The Possible Positives of Work/Life Imbalance

Re-read this next time you're still behind your desk at 8 p.m.
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(Photo: BeauStocker/Shutterstock)

(Photo: BeauStocker/Shutterstock)

It turns out us love-seeking, cubicle-slaving dreamers can not, in fact, have it all. But we can still have most of it.

That's the conclusion reached by a team of researchers from the London-based Tavistock Institute, who took a stab at answering every bickering couple's favorite question: Do long hours at work negatively affect romantic relationships? Surprisingly enough, the answer is no.

The researchers studied 285 German-speaking couples where both people worked full time and at least one partner was in academia. Most subjects were overachievers—on average, the participants had a contract working time of 35.35 hours per week, but voluntarily worked an average of 42.27 hours. The mean age of participants was about 38 years old.

Do long hours at work negatively affect romantic relationships? Surprisingly enough, the answer is no.

The researchers were looking at "selective optimization with compensation," essentially the practice of investing the most time in goals that are important and attainable, and lowering expectations for other pursuits. As the authors put it, "SOC refers to how individuals deal with scarce resources such as time, money, and energy." In the case of busy professionals, the scarce resources are time and energy.

So, how do power couples make it work?

It seems people who work long hours can have successful relationships, as long as they're willing to sacrifice other goals and hobbies. And since romantic relationships are high on many people's priority list, they choose to invest their limited time and energy on improving those. A demanding job forces a person to develop better communication skills and make the most of any time spent with a partner.

With the conclusion that working time doesn't have a negative effect on relationship satisfaction, this study challenges our ideas about work/life balance. If anything, the research shows there's a slight indirect correlation between working time and relationship satisfaction/self-disclosure (the process of communicating and sharing about yourself). Although these results were not statistically significant, they help to disprove the common sense notion that increased working time damages relationships.

There were some limitations to the study, the most obvious being the socioeconomic status of the participants. "It is highly conceivable that those who are not free to decide how long they want to work (e.g., they work long hours because they have several low-wage jobs) might experience their situation differently," writes lead researcher Dr. Dana Unger in an email. "They have no control over their working time, which might hinder them [from pursuing] those concerns in their free time that are important to them. For instance, they cannot easily take a break to do something for their partner even if they wanted to."

But if you're working an office job, don't worry too much about your love life. Just make sure to keep your priorities in order. As Unger explains, "having a great career and a perfect relationship and learning Chinese and taking care of your parents may be too much."

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Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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