Working With Jerks Could Be Screwing Up Your Relationships

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There’s more to the relationship between your professional and personal life than setting a witty “away” message when you finally go on vacation. Like Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer would say, acting like there’s a wall between your “work” and your “life” is misguided, since you’re the same being, with the same consciousness, and the same needs, whether you have Slack open or not.

This comes into particular focus with a new study in the Journal of Management. A research team lead by Sandy Lim from the National University of Singapore finds that when people have hostile experiences at work, they’re more likely to be angry or withdrawn when they get home. Lim and her colleagues had 56 participants — averaging 39 years old, 72 percent women — from a large public institution in Southeast Asia report their emotional states on an online survey in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Then, at night, their spouses would report on the way that they acted. This went on over two working weeks.

In what will be no surprise to anyone who’s ever worked with a contemptuous maniac, when people had hostile work experiences — one example from the study is if a colleague “put you down or act[ed] condescending to you” — they were less pleasant to be around when at home. They would turn that anger outward, acting aggressively toward their partners, or inward, withdrawing from them. “Our findings show that the experience of incivility was positively related to feelings of hostility, which was in turn associated with increased angry family behaviors, as rated by spouses,” Lim and her colleagues write. “This suggests that individual emotions do fluctuate on a day-to-day basis in response to incivility at work, and these emotional responses can have consequences even in the home environment.” The research reinforces the link between between how being in a hostile environment at work can lead to expressing hostility in the home. Earlier studies found that working in high-risk occupations — like policing — has an association with partner abuse, and that high workloads and time pressure lead to emotional exhaustion.

The study looks like another example of “social contagion”: behaviors — like anger — tend to pass between people. It’s an inverted golden rule: Rather than treating others like you want to be treated, you end up treating the people you’re close to like how others treated you. It makes me think of the sage advice that a relationship therapist gave to me last month: If you don’t put your inner experience into words, all your partner can do is read your behavior. Lim’s study suggests that if your boss was a jerk, there’s a good chance you’ll be grouchy or aloof with your partner, which your partner may interpret as being directed at them, even when it’s not. So please, invite their empathy by detailing the dickishness of your colleagues, so that instead of having work drama pull you guys apart, it can bring you together.