The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Up-at-dawn worker silently resents partner with (apparently) cushier job

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
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Hello Carolyn: My partner has leisurely mornings and gets to work sometime in the afternoon. When I ask, over supper, how the day was, I’m usually told about how BUSY it was and the three or four tasks completed in the four to five hours he worked.

I am up at 5, manage several people and a retail shop, clock overtime every week and more.

Is there a respectful way to respond to a self-described busy day? I have, thus far, tried to ask for more details while pushing down my incredulity, because he clearly believes his own press.

— M.

M.: What I do is way harder than managing a shop.

Actually I doubt it is. Sucked to read that, though, didn't it?

You are asking a question, and your partner is giving you his answer.

If you're unimpressed by it, then ask a different question — or say out loud that you're feeling skeptical or competitive or resentful or believe his entitlement meter is off. Say why, with supporting examples. Even a hard truth is better than mentally eye-rolling or “pushing down” stuff as you feign interest in his day.

And you're not interested that way, not anymore: To my eye, you're far down the path from caring about his day to comparing experiences to looking to fuel your umbrage.

You can get all that from Twitter.

Contempt, per the Gottman Institute, is “the most destructive negative behavior in relationships.” So face yours head-on.

If you don't respect him, then it's time not to be partners.

If you don't feel seen or respected by him, then it's time to say so and weigh his response.

If you don't feel your workload as a couple is shared equitably, then it's time to renegotiate it to reflect your workdays.

And if you aren't happy with getting up at 5 and working overtime to manage people, then it's time to rethink your own vocation instead of sniping at someone else's.

If you do like your work — if it suits you — then does his exertion relative to yours matter? Again — if there’s something real here, say it.

Last thing. One, 5, 11 hours of work can all be “busy” — and also valuable, significant, mentally/physically/emotionally/creatively taxing, or whatever else — within the bounds of a given “shift.” And, the number of tasks is hollow information without all the supporting details about the nature of the tasks, the person doing them, or the conditions he’s doing them in. So, again, ask yourself why you’re so incensed at this straw man, and then ask yourself how that anger relates to the real man across the table from you every night. That’s the “respectful way to respond.”

Hello, Carolyn: The pandemic has really altered my perceptions and feelings on a wide variety of topics. Bluntly put: I would prefer to telework permanently to avoid being exposed to dangerous situations or irrational, human lack of concern for my health and well-being. I don’t care if it’s anti-vaxxers, QAnon types, or people who just “don’t want to” wear masks or get vaccinated — if I have to work with people like that, I’d rather not ever do it face-to-face again.

I am likely to have to go back to the office. I actually enjoy the work — but all the office politics and dramas are not something I will ever tolerate or indulge again; it all feels so petty and like such a waste of time now. I really do not want any sort of relationship with co-workers any longer, beyond basic civility in order to get our work done. How do I accomplish that?

— G.

G.: I can’t argue with you about one thing: The pandemic finished the job social media started, of making an airtight case that we really, really, really don’t want to know everyone’s innermost thoughts. Or gobsmacking lack thereof.

So I'm sympathetic.

But I don't think withdrawing forever, amen, is the answer. Living among other humans has always involved dangerous exposures to irrational people, because we're dangerous and irrational. Look at history, for fox's sake — if you can without averting your eyes. Look what we've done to each other, to ourselves. Look what we've done to the earth. It's hardly just recent and not just “people like that.”

Yet we also need and, paradoxically, civilize each other.

Maybe polite distance from your colleagues is wise for now; you’re anxious and justifiably burned out. (Maybe a health evaluation, too — many of us can’t just drop the pandemic emotional weight.) The “how” of office de-socializing mostly takes care of itself, too: Be kind, be cooperative, do your job and politely decline to socialize. “No” — or, “I have other plans,” if monosyllables stick in your throat — "but thank you for asking.”

Eventually, though, as you heal from this awful year-plus, you might consider sampling various forms of mass forgiveness so you can venture back out there with the rest of us jackals. Humanity marches on, and even gets a few things right.