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Carolyn Hax: Work-stress-dumping problem has become a marital problem

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
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Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My work, in a health-care field, is stressful to the point that I’m nearly breaking down in tears every day, and doing it isolated and from home hasn’t helped. I no longer have co-workers to vent to or walk around the block with, and instead I’m offloading everything onto my wife. Today she knocked on my office door with a simple question (“I’m heating up leftover Chinese, want some?”). I started offloading about my latest stress, and after what felt like 20 seconds to me, she informed me that I’d actually been talking for 20 minutes straight, and that I do this multiple times a day. She’s told me she can’t handle being my stress recycling bin any longer.

I get that — she’s also working full time from home and she’s six months pregnant — but I really need to process things externally. My wife tends to process stress on her own, by playing with the cat or going for a walk, and she’s not sympathetic to how much I need to talk. How can I stop driving her crazy?

— Stress Spillover

Stress Spillover: I’m sorry. You’re in an impossible position and I’m about to recommend an impossible thing. But it sounds like you need to try anyway:

Find someone else to talk to about this. A therapist if you can get an appointment, or a friend who knows your field a bit, or a colleague who can meet you for a walk — schedule one person who can provide some version of an outlet every day, why not, with anyone who will go with you. Even for 15 minutes. No doubt you have some neighbors who are driving their people crazy, after all we've all been though the past two years?

Make a standing appointment, too, with your wife, to be together and talk about anything but work.

And, please try to learn ways to process your stress that don't involve a human listener, like intense exercise. I understand and am sympathetic to emotional wiring differences, but even as things appear to be more “normal,” there are still people hunkered down, and there are still people out and about yet carrying with them the exhaustion of holding it together for so long without a reprieve. Plus there's all the new stuff piling up on all the old stuff that's still lingering.

Call it emotional long covid. Most of us aren’t getting what we want or need, so our only choice is to adapt using what’s available.

The cat, for example, stands ready to hear whatever you want to say.

Readers' thoughts:

  • You say “she’s not sympathetic to how much I need to talk.” The fact that she’s been putting up with this multiple times a day for a year or more means that she is, in fact, sympathetic to how much you need to talk. I understand life is hard, but you need to also be sympathetic to how much she is able to listen to — which as an internal processor is far, far less than you’ve been giving her. That attitude might also be something to cover during therapy.
  • Just needed to share this because it gave me a much-needed belly laugh.