My wife works an impossible job with ridiculous hours. Home life is intolerable. What can I do? | Life and style

My wife works for a large university in an administrative role. Over the past five years or so her responsibilities have grown and her staff team has shrunk to a point where it is clearly impossible for her to do the work required.

She works ridiculous hours in an attempt to achieve the impossible – which she can’t, which makes her miserable, stressed and bad-tempered. I love her deeply and I hate to see her so unhappy, but life with someone who alternates between snappy and tearful is awful, and her absolute refusal to do anything – flag the situation she’s in, see a doctor, anything – to improve things is deeply frustrating.

I did manage to persuade her to join the union but she will not ask them for any sort of help. Home life is intolerable for me and must be much worse for her. Should I do anything? What can I do?

Eleanor says: Sometimes when your partner goes through a trying period, your job is to help as much as possible – including by being forgiving. Other times the fact that things are “just busy right now” is no longer something that’s foisted on them – it’s a situation they’ve chosen to remain in. Past that point, the fact that the birthday party got missed or the plans got changed last-minute stops being something we can talk about in the passive voice. Their busy-ness stops being something that’s happening to them – it starts being something they’re doing.

The trouble is it’s very hard to figure out where that point is. It’s going to be different for different families; informed by what you’ve agreed on, your finances, who does the domestic work, how well expectations are managed, and what viable alternatives there are. But even though everyone has a different point of busy-toleration, you need to be able to tell your partner when you’ve gone past yours.

It sounds like you’re well past yours.

I’d start by making absolutely sure you’ve communicated that. Although your letter suggests you’ve talked about this together, you’d be surprised by how wide a knowledge asymmetry can sneak into a marriage. What you experience as an ever-present problem – the thing you bring up repeatedly, your highest priority for fixing – she may experience very differently. If someone asked her today how happy you are at home, what would she say? If you’re anything less than confident that she’d name the same problems you have written here, I’d start with a clear and careful conversation to fix that.

These chats can be tricky, but you’re not accusing her of ruining your home life – your letter brims with regard and genuine concern. All you need to communicate is that concern plus one additional insight: there’s no reason to suppose work will get better by itself.

Second, I’m curious what shape her “refusal to do anything” takes. Where you invest your energy depends on which one of these scenarios she is in. Is it that overwork has eroded her mental health? Terrible workplaces make casualties of our self-esteem and imagination, two things we need lots of to chase a better future. Or is it a point of pride to work so hard; is she proving something to a colleague, or to herself? Is there a feature of the rest of life that working so hard allows her to evade? Working with her to discover why she doesn’t want help may make it feel less invasive to try to supply it.

Try not to lead with how this affects you – start with how it impacts her and the “we” of your collective life. That way you’re on her side. Meantime, it might help to start small – suggesting a phoneless walk in the morning together, or a dedicated hour once a week with no work-chat allowed; some time set aside on the weekend to take turns doing nice things for one another.

Change, for anyone, comes when we see how hard things are now and realise they won’t change on their own. Don’t think of your task as crowbarring a change she doesn’t want; try to look for ways to ignite her wish to feel better than this job currently allows.

This question has been edited for length.

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