Not Just a Hired Hand: Staying Connected Through the Overwhelm

Not Just a Hired Hand: Staying Connected Through the Overwhelm

Many of the couples I see in my office are married, with dual incomes and one or more children.  The majority of them are overwhelmed by their work and parenting demands, sometimes to the point of hopelessness.  Theirs may be a first-world problem, but it’s the reality for many American couples today.  

With so much stress bearing down on a couple, it can be hard to remain feeling close and well connected.

In this blog entry, I’ll look at the overwhelm, and try to describe how it impacts relationships.  Next time, I’ll get specific with ideas for concrete steps a couple can take to shore up a protective barrier around their relationship, and get -- and stay -- securely connected.

As a married, working mother myself, with two kids, I can easily relate to the feelings my clients tell me about, of rarely “getting ahead,” but constantly trying just to keep up with the basics at home:  keeping everyone well fed; staying on top of the barrage of correspondence that flows into our inboxes every day from schools, camps, extra-curriculars, and the town; paying bills on time; trying to learn each new technological tool as it becomes available; getting everyone to the doctor and dentist as needed; and on and on. 

Work life, too, seems to have become more demanding over time for most.  My clients’ jobs run the gamut from nurses’ aides to professors, from dentists to cops to funeral directors;  for all of them, job expectations to accomplish more (and faster), and to be “on-call” around the clock via texts and emails, seem to have increased.

Kids’ lives have also become more emotionally complicated, and parents are scrambling to keep up. Especially stressful can be the need to manage kids’ use of screens and social networking, often when we parents feel clueless about how to do so, never having been through this ourselves, as kids, and having no manual or experienced elder to turn to for advice and instruction.

Add in a particularly difficult child, an illness, a needy parent or sibling, financial worries, or a demanding ex-spouse.  And perhaps then add in work travel; now there’s a whole extra level of need for cooperation, organization, and planning around running the family.  

Some of the relationship symptoms I see arising from this snarl of work and parenting stress are the shifts towards minimal sex, romance, and fun; practically no “re-charging” time or activities.  If individual stress-related symptoms develop as well -- such as flare-ups of insomnia, headaches, or back pain; return of depression; increase in anxiety; more pot smoking; or more drinking -- the relationship burden can become even heavier.  

Typically, interactions start becoming more confined to talking (or arguing) about household chores.  Partners start regarding each other’s main purpose as to carry out tasks, and can get less attuned to the emotional life of the other person.  Countless clients have announced, “I feel like all I am is a hired hand!”  At home, the hurt can easily morph into anger, bickering ensues, and couples can start viewing each other as enemies. 

I realize my sample is skewed:  the couples who come to see me in my office are the ones having problems.  But what I’m listening for, and noticing, is that the type and multitude of problems have expanded over the years.  Couples look and sound more harried, wild-eyed, and frazzled than in years past. Even in those couples I know personally who are not therapy-seeking, I notice this same trend of overwhelm.  I’m struck by how wiped out so many of us are, even across the socioeconomic boundaries. It has always been hard to maintain a strong and enduring romantic relationship, but modern life is taking its toll on couples in distinct and added ways.

My clients say to me, “When are we supposed to find time to connect?  It’s all we can do to come home after work and get dinner out, help with homework, put a load of laundry in, and answer emails.  Sex?  Forget it.  Too tired.  Talking together to de-brief about our day?  When?? I don’t even have time to breathe, let alone time to check in with my partner.”  

And so couples become disconnected.  Each longs for the other to see just how hard life feels, and to reach out and offer acknowledgement, gratitude, comfort, and help -- somehow finding a way to relieve the burden a bit -- but of course that’s what the other partner wants too, and at the same time, so ultimately neither feels they’re getting what they want, and each can end up feeling alone and unhappy.

But there is hope.  I’m not only noticing when couples are overwhelmed, but also what seems to help: when couples don’t blame each other for all this stress, but stand united, arm in arm, together facing their stressful lives and helping each other cope.  There are specific ways to do so;  I look forward to sharing some of those with you next time so that you and your partner can re-connect and start seeing each as the other’s safe haven once again. 

Suzanne Marcus