Vital Relations: Couples and Colleagues

This title may prompt thoughts about life-work balance. And some, tiring of the same old debates on this subject, will say, “Get over it! There is no such thing.” Not to worry, we’ll be setting that quarrel aside. Rather, we’re going to consider some vital, normative life-work connections.


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For many of us it seems best to keep work and life outside of work separated by a clear boundary. This boundary is defined in part by distinct personal priorities. We take both domains seriously and consider what we owe to others in both parts of life. The cross-cutting themes and connecting tissues that make common claims upon us are relational and moral, for what we owe consists of an ethic of care. 

Viewed this way, we can find advantages to the separation and interconnection of life spheres. Stepping away from situations and then returning after some interval and change of scene can refresh our ways of seeing things. It’s called an incubation effect because in the transitional time and space between roles and places new perspectives and possibilities are born – particularly helpful in problem solving. 

However, there is also a continuity of responsibilities of care. We are one and the same person who hears and relates to others, who finds ourself in quarrels that strain relationships. In both interpersonal arenas our ways of attending, responding, and communicating help to repair strained relations. And in both trust, empathy, and a willingness to bear the tension of working through difference is essential. 


There is a fortunate convergence of mature forces that we experience when our exercise of work and nonwork roles and relationships are grounded in the ethic of care. It is all the easier to leave others feeling heard and respected, which relieves them of the felt necessity to raise their voice or marshal aggressive energies to be recognized and make their point. 

In both domains of life there are times when we must persevere and “bite our tongue.” Emotional self-management skills grow all the faster. Skills of attending and noticing spikes in reactive emotion in self or others grow in ease and competence. And perhaps most important of all the gains, we become more integrated human beings. And that conveys authenticity to others. 

Take a Moment to Reflect

I encourage you to consider this brief reflection on relationships. How are they working for you, at home, with significant others? And how are they working with colleagues at work? What do you struggle with at home and at work? What have you learned about working through difficult issues and repairing strains? Are you more or differently attentive to the ethic of care at work or at home? 

Our lives can feel so rushed, at times so chaotic and without boundaries. And in a disordered life it’s harder to realize an ethic of care. Of course, we’ll never live this ethic perfectly. The key is to gain an awareness of growing strain and disorder, not to judge ourselves harshly for our imperfections. For then, we can use this awareness as a call to pause, breathe, knowing we can always begin again.