Long days, long evenings, jammed weekends. So much time devoted to obligations, and so little attention focused on the relationships that count. Does that sound familiar?
A few months back, beyond sharing conversation over dinner — admittedly distracted while doing so — I wasn’t able to spend much time with the man in my life. I was swamped by competing tasks, including responsibilities to my family and to my clients. The only option was to buckle down and keep pushing, often through 14-hour days, one after another.
Sometimes I would rise while my guy was still asleep. Other times, I was going to bed two or three hours before he woke to start his day, beginning my own shortly after. This continued for six or seven weeks.
Conflict of Interest?
Here is my recurring challenge: I have plenty of experience when it comes to pushing through tough periods like this; it is part and parcel of a freelancer’s lifestyle and was, throughout the years I was raising my children as a single mother. My boys were accustomed to this rhythm. Good or bad, it’s likely the only rhythm they will remember.
But a romantic partner has different expectations, even if he says he understands. A 50-hour or 60-hour work week is one thing; 80 hours, quite another.
The result of so intense a workload, especially when you live together?
When I have to put in extended hours for a prolonged period, I cannot meet my partner’s expectation of attention. It is not unreasonable to assume time for talks, time for shared meals, time for social activities as a couple, and private time. But with crazy, irregular hours, something – or someone – will be neglected. And that means patience strains and communication falters.
And if you’re the one putting in all those hours? The conflicts will pull at you; but you make the choices you feel you must.
Expectations in Relationships
When we begin a job, we typically start from job descriptions, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities. We understand what is expected. As for our expectations in relationships, we tend to leave them open-ended, unexamined, or unarticulated; we don’t think this through, as if love will magically make everything okay.
We may exchange words on schedules and logistics, and even schedule sex when “life” squeezes spontaneity out of the picture. But what about attentiveness? The seemingly simple act of paying attention?
We don’t want to take the romance out of our romances, but assuming everything will be fine is a bad call. Ditto on assuming your spouse or loved one will understand. As I think about it, benign neglect is like a tacit violation of an unspoken contract in emotional give-and-take, and one in which we don’t explicitly discuss the terms. Instead, if we don’t get attention, we internalize, we pout, we ignore, we self-anesthetize, we get sick, we get angry, we detach.
Naturally, none of this is healthy for the relationship. We know we can’t negotiate everything in advance; we can’t possibly predict the unknown. Something as straightforward as a six-week period in which 14-hour or 16-hour work days are the norm seems as if it would be weathered easily. But if you’re the one expected to look on from the sidelines?
Should we have negotiated the details of my unavailability? Is my preoccupation with work interpreted as emotional distance? Should I communicate better or differently? Should I reset boundaries?
Even as I consider these options, I realize I could have adjusted expectations by stating “It’s likely that my next several weeks are going to mean very long days and weekends. I want you know that. And I expect to be done on this date.”
And if I couldn’t meet the due date? Then what?
I suppose I could sweeten the message by prefacing it with this: I love you. But does that really help?
During this period, there was an evening when a phone call came in and I spent 20 minutes listening and nodding — yes, the call interrupted my schedule, but it was an important connection I need to maintain — my generally patient partner was miffed. I gave a phone call more time than I had given him over dinner.
I was exasperated. “I’m up against difficult deadlines and I’m going around the clock,” I said.
Hours later, it occurred to me that my schedule was less apparent than I thought. He was asleep when I was checking my cell phone for emails at 1 am, and again at 5 or 6; he was asleep on the weekend when I dragged myself up hours before he woke, and I settled in front of my laptop. He wasn’t entirely aware of the hours I was working. Likewise, I wasn’t fully cognizant of how hurtful it can be on the receiving end of so little.
Empathy, Clarity, Reality
As for my deadlines, fortunately, they’re behind me. I’m back to something more acceptable, and I hope I can stick to it. I’m clear on the distance that results when I’m cranking through 14-hour days. At the very least, if I anticipate a need to do so again, I should put myself in my partner’s shoes, try to set expectations, but also remember what is most important in life — relationships that last; the people we consider family.
I won’t say there weren’t moments when a modest measure of guilt tripping slipped out — on his part and on mine. But clarity, as I was in the final stretch and communicating my progress, helped me feel less guilty that I wasn’t pulling my weight with domestic tasks, that I wasn’t chatty over dinner, that I was immersed in work throughout five consecutive weekends.
While I don’t believe that we should change ourselves for someone we love, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the observations of those closest to us, take their expectations into account, and compromise when it’s possible. When I’m deep in my projects and butting up against a deadline, I’m not amenable to discussion. Besides, I can be dreadful at compromise when immersed in my work! Shall we say… there’s plenty of room for improvement on that score?
Happily, the crazy period is done — for now. But my reality does include assignments that require pulling out all the stops, and meeting commitments is a matter of the need to earn my keep. The question is — how to survive these periods without testing our relationships?
Do you keep a different schedule from your spouse or your partner? When you’re both under pressure at work, does the relationship suffer? Are you good at communicating through challenging periods?
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