Work is hard. Even when you love what you do, your job — any job — has its share of stress. Sure, you may come home from work worn out physically, but often the strains you feel are mental, emotional or even relational.
Even in the best jobs, the pay might not seem worth the long hours, and every boss and co-worker has a few irritating habits. Inevitably we bring some of those work-related pressures home with us.
Sixty-one percent of Americans cited work as a top source of stress, according to the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America Survey. When we clock out, stress stays with us and can cause unhappiness in our relationships.
Worse yet, that stress often feeds a vicious cycle. When we’re stressed, we lash out or neglect the folks closest to us: our spouses and kids. That makes the supposed safe haven of home a stress-filled zone itself, which then only intensifies the challenges we have at work.
These challenges can be particularly stressful for men, who often tie their identity directly to what they do. And providing for their families is deeply embedded in their DNA. When they feel work-related stress, it touches an almost existential nerve. It can go beyond just a particularly stressful day and feed lingering feelings of insecurity and failure.
I’ve gone through moments, even seasons, of difficulties at work. I experience fear and doubt, wondering if I will be able to provide for my family. Rationally, I know that my identity shouldn’t be based on what I do but on my relationship to Christ. I’ve memorized Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” My head comprehends this truth, but my heart has a hard time getting the message.
But I’m blessed with a wise, understanding wife. Erin practices several methods that have helped me navigate these work-related challenges over the years. And if you’re the wife of a stressed-out husband, maybe these tips will work for you, too.
1. Try not to take his stress personally. You could easily feel like you’re walking on eggshells when your stressed-out husband returns home from work. And in some ways, it’s only natural to become angry or feel hurt when he snaps at you because of a work-related problem. To do what I’m about to tell you is tough! But we’re all called to show grace in our marriage, and one aspect of that grace is to see through your husband’s rough exterior — the moodiness, anger, fear, complaining — and focus on what God sees.
What’s at the heart of your husband? In those difficult moments, you can give a little gift to your husband by looking past how he’s reacting right then and concentrating on who he’s been over the course of your life together. This helps keep your heart open and allows you to actively listen as he vents about his work frustrations.
2. Help him identify the deeper issue. There’s almost always a deeper issue at play. Though it wasn’t specifically work-related, Erin uncovered one of my underlying issues during an interaction at the start of a vacation to Los Angeles, a trip that didn’t begin anything like the family Hallmark moment I was hoping for.
It had already been a stressful first day, and it wasn’t even noon yet. We’d battled crowds at every turn — at the airport, the rental car shuttle and, of course, the jam-packed LA freeways. When we arrived at the hotel, I was exhausted. I wanted to get out of the car and into the hotel pool.
But Erin was hungry and she didn’t want to eat at the hotel restaurant because there were limited gluten-free options. She suggested we find someplace else.
I did not respond well.
“Why are you biting my head off?” Erin asked. “I just want something to eat.”
Fine, I thought. You want something to eat? We’ll get something to eat. I growled at everyone to get back in the car and stopped at the first Denny’s we saw. I sat in silence, and everyone else did, too. It was an awkward moment for all of us — including our poor waitress.
Finally, Erin broached the topic. “I know your reaction wasn’t about me being hungry,” she said gently. “What was that really about?”
I had no idea.
In between taking bites of my Lumberjack Slam, I talked with Erin, and she helped me figure out why I had snapped. The chaos of flying and being responsible for driving our family to the airport, managing luggage, renting a car and negotiating the congested freeways had overwhelmed me. I was worn out from having to make multiple decisions in a frenzied environment. Trying to figure out a new plan for a meal had pushed me over the edge.
This didn’t excuse my poor behavior, but it helped me understand what was really going on.
When your husband is acting stressed and peevish, you can help him identify what’s really going on the way Erin helped me. Is he feeling overwhelmed at work? Underappreciated? Incompetent? When he snaps at you, is he really worried about not being an adequate provider? Upset he didn’t get a promotion? It could be any number of emotional stressors that are infiltrating your home life.
3. Empathize over the real issue. Once you help pinpoint the real issue, show some empathy for his frustration and hurt. Remember, sympathy is feeling bad for someone. Empathy is feeling bad with someone. It’s putting yourself in his shoes — seeing his world through his eyes and feeling his pain.
In LA, Erin instantly acknowledged my frustration and how I felt overwhelmed from making decisions. “I never thought about how many decisions you have to make when we travel,” she said while grabbing my hand. “I love traveling with you because I don’t have to think about anything. You always do such a great job planning our trips. Thank you. I’m sorry that you felt alone in that process.”
4. Let him know that you support him and believe in him. I mentioned earlier that stress at work can touch on deeper insecurities and issues, particularly about the future we want to give our spouses and families. Will we be OK if I quit my job? He might be thinking. Do we have enough savings to carry us until I find something else? What if I don’t find something else? These are alarming questions, and we shouldn’t pretend they aren’t. Acknowledge and accept your own insecurity and uncertainty. This will help you to continue to keep your heart open.
Behind all those questions lurks an even deeper one: Do I have what it takes to be successful? As your husband struggles at work, Satan is going to prey upon this fear. He is going to try to deceive your husband and convince him that he doesn’t have what it takes.
You have an opportunity to encourage your husband with affirming words: “I believe in you.” “I trust you.” “God has an amazing plan for your life and our family.” “We’re in this together, and I’m with you heart and soul.” You can then decide together what next steps are needed.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author of several books.
Based on research and experience from Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley, Focus on the Family has created valid and reliable questions that evaluate the strength of your marriage. Take our free assessment now.