I admit it, I ask the question that way myself. And sometimes it starts a conversation…other times, it’s just the prompt for a “meh” response and we get started on cooking dinner. Living in Seattle, I’m not alone in being partnered with someone who works in a highly-technical, specialized field, which can make that conversation about work even more difficult.
But intimate partnerships are at their best when we turn toward each other for emotional support, and one of the places that that is so important is when we are coping with work stress, and come home to our refuge, our place of rest, and our partner who is our primary attachment figure.
So, since I can’t help debug the code, and I only vaguely understand even the purpose of the software or the service (or, if you imagine a different industry, I understand vaguely how airplanes fly but can’t tell you much past the general concept of lift and thrust), how can I be supportive to my partner when we talk about work stuff?
Here are some initial ideas:
Process vs. Content
You notice therapists doing this all the time in relationship counseling: focusing on the process rather than the actual content of the argument.
So, say the software engineer has been pounding away at one problem for ever and ever, and it’s super frustrating. No matter what field you're working in, you’ve probably had that experience, and you can talk about how frustrating that is.
If there’s a big release coming up, or everything seems to be riding on your loved-one, those are understandable processes too.
Sometimes a frustrated or overwhelmed person doesn’t need you to solve their problems, but does need you to listen to their feelings and help them feel heard.
This may be primarily a software engineer thing, but I think it works for lots of fields. Sometimes the aforementioned frustrating problems actually can be solved (though not by the non-tech partner), and what is needed is to talk it through. Some engineers call this “rubber ducking”, because explaining the problem to a rubber duck is helpful enough.
You, non-tech partner, can potentially be a good rubber duck. It helps to be able to listen attentively, not glaze over, and ask clarifying questions, so maybe don’t embark on this conversation if you are tired or overwhelmed yourself, but a really in-depth understanding isn’t what’s helpful in this case.
Focusing on Relationships
Almost all of our working lives involve other people. And, as a bonus, a lot of the time there are places and events where work-people intersect with home-people. Also, working with people usually gives lots of fodder for anxieties and triumphs at work. So even when the work itself is incomprehensible, you can usually still talk about relationships with coworkers, office gossip, or stress from management.
If You’re the Tech One?
There are many ways your non-tech partner can support you, but it takes two to tango. When you’re keyed-up and want to talk something through, try to focus on one of the above areas (if you’re going to Rubber Duck, it might be helpful to explain that that’s your goal first).
You can see about using these same techniques to learn more about the work your partner does, too. Teachers and accountants and architects all have overlapping process and relationship problems at work.
The more you can support each other’s work life emotionally, the closer you will feel to your partner, and the more grounded in that relationship, which will help you feel more able to be successful at work. It’s a win-win situation.