8:00 p.m. Arrive at restaurant. 8:20 p.m. Enjoy delicious meal. 9:00 p.m. Fight over the check. 9:04 Apologize for fighting. 9:15 Arrive home, tense and full. 9:17-10:50 p.m. Rehash argument. 11:00 p.m. Fall asleep, defeated.

No one is telling you to record the minutes of your dates, but if the spark between you and your partner feels particularly fizzled-out lately, researchers from the University of Illinois may be able to offer some relationship advice. And despite what conventional wisdom suggests, the team’s study actually encourages you not to leave your work life at the office — at least, not all of it.

Among the hallmarks of professionalism: listening, punctuality, empathy, teamwork, planning, and communicating. A healthy, romantic relationship includes each trait as well, the scientists argue, and it’s this cross-over of work ethic that ultimately could translate into household tasks, and in much the same fashion. Personal disputes only muddle productivity. If couples want to share responsibilities amicably and resist the urge to throttle each other, they need to listen actively, communicate their struggles, and handle personal stress in a healthy way that doesn’t seep into the relationship.

The problem is people only have a finite amount of energy and effort at their disposal. Carving out the appropriate tolerance level for a spouse “can be hard to do when you get home and you're tired and emotionally drained, and the second shift begins, with its cooking, cleaning, laundry, and the demands associated with children that compete for communication and quality time with your partner,” Jill R. Bowers, a researcher in the university’s Department of Human and Community Development, said in a statement.

How do couples combat this? By making relationship maintenance intentional, not incidental. Couples run into problems, Bowers says, when each partner responds to crises rather than prevents them, reacts rather than plans. Rather than leave dates open-ended, free to be planned the night-of, couples should establish a pre-determined day for when they want to go out. Then the rest of the pieces simply fall into place around it.

Bowers and her colleagues tested their so-called “Intentional Harmony” theory in the form of couples workshops, where 47 heterosexual couples participated in tests designed to improve both organizational and time management skills. They also sought to improve their work-partner balance skills — that is, the ability to transition their energy from the daily grind to life at home. Overall, the couples who practiced these skills showed lower overall emotional and physical stress levels, and were better at coping with them when they rose too high.

"You may not feel like you have the time or assume that everything's okay because your partner isn't complaining,” Bowers said. “But over time the consequences of shortchanging your relationship could mean serious relationship issues, and that has real implications for your mental and physical health. That's why we advise taking your relationship work ethic seriously and making time for your partner intentional.”

 

Source: Bowers J, Wiley A, Jones B, Ogolsky B, Branscomb K. Helping Dual-Earner Couples Manage Work–Partner Interferences: A Program Evaluation. Marriage and Family Review. 2014.