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6 Stress busters for working couples

6 Stress busters for working couples
When you're a couple who are both working while looking after children and a home, stress can ruin everything. Here are some stress busters from the RD Archives (February, 1992) that might help
I have a good job, a strong marriage and wonderful children,"says Amy Fillen. "But our family life is barely under control. We're all scheduled so tightly, everything is in danger of collapsing."

Amy, a 41-year-old teacher, lives with her husband, Don, a 42-year-old lawyer, and their two children—David, eight, and Catherine, three. When things run smoothly, Amy wakes her husband after showering, pours coffee into a thermos for the car and dashes out by 7.20am. Don gets the children up, makes their breakfast and drops them at school and the child-minder, then commutes to work.

After school, Amy picks the children up, drops David at his gymnastics class and goes home to make dinner. Then it's back to collect David. She keeps dinner warm until her husband arrives, or until David and Catherine get hungry. By the time the kids are asleep, Amy and Don are too tired to do more than collapse into bed.

Busy parents often multi-task, getting ready for work as they feed their kids. Credit: Paul Bradbury

Of course, things don't always run smoothly. With maddening frequency, one of the children is ill, a meeting runs late, or there is a traffic jam on the motorway. And every time, Amy and Don must juggle schedules and suffer two-career-couple stress. Sometimes they take out their frustrations on each other.

“We try not to let stress interfere with our relationship," Don says. "But it's impossible to excel at your job and be a good parent and spouse all at once. Sometimes the tensionoverwhelms us, and we snap."
Stress takes its toll on everyone, but two-career couples must contend with pressures unheard of a generation ago. It's difficult to have a home and a family without two incomes. Both people must work and share parental responsibilities. The collision of these dual commitments would challenge the coping skills of a saint—and most of us aren't saints.
"The collision of working and parental commitments would challenge the coping skills of a saint—and most of us aren't saints"
Alan Elkin, director of a stress management and counselling centre, says some two-career couples he works with talk only 15 minutes a day, mostly about domestic issues such as bill paying or child care. "They're so exhausted," he says, "they stop planning the things that make their relationship fun."
Less sex is often the first sign of stress two-career couples notice, but other symptoms precede it: irritability, impatience, loss of humour, sleep problems, increased use of alcohol or drugs, and a general feeling that life just isn't enjoyable any more. "If you don't have fun out of bed," Elkin explains, "it's difficult to have fun in bed."
What's an overstressed couple to do? Here's what experts suggest:

1. Make a list

"Most people think they know what bothers their spouse," Elkin says, "but often they don't." Take half an hour to list the things that irritate you. Then compare lists. You might be surprised. Next, divide your lists in two—things you can change and things you can't.
If you're bothered by phone calls during dinner, buy an answering machine and record your messages. If you get annoyed when you ring home and get an engaged tone, upgrade to a "call waiting" service. Above all, remember the prayer used at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

2. Review your budget

Knowing how you're spending your money can reduce stress. Credit: megaflopp
How much money do you really need? "Maybe both of you don't have to work full time," says stress-management specialist Richard Friedman. "You might not be able to afford that new car or exotic holiday. But it's quite possible you'll both feel happier."
Debbie Schuster, a 30-year-old lawyer, found that attending law school left her too little time with her husband, Dan, and their infant son, Jamie. After graduation, she opted to work part time. "I still wish I could see Jamie more," she says, "but part-time employment works for us financially, and it's the best compromise between family and career."
What if both spouses must work full time to make ends meet? Keeping a record of expenditure can provide significant stress relief. Karen Hammer, a 47-year-old swimming instructor, pays the family's bills, but her husband, Frank, gets tense unless he knows where the money goes. In a notebook, Karen lists all the monthly outlays, from mortgage and car payments to gifts and eating out. "It helps to see how the money's spent," she says. "We feel less anxious."

3. Set priorities

Suppose you've arranged to go to the cinema with a friend, but your spouse asks you to stay in with the children because she was invited unexpectedly to a work-related dinner. Whose activity is more important? "Any scheduling change is stressful," Friedman says," but changes don't cause stress when both of you agree on priorities. Problems arise when reasons are vague—when one spouse tells the other, 'Something's come up. Change your plans'. Who wouldn't resent being ordered around like that?"
"Professional responsibilities often take precedence, but it's crucial to give highest priority to each other's crises and support each other"
Professional responsibilities often take precedence, but it's crucial to give highest priority to each other's crises. "A key function of relationships is mutual support," says psychiatry and behavioural sciences professor David Jenkins. "Tell colleagues if your spouse calls and says 'It's important' to interrupt you no matter what."

4. Re-evaluate responsibilities

Distributing household chores fairly is very important to reduce stress. Credit: simonapilolla
Take a hard look at work, family and outside commitments. What can you drop, share or delegate? Perhaps a colleague can compile part of the report that you're working on. Maybe you can share lifts so you don't have to drive the children to every football practice. And how about reconsidering that committee chairmanship? Be especially fair about distributing household chores. List everything that needs to be accomplished, then negotiate a division you both agree is equitable.
"Time at home is precious to two-career couples. Try not to get bogged down in drudgery," Friedman advises. "If your budget allows, consider hiring help. Employ a local teenager to do the garden. Line up someone to do the cleaning."

5. Carve out time for closeness

"Spouses often give each other the dregs of the day," Elkin says. "Get together when you have energy to spare.
"If you're tired in the evening, plan to meet for lunch. Check concert and theatre listings, and buy tickets in advance. Plan days off together.
Mary Swift, a 35-year-old legal assistant, and her optometrist husband, Thomas, placed a Saturday-night sitter on retainer with two other families. The couples agree to pay her for four hours at half the going rate, whether or not they use her services. They come out ahead even if they skip a week, and the sitter gains a guaranteed income without waiting for the phone to ring.
"Plan for sex because it's a myth that the 'best' sex is spontaneous and many two-career couples are too busy for spontaneity"
Make exercise a part of your routine. Go for a walk together. Play tennis. Sign up for a dance class. Exercise produces changes in the body that can elevate mood and relieve stress.
Most important, plan for sex. It's a myth that the "best" sex is spontaneous. Besides, many two-career couples are so busy they can't do anything spontaneously. If they don't make sex dates, they don't make love. "Planning usually improves the experience," says therapist Louanne Cole. "It creates time for mood-enhancing things like kissing in front of a roaring fire, bathing together or giving each other massages."

6. Do the unexpected

Surprising your partner with a surprise cooked meal at home is a great idea. Credit: Jean-philippe WALLET
Couples often fall into a rut and don't take the initiative to improve things. "I frequently ask," Elkin explains, "'What could you do immediately that your spouse would really appreciate?' When they tell me, I urge them to do it. Nice surprises are always a step in the right direction."
"Surprise" means breaking the mould. If you usually mark special occasions with a restaurant dinner, leave work early and cook a special meal at home. Or astonish your spouse by doing something she says you "never do." Call that country hotel you've been meaning to try.
Who knows? Once you've reinforced your relationship to withstand the two-career hurricane, you may be able to juggle crises at work, battle rush-hour traffic, arrive home to find a bounced cheque and cranky children—and still have energy to crack jokes and suggest an intimate interlude with that special someone who's also had a long and trying day.

From the RD Archives (February, 1992)
CONDENSED FROM PREVENTION (JUNE 1991), ©1991 RODALE PRESS. INC, EMMAUS, PENNSYLVANIA. WITH ADDITIONS BY THE AUTHOR.

Banner image: A stressed and busy working couple with children. Credit: yacobchuk
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