life-work balance

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. 

Exhausted from trying too hard?


Ceaseless striving is a sign that we've lost perspective. It's marked by growing fatigue. And regaining perspective frees us from this exhausting state. We acquire a considered view of life, our situation, and the surrounding world. No longer swallowed up in frantic activity, we recognize that we've lost our bearings.

In this light, perspective-taking merits the status of a vital practice in life. But to maximize its effects, it should be a mindful perspective-taking. That implies holding our experience in balanced awareness, neither pushing it away nor clutching it too closely. Either of those mind states remain too much in the grip our striving mind.

Having observed this, let's acknowledge that the idea is beautifully simple in concept, but often so much more difficult in practice. The mind of an achievement-oriented person is a particularly busy and distracting source of desires, impulses, and ruminations. So mindful perspective-taking will always only occur with deliberate intent and practice.

Exhaustion: A 2 X 4 for the Professional

As with many practical virtues, the achievement drive has a dark side. We can over-learn goal-directedness, forward thinking, and a never-give-up work ethic. They're adaptive and serve developmental purposes up to a point. So, they can become ingrained in our habits of thought, feeling, and action. And we must then learn to notice when this drive runs amok.

That's where exhaustion becomes our friend. It alerts us to an approaching inflection point. Even before it becomes exhaustion, growing levels of stress, strain, and fatigue register as warning signs if we pause to notice them. If we "heroically" minimize or deny them, we may just drive right over the cliff. It's the storied hubris of tragic endings - a lack of humility.

But you don't need to do it all yourself. In fact, others often notice the signs before you do. Your spouse, partner, co-workers witness the "decompensating" effects of stress, strain, and fatigue that result from a protracted period of ceaseless striving. So, we must learn to listen, to tap into their observations with curiosity and patience, formally and informally.

But no matter how smart and accomplished we are, there are times when it seems that all that will get our attention is the proverbial 2 X 4-in-the-head experience. A conspicuous failure or an embarrassing experience of overreacting - that's learning the hard way. It's not what I would wish for anyone, but it is survivable. And it's also avoidable.

From Afflictive to Skillful Emotion

Afflictive emotions are those that "have us." Skillful emotions are those that "we have." The former are intense enough to overwhelm our capacity for seeing things as they are and might be. They underlie and energize the drive run amok. And the way they are disarmed is not by avoiding, denying, or minimizing them, but by seeing and exploring them.

We do that by processing them and noticing that it is our relationship to them that is toxic and self-limiting. We are feeling breathless, embattled, afraid. So stop, breathe, lay down your arms. You will see that your enemy's posture, size, and proximity change too. You can unilaterally effect a moment of peace. Now, start afresh, reappraise the situation.

It may be possible to do this on your own, but if you're feeling "real" stuck, and if the history and habits are longer and run deeper, it may be helpful to do this in dialogue with a professional. Give yourself the care and attention you might usually reserve for those you most love and care about. Let others be there with you and for you.

If exhaustion brings you to this point, it truly is your friend.