Often when a married or long-term couple break up, it seems to come out of the blue for one of the two people.
The shocked person might say “I knew things weren’t perfect, but I didn’t realize s/he was that unhappy.” When you’re busy, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. You might be so focused on keeping up with your workload, that you become blind to your partner’s signals that they need your attention. Or you hear these calls but tune them out.
Here are specific mistakes busy people sometimes make and achievable, evidence-based solutions.
1. Using the justification “I’m doing this for my family.”
Let’s say you’re working long hours because you’re starting a business, or you’re taking night classes in addition to your day job. It’s understandable to think, “I’m ignoring my family now, but what I’m doing will have huge benefits in the long run. Therefore it’s ok.” Even when your motivation is to provide for your family, it’s important not to use this as a blanket justification for ignoring their needs in the present. It can be difficult to repair relationships if you ignore them for too long.
Solution: Recognize that time you invest in your relationship is an investment just like the time you spend working or studying. When it comes to love, the best investments of your time are typically those that show you are emotionally responsive, accessible, and engaged. Take a look at this quiz. The questions are things like “My partner shows me that I come first with him/her. True/False.” How do you think your partner would answer? If you’re brave, ask them to complete the questionnaire. If they answer any questions as false, talk about simple ways you could move to true. Don’t dispute their perception—their perception is what counts!
2. Not staying aware of your partner’s priorities.
If you’re overworking, your brain might be fully tied up thinking about your own priorities, to the extent you don’t even know what your partner’s priorities are. What’s important to your partner currently? What have they attempted to talk to you about but you’ve brushed them off? It could be repairs that are needed to your home, vacation plans, concerns about your child’s eating habits, or worries about a parent’s ill health. Maybe there’s simply a movie they want to see in theaters before it’s too late.
Try this self-test: Can you list three of your partner’s current priorities?
Solution: Create a behavioral habit that gives you a chance to talk to each other. For example, my spouse and I often take a late night walk. If you regularly drive somewhere together, that might be your chance to talk, or maybe you make a habit of going out for Sunday brunch or chatting when you’re lying in bed on the weekend. Make sure the habit you choose is a time when both people are in a clear headspace to talk. Why a walk often works so well is because neither person is physically trapped in a confined space like they are in a car. Talking while walking can make it emotionally easier to have in-depth conversations.
3. Brushing off your partner’s attempts to get your attention.
In the book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, the author writes about how the most important aspect of relationships is emotional trust. A huge part of emotional trust is perceiving that you can easily get your partner’s attention. People in relationships do many micro behaviors aimed at getting the other person’s attention. For instance, if you’re working in one room, your partner might come into the room on the pretense of looking for something. Or your partner follows you into the bathroom to ask you a question. Or attention requests might come in the form of touch or eye contact. Make sure you’re not too distracted and self-absorbed to miss these attempts, dismissively brush them off, or ignore them.
Solution: If you find yourself irritated with your partner (“Why do they keep interrupting me?”) it might be that you’ve been ignoring their requests for attention and they’ve escalated into annoying behaviors. Ways to show your partner they can get your attention include responding with eye contact, physical touch, or by communicating that you were listening.
4. Taking out your stress on your partner.
When people are very busy, they sometimes don’t have many emotional reserves left to deal with small hassles and irritations. This can result in snapping at your partner over little things, being negative, and complaining. For instance, the first thing you do when you come in the door is complain about the traffic.
Solution: Ask your partner to call you out on it when they feel that you’re taking out your work stresson them. When you reunite with your partner at the end of the workday, make sure the first thing you say is something positive.
It often doesn’t take much time or effort to be emotionally engaged in your relationship. Micro behaviors like giving your partner a quick touch on the lower back as you’re walking past can go a long way. The main barrier is often that you don’t see these small moments as important opportunities to stay connected. By making a few mental and behavior shifts you can potentially avert relationship disaster.