Every Monday I like to post a reader question and take a stab at answering it. As a doctor’s wife, I could really relate to this question from a woman whose husband’s job stress sucks the romance out of their marriage:
I just had to write and say that hands-down, your book “a good girls guide to great sex “has been the most useful book I’ve read all year. My husband said there has been such a difference that he owes you a box of chocolates. (Sheila says: tell him truffles are my favourite!)
Speaking of my husband I have a question. He’s a youth pastor and my biggest challenge now is how do I change the mood at night for us? It’s common for him to get texts/calls from teens at night who are cutting or dealing with eating disorders or drunk parents. The mood goes from light-hearted and me being excited to having quality time with him in the bedroom to heavy burdened for these kids. Besides praying together any suggestions?
I have to admit that this is something I’ve struggled with and I don’t think I have an easy answer.
On the one hand, people would be quick to say, “you need boundaries! Just turn off the phone at night.” But when there are such horrible things happening that’s hard.
Sometimes Job Stress is Inevitable
My husband is a pediatrician who often has to respond to life and death emergencies at our small town local hospital. When we first moved here fifteen years ago, there weren’t enough pediatricians to cover the call schedule. There were often days that were completely uncovered.
And then, if an emergency happened at the hospital, what would the hospital do? They would phone Keith at our house because they were desperate, and he had a very hard time saying no, because a child could actually die.
I remember my daughter Katie’s second birthday party. We had family over, and it was a day that we had looked forward to for weeks. And just as I was lighting the candles the phone rang. A baby had been shaken and was unresponsive in the Emergency Room. Could Keith come?
He rushed to the hospital and stabilized the little boy for transport. He died a month later, and Keith testified at the trial that put the step-father in jail.
To this day I still remember that little boy’s name: Tyler Barriage. I write it here because I don’t want that poor little boy to be forgotten. He was only a little younger than my own daughter, and we were celebrating her birthday just as he was being killed.
I could have gotten angry at Keith for going into the hospital, and plenty of times I did–when it wasn’t as life and death. But that ultimately wouldn’t help.
So I don’t just want to say “get better boundaries”, because I really do understand the pull of these difficult jobs. But let me still give you some “big picture” strategies that perhaps you can use to reclaim your marriage in the midst of job stress.
Is the Job Stress Life or Death?
Some men (and some women–I can be guilty too) let their work intrude on everything. Often business owners are especially guilty of this. We have started a business and so we want to have control and make sure everything is okay. When people call at night, or when we have some spare time, we immediately respond to these job demands, and often family life falls by the wayside.
Is this life or death though? Certainly there are seasons when a business is in trouble and it needs more attention. But a relationship can’t sustain a workaholic spouse. This isn’t really the issue I’m addressing today, but I know that it is a very common one, and if your husband has a hard time putting his work away at night, perhaps you can leave some comments and I’ll try to write a follow-up post that addresses workaholism.
Does the Job Stress Just SEEM Life or Death?
What I do want to talk about today, though, is what to do with the job that actually IS life and death. But sometimes what looks like life and death may not actually be life and death.
In the letter writer’s case, I wonder if this is what’s happening. Let’s face it: if teens know that if they threaten to cut themselves that the youth pastor will drop everything and talk to you for hours, what’s going to stop them from keeping threatening to cut themselves?
If you are always at everyone’s beck and call for everything they deem a crisis, then crises will multiply.
My husband faced this, and finally the pediatricians sat down with the hospital and emergency doctors and obstetricians and said, “if you call us for everything we will burn out, and then you won’t just have 5 days a month with no one on call; you’ll never have anyone on call. So from now on you can’t call us unless it is truly life and death.”
So perhaps you can set up some systems so that people are still able to get a hold of you in emergencies, but only in emergencies.
Here’s one idea: turn off your cell phone outside of business hours, and let people know that if they have a crisis, they will have to actually phone. People text without giving it much thought. To pick up a phone and have to call someone’s house is different. You realize that you’re calling a family. You realize that it may be dinner hour. There’s more of an inconvenience aspect. And to teens who text all the time, having to phone may slow them down.
With my husband, we also got into the habit of me answering the phone. That way I could screen his calls if necessary. If you set up the expectation that “I am available all the time by text during the day, but in the evenings I’m only available in emergencies”, perhaps some of these calls will lessen.
Recruit Others to Help
If you are in a job, especially a ministry position, where people are constantly in crisis, then you should not be the only person handling this. It isn’t healthy for the church, for you, or for the people you’re ministering to. What happens if a dozen teens rely on you for everything and then suddenly you’re in an accident or you quit your job from burnout? They have to be connected to the church, not just to you.
So set up a system where several adults become “buddies” for several friends. Or in a churchwide situation set up a system where certain elders in the church (it could be an actual position, or it could be volunteers with great wisdom) divide up the church phone book between them, and everybody knows who their own person to call is. That way the expectation is that you only call the pastor if it’s an actual emergency.
I went to a church like that almost two decades ago now. If I had an issue to talk about, I called a woman, and she was wonderful. But when my son died in the middle of the night, we called the pastor and he came down and sat with us. Now, if we had called him for everything, he would have been so burnt out he couldn’t have come the night we really needed him.
So perhaps having a talk with the leadership team at the church, or the hospital, or the police station, or wherever, and talking about how to divide up the task so that others are also responding to crises can work.
Get Out of Town Regularly
Finally, you can try all of these things and sometimes they just don’t work. With my husband’s job we managed to certainly minimize the intrusions, but they were still there.
What saved us was that we left regularly. We camped a lot in the summer. We took trips. We visited friends for weekends. And when we were away, Keith wasn’t able to help, so they didn’t call him.
Sure, there were still life and death situations, but Keith didn’t feel responsible if he wasn’t actually able to help.
For people who are always being bombarded with requests, physically removing yourself regularly throughout the year may be the only way to get some breathing room. Yes, people will still be in crisis, but you can say, “I can’t help you this weekend, and my cell phone is off, so you’ll have to call Mr. Smith instead.”
How Do You Reclaim the Evening When Job Stress Strikes?
There are some ideas about how to set some limits, but the letter writer also wanted to know: how can we reclaim the romance after a horrible phone call? I don’t have an easy answer. Certainly you can pray and try to leave it at the foot of the cross, but I know it can still ruin the mood. And that’s why I think it’s better to deal with the root of the problem and limit the requests on your time.
But if anyone has a good, practical answer to this part of the question, please leave it in the comments. How do you turn your brain off of your job and back onto your spouse after a crisis? I’d love to know!