59

My husband and I work from home and share a work office. We have so for 5 years. We also have a new 7-week-old baby girl.

Prior to her birth, we used to ask each other how work was going all the time: "what are you up to?" I'd ask, or "are you working?" I didn't ask because I want to monitor if he's working a lot, but because I want to know if it's safe to disturb him or even just find out about his day. These were always received fine when no defense at all.

Now our little girl is here and there's a lot more pressure for him to work (since I'm not working yet) and because we all are currently still in survival mode where there just aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done. These same questions have become dangerous to ask. He becomes defensive and feels like I'm judging him by not working enough or because he's taking a break when he should be helping out with our daughter. These aren't my intentions at all, but the situation is much more difficult and stressful now.

To be clear, this happens to me too. It's very easy to feel judged, because I do things differently - maybe he thinks I leave her a bit too long undressed before her bath and I feel judged and defensive.

Suddenly it feels like we are behaving as enemies instead of as friends in some aspects and are suspicious of each others' behavior.

I would like to be able to talk to my husband without him becoming defensive and thinking I'm an enemy - or even just minimizing my chances of him feeling this way. I want to talk to him about his actions just to find out about his day again without it being bad. How do I ask him about his actions without him becoming defensive?

  • I rejected the "work progress" edit because while the example is related to his work, the point is to be able to ask about other stuff too. – user6818 Jul 9 '18 at 20:33

10 Answers 10

46

I really understand and know how he feels, and it's really something that you two should communicate about. I'll try to suggest some options that would do for me (where I'm in the place of the husband).

If those options don't feel right to you, or you want more options - I warmly suggest to ask him for an example of how you can approach him for a certain reason in a certain time, where you emphasize it's not from a judgmental place, but from a loving and caring place.

Some options

  • Is it going well?

  • Are you satisfied with your progress?

  • Can I take a moment of your time? If it's not a good time, tell me when you're less busy/concentrated.

  • Let me know when you can/want to take a little break, so we could be together and maybe talk a bit

You can suggest that he takes a little break or offer something, if you want to know if he's working and very busy, or how it's going:

  • I see you work a lot, why won't you take yourself a moment to relax?

  • Can I suggest you something to motivate/cheer you up?

When you ask questions about what he's doing ("what are you up to?") and especially if he's working ("are you working?"), combined with the feeling he has that you feel that he's not doing enough, it will rarely not be understood as "pushing" or criticizing.

If it's a case where you don't know how he feels about it, and maybe it's just something going over him that he hasn't shared yet, then it's a bit harder to understand and to know what to say, but also solvable with a talk about that.

Since you know that it's a hard time for you two, and that he clearly needs to work a lot, it's easy and kind of the default (from my experience) to get offended from things that may imply that he's not working hard enough or that he's being criticized.

So for conclusion - try to approach the questions from a different way, which will not ask him what he does in the same old way. And try to clear it up with him that you don't mean to give him the feeling you're criticizing him, because you're not. If it's going well, ask him how he would like to be approached, and try to go with it - but note that he might be wrong about himself, that happens, so maybe there will be a need for more tries with different phrases/questions.

And congrats for the baby!

  • 1
    It might be helpful to note that you cannot control whether he is defensive or not. You could say all the right things, and he might still respond that way. You can only control and take responsibility for your own actions. – mbomb007 Jul 9 '18 at 19:51
  • She cannot control, but if she will - she might reduce the chances to an almost non-existing chance – arieljannai Jul 10 '18 at 6:27
25

I'm a work-from-home CEO with 3 small children, so I completely sympathise with you guys! I agree with the comments @arieljannai made already. I just want to add this suggestion: start with coffee, or whatever he usually drinks!

My wife will come in with a coffee and a hug, and when she asks "how's it going", or "how're you doing", I'm much more relaxed about it, since it's clearly a loving, affectionate gesture.

Contrast that with the fact that I can get very defensive if my wife comes into the office in a mood (or what I perceive to be a moody manner) because I'm "in the zone" and I feel it completely drains my productivity instantly. I understand that she's probably just tired, and her intention is not to be moody, but it still has that draining effect on my work. She has realised this, and we had a talk about it; we've since agreed that I will take small breaks in the day to help her out, just 10 minutes here and there so she gets a break. The rest of the time I will tell her in advance that I need 2 hours uninterrupted, or whatever it is, and I will close the door to concentrate. Other times when nothing was agreed, she will come in with a coffee, or a snack or such, and we'll just have a 5-minute catch up.

It's never going to be perfect, as in any office situation, but it can be better! You've also got to agree to keep short accounts with each other; don't hold on to brief frustrations, life is too short and it's just not worth it.

I hope that helps, it's certainly been useful in my own work situation. All the best!

9

There is a simple reality, children change everything. It is like being single, and when things get too much you can walk away, except with kids, you are tired, overwhelmed and there is always more to do than one has time, and nothing is how you would like it, and your buttons are being pushed in ways you never thought those buttons existed.

Because this is new you need to explore and establish how each other work in this new framework.

