Mind and Body

Bringing negative emotion home can make job problems worse, study shows

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It is awful to see your spouse under stress at work. It is worse still to have to hear about it every night.

Partners want to be able to talk and hear about each other’s work lives, but complaining about problems at work can morph into a rant, robbing a partner of rest and relaxation. Negative emotion spilling from work into home life can actually make job problems worse, research shows.

Mike Fisher took comfort in talking with his wife Julie about heavy stress on a previous job years ago, when a new boss was showering him with criticism. “Julie would hear about it every night when I got home,” he says.

Ms. Fisher admits she sometimes tuned out, but she also listened and encouraged him. When Mr. Fisher developed high blood pressure and ulcers, she helped him decide to quit, telling him, “It’s not worth it. Life is too short,” says Ms. Fisher, who now works with her husband in their own business, Our Town America, a Tampa, Fla., direct-marketing company.

Complaining becomes a problem when it goes on too long, says Patricia Pitta, a Manhasset, N.Y., clinical psychologist. Most job troubles aren’t easily resolved, yet “the person who’s in distress just wants to keep talking about it because they’re feeling so uncomfortable. And before you know it, it’s 10 p.m.,” she says.

A negative mood can be contagious. Marie Osborne says that when her husband Nathan often came home frustrated and angry from a previous job several years ago, she sometimes felt like snapping at him. “You sometimes want to just say, ‘Quit your job!’ ” says Ms. Osborne, a San Diego blogger on family and faith. She made an effort to be empathetic, reminding herself that her husband had supported her during difficult times in the past, and her husband soon found a job he likes.

Spouses often want to give advice. Kathy Murray, a former chief financial officer, used to respond to her husband Doug’s complaints about his job years ago by telling him to network more or knock on more doors, says Ms. Murray, of Santa Ana, Calif.

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