May 26, 2019

Having it All—the Career-Relationship Balancing Act

career-relationshipbalanceOne night Jean got home from work after a late meeting. It was 7:30 and she assumed the kids would be fed, bathed, and that her eldest would have his homework done. She’d grabbed a sandwich at the local bodega and was looking forward to sitting down to eat it after reading a story to her children before bed.

She walked into… a different reality altogether. The two youngest children were standing in the kitchen peering into the fridge. Her spouse, Lem, was at his desk in the living room, poring over blueprints and fielding calls from clients. Her son Mark—10 years old—was in front of the TV. Jean turned off the TV, got Mark on task, cleaned up, fed the kids, got them into their baths. When everyone was in bed, she wrote a note on a post-it and shoved it under Lem’s nose. It said, “Get off the phone now and rub my back or I’m leaving you.”

Dramatic? Yes. But Jean had enough of the not-so-balanced balancing act of work and home, relationship and kids, self and other. Meanwhile Lem had left work early to pick up the kids from school but had to finish his project or he would be in big trouble. “I told Mark to do his homework!” he proclaimed. Jean thought, “Where has this guy been?”

Things could have escalated quickly for Jean and Lem, but they kept their sense of humor, and they realized something had to be done to nail that balancing act once and for all, before things fell apart. Neither of them wanted that.

“I can’t always be the one to pick up the slack,” Jean explained.

Lem confided, “I am never sure what I’m supposed to do. I can’t multi-task.”

They started having conversations. They hired more help. They made sure to go out once a week, just the two of them. They kept work at work, and home life took priority when they were home.

So is it possible? Can a couple, with or without kids, find that perfect place, that sweet spot where the vibrant career and the fulfilling love relationship both stay on track?

Yes. It might sound like a fairy tale, but it isn’t. It takes more hard work than a fairy tale does, and it is much more real!

The idea, in a nutshell: you need to be 100% all the time, no matter where you are. You have to commit to your own self-care.100%. To your spouse or partner. 100%. And to your job. 100%.

But not all at the same time. What Lem did not realize is that no one can multi-task. Recent studies have proven that trying to multi-task minimizes productivity, hurts people, and is actually impossble! Solution: when you are making pancakes, make pancakes. Don’t try to talk to a client, braid your daughter’s hair, or make a grocery list at the same time. Maybe have a nice lighthearted chat with your spouse or child—that’s it. Or focus on the Zen of pancakes—even better.

How does this translate to keeping the balance between, say, career and love?

Read on.

Let’s start with the basics.

Prioritize. For many people, family trumps work. If your kid is in the emergency room, you leave your meeting. Others might leave the ER to go to an important meeting. You never know. But the main thing is: figure out what your priorities are and you will eliminate guilt and stress. If you have no children, and are at the beginning of a demanding career, you may choose to prioritize work and hope your partner understands. The ebb and flow of life means that priorities change over time. Be honest with yourself and your partner.

Be in partnership. If one of you does all the heavy lifting, it won’t work. Jean was in danger of martyring herself that night when she worked late AND did everything else too. She knew she had to get Lem on board so it did not fall on her alone, or vice versa. When your partner has to work late and you don’t, make dinner AND do the dishes. It will be your turn soon enough.

Create time for the relationship. Very few people are in danger of neglecting their work commitments—the consequences can be harsh and immediate. Loss of income, demotion, unemployment. Oddly, however, many of us neglect our relationships. We take them for granted and seem unaware of the consequences of such neglect. The slow erosion of intimacy, trust, friendship, support may not be obvious at first but it will happen. You need to make time for each other. Make that time a priority and then be there 100%.

Be present. As I said above–when you are with your partner, be completely present. Don’t check work or personal email, silence your phones, and make sure your partner knows he/she is more important than text messages from colleagues…or even your boss. Make the mental and physical shift from work to home. 

Have fun. Seriously. We forget! Schedule fun by going on date nights, planning long weekends, or just taking a walk—the two of you by yourselves. You can take the dog but leave the four kids at home with grandma once in a while.

Beyond the basics we have two categories that are also important. Communication and self-care.

Talk! Open up a dialogue about what you expect, hope for, or foresee as your work, personal, and relationship goals. Reading minds is a super cool trick, but a lot of us are not that good at it yet. So tell each other what you are thinking. What a relief it is to know! If you are or are not on the same page, at least you have a starting place. With luck you’ll be able to create a mutually satisfying agreement with your partner for relationship goals and then celebrate those milestones!

Self-care. Another key survival tool we often forget. No matter how busy or overwhelmed your life is, you are not doing any of it justice if you’re not at your best. That’s just facts. If you are tired, stressed, eating badly—everything else in your life suffers, including productivity at work, friendships, personal health, and—often the most shattering—relationships. Whatever you need to do to make all that other stuff fall into place, do it. Meditation, yoga, Zumba, racketball, hiking, massages, manicures, Italian cooking classes… whatever!

Alone time. Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert—everyone needs alone time. During that time, relax, read, sleep—but also look inside and feel how you’re doing. The answer resides in your body if you will be quiet and listen… and feel… what is going on.

When it comes to work-relationship balance, you don’t want either to overshadow the other. If you can’t focus at work because of the drama in your relationship, something is off. If you can’t get through a dinner with your partner without having a call from work, boundaries are being crossed and balance lost. (Remember this hilarious scene from Two Weeks Notice?)

The ebb and flow of life means that at times work will take up more time—during a big project, for example. Other times, family life can intervene and may take you away from work. But most of the time shoot for the balance: When you are at work, work, giving it your full attention. When you are off duty—leave work behind.

Your career is important, of course. Your professional life provides income, lifestyle, fulfillment, and often a sense of identity. But at the end of life, no one ever says they wish they’d worked more. Never. Keep that in mind, and the parts of your life in perspective.



  1. This is awesome – no multitasking, only prioritizing. That’s the real deal.

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