Dear Dr. Chani,
For the past year, I have suffered from a lot of stress at work. Although I am managing well at my job despite my stresses, I would love to be able to share them with my wife. However, I am not sure that she could handle it. This creates a lot of tension in our relationship on my end.
When it comes to my job, I know that I am good at what I do and I enjoy doing it. Yet, I have a very difficult boss and some challenging colleagues. My general impression is that I do not matter to them. I recently went through a review and I was looking forward to getting real feedback. Yet, I was insulted that my boss asked a person who does not even know me and my work to give me the review. Even though I was told I am doing a great job, it seemed hollow and artificial. Although it might be irrational, I continue to harbor a fear they will let me go.
My anxieties about work are hard for me to carry around all the time. I would really like to be able to go home to my wife and unwind by telling her about my worries. But my wife can get anxious, especially when it comes to finances. I am afraid that if I tell her about my uncertainties at work, then she will become nervous. That will make both of us anxious instead of just me. Instead of helping, I will make my situation even worse.
Very frankly, I am also hesitant to share it with my wife because I am not sure what she will think of me. I have a feeling that if I share the difficulties that I have at work with her, she will see me as incompetent.
How can I deal with my stress at work without hurting my wife or affecting our relationship?
Thanks for your help,
Your letter expresses a mixture of a desire for you to share with your wife and a need to keep things from her. It is important to explore why you are choosing not to confide in your wife. Sometimes, when we hold back from sharing our feelings, we intend to protect someone else, but we are also trying to protect ourselves. That might be part of what is happening here, too.
There are different ways that not sharing your work anxieties with your wife may protect you. One of the hesitations you describe about telling your wife about your stresses at work is that she might look down upon you. Although you mention this as a final point, your concern about upholding your perfect image in your wife’s eyes may be a significant source of the tension you feel. Although you want to be your true self with your wife and rely on her as a source of support, you would also like to protect the image she has of you as a confident breadwinner.
Another reason you might hesitate to share your work anxieties with your wife is that a part of you would love to imagine that your stresses at work do not exist. As long as you do not express your worries to your wife, on some level your struggles at work fade away the moment you walk into your front door. Although it might not make sense logically, your mind is caught in a battle between protecting yourself and sharing yourself. That can be another reason you are feeling the tension that you describe.
I am curious about your concern that you may cause your wife to have anxiety. Your decision to share your anxieties depends on the extent of your wife’s anxiety. It is possible that even though your wife expresses her own anxieties to you, it does not mean that she would not be able to listen to you and support you with your own challenges. In fact, her own experience with anxiety may help her empathize with you. It may be surprising to know that many couples find they do a dance together when it comes to the stress in their lives. They naturally take turns feeling anxious and stressed. When one partner feels overwhelmed, down and pessimistic, the other provides strength and support. Later, the supportive member of the couple becomes overtaken by the stress, but the first one is in a better emotional place to help the second one out. It is possible that you will discover such a pattern in your own relationship.
When you share with your wife, it is essential to think about how you share. If you have not discussed your work situation that much with your wife, it is best to share your feelings gradually. A car ride generally feels more stable when you slowly approach 60 MPH instead of going directly from 0-60. Similarly, if you go from no sharing to opening up completely, you can overwhelm both yourself and your wife. Your wife might find it hard to absorb so much information and emotion all at once. This can lead her to be unsure how to respond and it can create distance between the two of you instead of the closeness you desire. It is better for you to share a bit of what happens at work and allow your wife to think about it. It also allows you to test the waters and see how your conversations together go.
It also helps for you to describe your work situation to your wife as a shade of “grey” instead of “black and white.” You point out that you are talented at your job and you generally enjoy your work. This means that your work experience has some “white.” When you describe your work to your wife, try to convey the good along with the bad. Help her to see this balance so she can understand your adversities at work in a broader context.
Yet, if your wife has significant anxiety, you need to be extra cautious. You may consult with a therapist to navigate how to share your feelings with her in a way that helps you feel supported without overwhelming her. Or, if you are almost certain that your wife cannot be the one for you to share with, find someone else for you to talk to about it such as a colleague, mentor, friend or therapist.
Whether you choose to slowly share your work anxieties with your wife in a balanced way, or you find someone else you can confide in, I hope that you will be able to share your anxieties with someone else so that you do not walk this path alone and you feel understood and supported.
Wishing you much success,
Dr. Chani Maybruch is a social psychologist and relationship coach, specializing in teaching emotional connection and communication skills for over two decades. She coaches individuals and couples, teaches courses on how to become a master of relationships and provides free relationship resources at chanimaybruch.com. Learn a step-by-step method to improve your ability to emotionally connect with her new online course: The RELATE Technique™—Seven Steps to Emotionally Connect Through Conversation. Reach out to her at [email protected]