The common perception is that you can be super busy OR happily married. What we wanted to know is if you could be super busy AND happily married. Do you need to change your lifestyles, or are you good to go? No pressure!

A lot of research and marriage advice points to the importance of spending time together as a couple, but perhaps this is not the most important factor when it comes to a healthy marriage.

How Do You Treat Each Other When You Are Not Busy?

It turns out that how you treat each other when you do have time together is what actually matters.

In 2004, researchers looked at a particular type of marriage that tends to be particularly hectic – the medical marriage. These researchers wanted to analyze correlations between busyness, marital adjustments, and overall satisfaction with work/life balance in marriages in which husbands worked as physicians. (Stay tuned, we’ve got a wife-as-physician study next!)

What they discovered is “more than hours worked, it is how a couple treats each other when they are not working that most powerfully determines the quality of contemporary medical marriage.”[i]

How were these successful marriages treating each other? The researchers found these qualities in the marriages that self-identified as satisfying:

  1. Husbands didn’t let work stress negatively affect their at-home behaviour (good job, guys!)
  2. Husbands often indicated their concern about how their work/life balance and busyness required them to spend time away from family (that’s sweet)
  3. Wives found ways to keep themselves busy when their husbands were working long hours. Wives who were satisfied with their marriages learned to “accept this role without rancor, to build their individual support systems, and to carry on with family activities during their husbands’ work-related absences.”[ii] (that’s wise)
  4. Wives held specific perspectives about their husband’s work – that it was done for noble reasons (common mission!)

In summary, “these busy couples did not have marriages that were less satisfying than those of other people in general. Quite the contrary, despite the hectic nature of medical life, physician’s wives claim to be quite satisfied with their marriages.”[iii]

Even if you’re not a doctor, if you’re plain busy and you have these elements in your marriage, you should be good to go!

Let’s switch genders and see what happens. In 2013, researchers looked at medical marriages in which the wife was the physician. They interviewed spouses of internal medical resident and faculty physicians, as they wanted to know how these couples made their marriages work in the face of the inflexible schedules of doctors.

These three themes emerged from these interviews in terms of what these husbands of doctors felt was important to the health of their busy marriage:

  1. Having a set time for synchronizing schedules: Couples in these hectic marriages would often set a specific time where they would sit down and do their best to synchronize their schedules. Often schedules revolved around the physician’s schedule out of necessity.
  2. Frequent verbal support: This was important in both directions. Husband’s verbally supported their wives’ busy careers. Wives verbally supported the husband’s sacrifices, work, and willingness to take care of things at home when they were not able to.
  3. Shared decision-making: “Joint decision-making within physician families serves to increase the personal agency of female physicians’ husbands and may reduce work-life stress for physician wives.”[iv]

So it looks like you CAN have a hectic life and be happily married!

The Importance of Mutuality and Intimate Partnership

Much of the advice from these two studies applies to marriages in which one spouse is extremely busy and the other spouse is not, but what about marriages in which both individuals are living hectic lives?

A study completed in 2003 pointed towards the importance of mutuality in dual-earner couples living lives.

The researcher concluded that successful dual-earner marriages are maintained by couples in intimate partnerships who work together to create balance between work and family responsibilities.

47 dual-earner couples with children were interviewed – each couple perceiving themselves as successful in balancing family and work.

“The majority of these couples stated that striving for marital partnership or equality is an integral strategy to their success.”[v] What they came up with was several ways that a busy household can share in duties in order to be as successful as possible.

Here is what they found, and also very practical strategies that you can consider if you find yourself in this situation.

  1. Shared housework: “Wives and husbands reported an equal division of household labor. The importance of shared responsibility for household labor was a salient theme in interviews with many couples describing it as a key aspect of their successful work-family balance.”[vi]
  2. Mutual and active involvement in childcare: “Both wives and husbands reported that wives tended to take relatively more responsibility for childcare, however…the husbands remained actively involved in parenting. Couples described their commitment and active efforts to achieve shared parenting as essential ingredients to their happiness and success.”[vii]
  3. Joint decision-making: “Most participants identified shared decision-making as an important ingredient to their success in balancing family and work. However, husband’s perceptions that wives have more decision-making responsibility may be a reflecting of the tendency in virtually all couples for wives to be “organizers” of family affairs (ie. Keeping the family calendar, keeping track of appointments, etc)”[viii]
  4. Equal access to and influence over finances: “Many couples described spending strategies that allowed partners to share influence over financial decision-making and spending.”[ix]
  5. Value placed on both partners work/life goals: “Couples described the importance of efforts to recognize, support, and respect one another’s professional pursuits…Many couples described attempts to communicate caring and concern about their partner’s professional activities. While husbands tended to perceive that the partners’ careers were equally prioritized, wives tended to perceive husband’s careers as relatively more prioritized.”[x]

Those are some very practical strategies, but I want to highlight one last area that’s very important. That it is not only important to get through life in a balanced fashion, but also to take care of the emotional bond between you.

The Importance of Emotional Work in Busy Marriages

The same researcher also looked at the emotional labour each of these couples (from the previous study) put into their marriages in order to keep their marriage healthy.

Every couple in the study described the importance of their marital relationship to each of them and detailed ways that they maintain the high quality of their relationships. Here are some of the findings:

  • Virtually all participants described a deep sense of friendship with their spouses
  • Couples often discussed the importance of mutual respect in their relationships, and a commitment to working through relationship challenges.
  • Many couples discussed generosity as one of their core relationship values, giving selflessly to their partners and offering assistance to each other when feeling out of balance.
  • Many couples described their appreciation for one another in their efforts to balance family and work.[xi]

Those are some practical emotional strategies – if you think about it, they’re common to any marriage, not just physicians or dual-earner couples. Make sure you foster an atmosphere of friendship and respect and commitment and generosity and appreciation towards and for each other!

After seeing this research, I have to say that is IS possible to have a very hectic life AND a happy marriage, but you’re going to have to be even more intentional about your marriage than perhaps other folks who don’t have as much busy pressure.

[i] Wayne M. Sotile and Mary O. Sotile, “Physicians’ Wives Evaluate Their Marriages, Their Husbands, and Life in Medicine: Results of the AMA-Alliance Medical Marriage Survey,” Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 68, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 39–59.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Carol Isaac et al., “Male Spouses of Women Physicians: Communication, Compromise, and Carving Out Time,” The Qualitative Report 18, no. 52 (December 2013): 1–12.

[v] Toni Schindler Zimmerman, “Intimate Partnership: Foundation to the Successful Balance of Family and Work,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 31, no. 2 (April 2003): 107–24.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.