Long work hours don’t have to doom a romantic relationship, conclude the authors of a new article published in last month’s Human Relations. Swiss and German researchers surveyed 285 German couples composed of two working partners, at least one of whom was an academic, about their relationship satisfaction and life priorities. They found that people with demanding careers—and people whose partners have demanding careers—use problem-solving and coping skills to make the most out of their off-work time, mitigating potential strain on their relationships.
The authors of the study hypothesized that conventional wisdom and previous research, which have suggested that people in dual-career romantic partnerships must choose between risking their career ambitions or their love lives, was misleading. “These scholars have proposed that time demands stemming from the work domain deteriorate role performance in the home domain,” they wrote. After examining two sets of results from online surveys given to participants six months apart, the researchers found that instead, “dual-career couples seem to make a virtue out of a necessity” by prioritizing their relationship outside of work to an extent that other couples may not deem necessary.
The key to relationship satisfaction while working on a challenging schedule, the authors suggest, is selective optimization with compensation, or SOC, which describes the way people allocate limited resources like time, money, and energy to foster the best possible outcomes in all areas of life. Study participants chose between statements that indicated low levels of SOC (“In general, I divide my energy among many things.”) and high levels of SOC (“In general, I concentrate all my energy on few things.”). Researchers found that long-working partners who engaged in SOC in their private lives reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction.
But even in the best-optimized, well-prioritized life, something has to give. Part of SOC is letting less-important goals lapse. “When investing many hours in their work—which is crucial in the pursuit of work-related goals—employees seem to be aware that they cannot have it all in their private life and thus show high levels of SOC in this domain,” the authors wrote. “These employees are well prepared to attain an optimal level of goals at work and at home.”
The researchers chose to study academics because they are quite close to one another in age (39, on average) and education level, and worked relatively long hours but had some flexibility. Participants were contracted to work an average of 35 hours a week, but actually worked an average 44 hours a week—a breeze in the U.S., where employees clock an average work week of 47 hours. But these academics are workaholics by the standards of Germany, home of the world’s shortest work week: 35 hours.
The study’s authors suspect that these academics might have a better shot at relationship under harsh career conditions than some. “Academics are used to the delay of gratification because usually a reward (e.g. a publication) is not instantly contingent on goal-related behavior (e.g. writing the manuscript),” they wrote. “For our sample, electing to work long hours beyond contract requirements implies that employees are engaged in self-directed goal pursuits at work. Once home, they possibly continued with the high level of self-regulatory behavior they displayed at work.” Self-regulatory behavior: the unsurprising, very unsexy key to work-love balance.