Balancing work and family can be a tricky task for any marriage. In fact, sometimes it can seem like it’s impossible to really satisfy either area: either work is going to be unhappy if you put too much emphasis on family, or family is going to be unhappy if there’s too much emphasis on work.

Or: both will be unhappy! This is really hard to figure out!

Work-Family Conflict

Work and family are probably the two biggest demands on your time and energy. When both your career and your family responsibilities are competing for the same hours in the day it can easily lead to conflict in one area or the other.

Work life and home life run into issues usually in one of two ways:

    1. When the demands of work interfere with your ability to manage family life, or
    2. When the demands of marriage and family life interfere with the ability to manage work

This can go two ways and consequently there are different causes, different consequences and ways of coping[i]. If you pay attention, what you will usually notice is that stress is caused in one area and then most prominently felt in the opposite area: for example, stress caused at work is felt most strongly in the marriage, and vice versa[ii].

This can be hard for your marriage because you have something outside the marriage that’s bringing stress in. Also, just to be clear, this can happen in dual-income families or it can happen in single-income families: all you need is a demanding or successful job, some long hours or a lot of travel.

Competing Roles

It is good to be compassionate with ourselves here because having a career and being a spouse/parent are two very different roles to hold simultaneously. On top of that, these two roles can compete for the same time and emotional energy[iii].

When that happens there are two processes that can cause conflict between these roles:

    1. Spillover: where stress and difficulties in one role spill over into the other (e.g., stress at work leading to conflict at home)
    2. Congruence: where there is a separate factor affecting both home and work equally (e.g., poor conflict resolution skills)

Basically you can either bring stress from one role into the other, or you can bring some other factor with you that’s causing stress in both roles. A tight deadline at work creates stress at home, but a bad attitude creates stress everywhere you go.

Not Enough Resources

What happens is we all have a limited amount of resources such as energy, time, money, knowledge, emotional effort etc. When you do not have enough resources to take care of all the roles this creates tension. Or maybe you have to use an excessive amount of resources trying to balance the roles[iv]. Think about it: is this happening to you? Are you stretching yourself too thin?

Further, work-family conflict can also occur when behavior resources are carried over from one role to another inappropriately. For example: someone who is stressed at work may try to use the same authoritarian management style at home. That’s never going to go well. Then you get conflict in the home[v].

These are all dynamics that we need to be aware of in order to solve work-family conflict.

So is Work the Problem? Or Family?

High demands at home naturally pull your resources away from work, and conflict at home reduces your capacity to handle conflict at work[vi].

Here is a helpful way of figuring out where the stress is and what the impact is:

Factors Consequences
Work Interfering with Family
  • Stressful or high pressure working conditions
  • Conflict with colleagues at work
  • Long hours and physically/emotionally tiring work
  • Inflexible working hours
  • Having to do work you don’t find meaningful or engaging
  • Dissatisfaction with family life
  • Marital tension, leading to conflict
  • Higher overall life stress
  • Symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Reduced physical health- such as high blood pressure, sleep disturbances and increased susceptibility to illness
  • Higher likelihood of turning to destructive behaviors such as smoking, poor eating and substance abuse
Family Interfering with Work
  • Marital conflict
  • Number of hours spent on household labor
  • Childcare, especially having multiple young children
  • Financial instability
  • Caring for elderly parents as well as children
  • Major events which could drain your resources, such as sickness, injury, financial
  • Poorer performance at work
  • More days off work due to sickness and stress
  • Higher rates of burnout
  • Increased likelihood of leaving the job and high turnover rate between jobs

Managing Your Work-Marriage Balance

For this week’s episode, our bonus worksheet contains a self-assessment that you can complete and score in order to tell how significant the work-family conflict is in your life. Then, we really help you dig into the resources aspect: what are the resources we have, how can we enhance them, how can we use them to reduce work family conflict? It’s a great way to create insightful discussion and figure out how to move to a more balanced place in your life. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

Ways to Reduce Work-Family Conflict

Research on reducing work-family conflict has focused on ways employers can reduce the conflict for their employees, and on issues you as individuals can work on to reduce the conflict as well. Let’s take a quick look at both.

Things Your Employer Can Do

Many employers offer services to address work-life balancing issues. These include:

    1. Flexible work hours
    2. Options to work from home
    3. Ability to work part time
    4. Extended maternity/paternity leave
    5. Paid family leave
    6. On-site childcare
    7. Assistance finding childcare and other support

Which of these are actually helpful? In 2008[vii] some researchers conducted a meta-review of studies examining which of these services actually help reduce WFC.

Results were very mixed: some studies show that flexible work arrangements like working from home and on-site childcare can improve work-life balance and reduce conflict, while others show little effect. Some studies even show that these arrangements can increase WFC. For some people working from home meant taking the stress of work home with you rather than reducing the stress.

