Dorcas Cheng-Tozun’s first book, Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-up World, releases on November 7, 2017. In this article, she shares a few thoughts about building a strong marriage in the midst of a busy life-stage — something that is certainly applicable to couples in academia. You can find out more about Dorcas’s book at her website.
For long seasons in my twelve-year marriage, my husband has been physically present but not really there. The glazed look in his eyes and the inability to hear my voice were telltale signs that his mind and heart were engaged elsewhere — problem solving, strategizing, writing emails, devising presentations.
At first, I withdrew in return, hurt that the man I had committed my life to seemed to be prioritizing his work over our relationship. I wanted to punish him for giving the best of his time and energy to his job, leaving me with the tired and distracted remnants. But that only drove us further away from one another.
I tried complaining, nagging, weeping, making ultimatums — but nothing seemed to deter my husband from the calling that he was certain God had given to him. And the truth was that I didn’t want him to walk away from the business he had spent so many years building; I knew how important it was to him. But I also knew that our marriage was never going to be healthy until we found some way to honor both his ambitions and the needs of our relationship. And my husband was never going to be a well-grounded and balanced person until he recognized the importance of prioritizing his loved ones.
That started me on a years-long journey of praying, asking for help, trying new things, seeking advice, and ultimately writing a book on what it could look like to balance marriage, family, and entrepreneurship. I have had the privilege of interviewing dozens of entrepreneurial couples, as well as top marriage-family therapists, executive coaches, and relationship experts, gleaning wisdom and tried-and-true strategies from their front-line, often messy experiences.
These same strategies are just as relevant for the couple in academia, ministry, or another line of work that requires far more than a nine-to-five commitment. If you or your spouse feel deeply called to your work, or are in a particularly intense professional environment with high expectations, it’s likely that your marriage and other close relationships have been negatively impacted.
Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to invest meaningfully in your relationship. These approaches don’t require much time or energy, but they do require intentionality and the desire to truly care for your spouse even when you’re feeling overextended. But, as my husband and I have discovered, every effort — however small — can make a difference.
Here are a few strategies that you and your spouse can begin implementing today:
Be clear about your commitment to one another — over and over again.
Spouses of ambitious professionals often feel overlooked and forgotten, which can lead to deep resentment that grows over time. Try to make at least one small gesture each day to remind your spouse of your commitment. This could be a word of affection or affirmation, an act of service, or a gift. If you’re not sure what to do, simply ask your significant other what you can do to help him or her feel loved. Caring for your spouse in this way will improve your emotional well-being too.
Prioritize making time for one another, even if it’s just a small amount.
Time is one of the greatest challenges for busy, career-oriented couples. There’s always too much to do and too little time to finish it. But the good news is that investing even small amounts of time can make a big difference. (One marriage expert recommends six hours a week, or less than an hour a day.) Do a daily check-in with one another in the morning or evening. Go for a brief walk together after dinner. One recent study found that having a single positive conversation before bedtime helped couples feel closer and even sleep better.
Communicate, starting with the mundane and moving to the significant.
It’s easy to have miscommunications when life feels like it’s moving a little too fast to keep up. But, according to social scientists, being able to talk through and agree on the basic logistics of life — like who is doing what household chore — is actually a key determinant of the health of a relationship. Once you work out who’s responsible for the laundry and who’s picking up the kids, you and your spouse are better positioned to have fruitful conversations about meaningful topics, such as your treatment of one another or the process of making decisions together.
Establish goals and priorities together.
While it can be easy to get caught up in our individual careers, the reality is that each spouse’s line of work has a direct impact on the family as a whole. So it’s important to set goals and priorities together, especially around family planning and quality of life, to ensure that you are both working toward the same big picture. Where do you want to live? Do you want to have kids? If so, when? are questions that you should try to answer together. And since goals and priorities can change, make sure to revisit these at least once every six months or so.
We all want to be in our marriages and the careers we love for the long haul. But in order to do that, we need to approach our vocation as a marathon, not a sprint. This means doing whatever is necessary to avoid burnout, such as setting boundaries, keeping particularly intensive periods of work limited, learning to delegate, and caring for ourselves and our families. While such choices may seem like compromises in the short-term, they actually enable you to accomplish far more over a longer period of time. Your relationship and your family members will also benefit from a more reasonable pace of life.
It took us more than a decade, but my husband and I have finally built many of these practices into our marriage. We don’t do any of them perfectly, but the heart and effort we put into trying to love one another better—no matter what work crisis may be occupying us—have helped both of us feel more secure and more closely connected.
Nowadays, when I notice that my husband isn’t really there with me, I don’t worry in the same way I used to. I know he’ll come back relatively soon.