The most common fight divorced people had with their exes was not about money or intimacy, according to a Forbes Advisor survey. It was about work.
Almost half, 46%, of respondents said “career choices” was the No. 1 conflict in their marriage.
How much, or how little, someone works can often signal their priorities and happiness within their marriage, says Elizabeth Cohen, a clinical psychologist known as The Divorce Doctor.
Work can often become a welcome distraction for people who aren’t ready to discuss the dysfunction in their partnership.
“I think if someone is obsessed with their work and not home a lot, it has more to do with their relationship than their work,” she says. “It’s an easy escape.”
‘I felt neglected’
In a culture that prizes professional success, it can feel counterintuitive to tell your partner to work less.
A full-time employee in the United States works an average of 1,811 hours a year, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This is 204 more hours than Japanese workers and 470 more hours than German workers. The U.S. also has no legally mandated leave. If you wanted to take no sick days and work 100 hours a week, you could.
Culturally, it’s not hard to justify putting your relationship on the backburner in the name of working hard. If there are deeper issues you know will be painful to address, work can serve as a sort of buffer.
And telling a partner that they should care more about you than their job can feel needy or immature.
“I hear this all the time,” Cohen says. “Someone says, ‘I felt neglected and I wanted to spend more time with them but they were working,’ or ‘I can’t bother my partner to ask for more time because they are working.'”
But oftentimes, Cohen says, if both people in a relationship are happy, one person working more hours is not an issue.
In an unhappy couple, logging more hours might signal deeper problems. The No. 1 warning sign that a marriage is headed toward dissolution, according to the Forbes Advisor survey, was both parties not showing interest in one another.
There is also the other side of the coin: a partner who isn’t working enough or isn’t pursuing a lucrative career.
Someone working in a creative field, Cohen says, might not see a huge pay-off for years, if ever. As a couple gets older and home ownership or children become financial factors, that career choice can become a real pain point.
“Something that felt really exciting in the beginning, like, ‘oh my god my partner is an actor,’ — seven years later when they haven’t booked anything and they are depressed all the time, it’s not so fun,” Cohen says.
People struggle with ‘communicating their needs’
There is also an unpredictability to career growth than many people don’t anticipate.
The median age at which Americans get married is 29, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s very unlikely that a person’s career trajectory will be linear for the next three or more decades.
Someone who worked 80 hours a week in their 20s might burn out by their 40s. Someone who was fine working less might want to go back to school and pursue a more demanding profession.
“When people get married they are young and getting into their careers,” Cohen says. “You don’t know how connected someone is going to be to their career down the line.”
Generally, Cohen feels that “career choices” is the easy way to say “I didn’t feel like a priority.”
“One of the main things people struggle with in relationships is communicating their needs,” she says.
Telling a workaholic you need attention can feel as intimidating. So can telling an unemployed or underemployed person you need space or for them to contribute more financially.
Both conversations are uncomfortable and while they are about career choices, they are also about much more.
DON’T MISS: Want to be smarter and more successful with your money, work & life? Sign up for our new newsletter!
Get CNBC’s free Warren Buffett Guide to Investing, which distills the billionaire’s No. 1 best piece of advice for regular investors, do’s and don’ts, and three key investing principles into a clear and simple guidebook.