The research does show that these services work for some people, so whether they are useful or not is probably a matter of personal preference and individual circumstances. So if your employer offers these kinds of services, try taking advantage of them and see what works. Remember that employers have a responsibility to minimize the stress your job causes, so if these services aren’t offered, could you ask for them to be set up?

Things You Can Do

Now let’s look at what you can do to redress this balance. This is the most important part, really, because you can’t control what your employer and your job demands are like, but you can always take steps to learn new skills and look at news ways to manage.

Managing Resources

Like we saw above, conflict between work and marriage is due to a strain on your emotional and practical resources. This means you can reduce the conflict by learning to manage your various resources more effectively. We really dive into this in the bonus content, so give that a really good look if you want to figure out how you can pull all your different strengths and resources together to make things easier.

Time Management Skills

Having good time management skills reduces both work and home stress, and prevents stress from one area spilling over into the other[viii].

This is a great option, by the way, because these are simple skills that anyone can learn. And they’ll help in pretty much every area of life.

Self Esteem

Self esteem has an interesting relationship to work-family conflict. According to a study in 1999[ix], self esteem is not correlated to work-family conflict and does not help prevent it. However, high levels of self esteem are negatively correlated with all the bad outcomes work-family conflict normally produces, such as stress, marital conflict, poor physical health, poor performance at work etc.

So working on building your self esteem doesn’t stop work-family conflict from happening, but it does stop it from having any negative effects on your marriage or work life. Self esteem isn’t the easiest thing to work on but it’s about learning to be comfortable with who you are, and developing the skills and knowledge to act with confidence at work and at home.

Settling Boundaries

How are you at setting boundaries? A study 2009[x] identified some simple strategies people used to create boundaries between work and home, which reduced work-family conflict:

    1. Enlisting Help: using other people to help protect your home times from work demands, such as having work colleagues screen calls while you are away, asking colleagues to help with work to reduce stress, or asking your spouse to act as a “buffer” to control which aspects of work are allowed to come home with you.
    2. Prioritizing: only allowing the really essential work demands to interfere with home life and leaving the non-urgent stuff until you are back at work.
    3. Controlling work time: setting clear time boundaries as to when you are at work, and when you have to leave.
    4. Holidaystaking regular time off to recover from work stress.

Sometimes creating healthy work-life boundaries is about standing up for yourself and choosing to make your marriage and family a priority over work. Which leads us on to the final point.


This is one to think about carefully.

According to Role theory[xi] individuals with multiple competing roles will naturally lean towards one, developing a primary role and seeing the other role as secondary.

People then come to “specialize” in their primary role by getting better at it and investing more time and effort in it. This often negatively impacts the secondary role(s). This is reflected in the fact that people who choose to spend more hours in work and engage more in their work life experienced reduced quality of marital life, and vice versa[xii].

In this sense, individuals with competing roles may simply need to choose which one is their priority: their job or their marriage. If they choose to prioritize the marriage they may need to accept that there will be some detrimental effects to the job, or vice versa, and use some of the above strategies to minimize the problems.

As I sometimes tell folks, you cannot expect to have different values from your coworkers (e.g., prioritizing family life) and have the same standard of living they do. It’s certainly possible to have a happy marriage and a successful career, but you can’t make both of them your main priority. You can’t wholly pour your heart and soul into both or you’ll run dry.

So sometimes this can come down to making some tough decisions: saying yes to one thing means saying no to another. Whether you like or not. So make a choice that you will look back on with gratitude and satisfaction rather than one you’ll look back on with regret.


[i] Kristin Byron, ‘A Meta-Analytic Review of Work–family Conflict and Its Antecedents’, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 67.2 (2005), 169–98.

[ii] Paul E. Spector, Tammy D. Allen, and Jeffrey H. Greenhaus, ‘Health Consequences of Work?Family Conflict: The Dark Side of the Work?Family Interface’, in Employee Health, Coping and Methodologies, Research in Occupational Stress and Well-Being, 5, 0 vols (Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2006), v, 61–98 <>.

[iii] Byron.

[iv] Alicia A. Grandey and Russell Cropanzano, ‘The Conservation of Resources Model Applied to Work–family Conflict and Strain’, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 54.2 (1999), 350–70.

[v] Spector, Allen, and Greenhaus, v.

[vi] Byron.

[vii] ERIN L. KELLY and others, ‘Getting There from Here: Research on the Effects of Work–Family Initiatives on Work–Family Conflict and Business Outcomes’, The Academy of Management Annals, 2 (2008), 305–49 <>.

[viii] Byron.

[ix] Grandey and Cropanzano.

[x] Glen E. Kreiner, Elaine C. Hollensbe, and Mathew L. Sheep, ‘Balancing Borders and Bridges: Negotiating the Work-Home Interface via Boundary Work Tactics’, Academy of Management Journal, 52.4 (2009), 704–30 <>.

[xi] Joseph H. Pleck, ‘The Work-Family Role System’, Social Problems, 24.4 (1977), 417–27 <>.

[xii] Byron.