I'm asking it of you now. Do not use the safe word unless you absolutely must, but it's important to set up because it tells the career-driven partner that he/she will never have to wonder if leaving work is of grave importance, and it tells the other partner that they have the power, that they still mean more than any career.
(Full disclosure: ours is "Ghost Protocol", and we've never had to use it.)
8. For every one thing you do for your career outside of normal, day-to-day tasks, do one thing for your relationship.
This is a good, concrete tip to help you keep track of who's winning--your career or your relationship. If you set up an evening meeting, make breakfast with your partner the next day. If you have to catch up on emails on a Saturday, do a household chore. It not only makes your partner feel valued, but it will help you to realize that making a meal with the person you love is just as important as any meeting--both are tasks that should make you feel fulfilled.
The work/love relationship can be a beautiful symbiotic cycle, because to do all of the things listed above, you need to find within yourself hidden stores of energy and compassion- something that can be hard to do when you're working a lot. Your partner is there to supply you with that energy and compassion. Balanced, passionate, grounded people are the ones whose careers are ultimately the most successful.
The benefits of a healthy, thriving relationship may not be nearly as exciting as watching your career take off, but both aspects of your life are equally important.