Some guys find these changes too much, or need more time, or have to establish how they can help and what they can give and not give. Outside support from parents, friends etc also changes, as well as money, expectations, holidays, food times, leisure times, even what your partner actually wants to do.

So I suggest looking for the positive, things that work, things that go well and you both are discovering. This change in life is going from being a child of ones family, to becoming the parent with responsibilities and choices, which suck. It can be hard to say it sucks. Me and my wife with our hyper active first kid, got so tired, we would fall asleep, and then debate who was going to get up and do the next thing. It can be fun, like all growing experiences, it also shows who you really are. What matters is doing it together, and letting each share as they choose, at the right time.

9

My husband and I have worked together at home for decades, and raised two children doing it. Some tips:

  • give before you take. An open ended question like "are you working?" is a bit like a university friend asking "what are you doing this weekend?" - they might want to invite you to a great party, or they might need help moving. So "Are you up for a break, I was going to take the baby for a walk if you'd like to come?" or "are you at a pause point, I really need to go to the bathroom by myself if you could keep an eye on the baby" are really different questions. First give some information, then ask your question
  • try not to ask questions that require collapsing "the zone" to answer. "What are you doing?" is super vague. "Is this interruptible?" or "can we do that Amazon order now?" is specific.
  • develop (and stick to firmly) a signalling technique. This could be "door closed = leave me alone" or "standing up = interruptible" (you don't need a standing desk for this, I often stood while reading Twitter or watching a video) or whatever other visible way you can communicate status. The desk person has to be good about opening that door when they don't want to be left alone, or standing up to show they're not thinking deeply.
  • if you just wanted to ask "how did your day go?" put some context to it. "Remember when we used to relax at the end of the day and ask "how was work?" -- how was work, anyway?". Now it's clear there's not some high-stakes "you better have got a lot done because you sure didn't help me" thing going on.
  • if you miss work and wish you were doing some of it, or are curious about a client or project you know, ask about that specifically: "Did X ever choose their Y system?" "Are we getting anywhere with ABC?" "How is D these days?"

Things get easier - the baby gets to be less work, sleep improves at least a little, you get better at baby tasks (and more confident about your own way of doing them), and you learn these new communication techniques.

6

In addition to the other answers - how you say it, is as important as what you say. You might not notice the stress in your voice, but he might hear it.

Standing in the doorway and saying "Are you working"; a hug from behind and a whisper in the ear "Are you working"; and shouting up the stairs the same quote are 3 very different things.

Taking the 3rd as an example - shouting up a phrase as innocent as even "would you like a tea" - which seems like it could only be a loving thing, means to reply he has to break his train of thought, unmangle the words said because they're not clear, and shout back a reply. If he's stressed - it's not going to help matters. I'm not saying you ARE doing that; but I'm highlighting how something that is clearly intended to be helpful can still increase tensions.

You've not made any comment about how you're saying these; which means maybe you're not thinking about how you're saying it. I'd have a think if there's a way you can say it so there's no confusion.

4

Qualify it.


Before you ask what you want to ask directly point out what he might get defensive about and defuse it:

I'm not asking this because I think you're not working enough...

or

What I'm about to ask is not meant to insinuate that I think you should be helping out with our daughter...


You could then continue with your purpose of what you want to ask:

...I just want to know if it's safe to disturb you...

or

...I just want to see how your day is going....


Then what you want to ask:

What are you up to?

or

Are you in the middle of something?


Qualifying what you want to ask does a good job of clearing the air and defusing defensiveness because you've already stated what your intentions are and aren't. This works especially well with things that people are easy to be sensitive about.

  • 2
    I don't think that would work. Certainly with some people drawing attention to it like that would if anything make it worse. – Tim B Jul 10 '18 at 12:39
3

You both need couple time away from your kid to reconnect emotionally. Basically, before your daughter was born, all your time together was couple time. Now none of your time together is couple time; instead it's all parent time. That's necessary to create your bond with your daughter, but you need to make some time for the bond between the two of you.

I don't necessarily mean going out on a date, although that's fun too. I just mean some time to sit and talk to each other about how you're feeling. When the kid is safely asleep (tough, I know) sit down together and talk. It's just a chance to touch base with each other. To disarm any defensiveness, try to be as open as you can be about your feelings - I'm feeling overwhelmed, tired, scared, etc. all the things new parents feel.

I know for me and my wife, if we're in a situation where we can't connect like this, for example on a long vacation, our relationship suffers from exactly the kind of communication problems you describe. But when we can both take a deep breath and start talking about where we're at, the connection strengthens and communication becomes easy again.

It's easy to take your relationship for granted when it's just the two of you. When you're parents you're going to have to force yourself to make time for each other. Because your time is now at a premium, you're also going to have to cut to the chase quicker, be more honest and open about your feelings, and more open to hearing the other's feelings without getting defensive than perhaps you've been used to. It's all part of the maturity that parenthood forces on you whether you're ready for it or not. It's tempting to think it's only the way things are phrased that's the problem, but it's really the emotional connection. Handle that, and then you two can handle anything together.

3

Your husband sounds like me. I work from home three days per week, two in the office. I'm unfortunately always very busy with work solving hard problems, we are a single income household and I take pride in my work, knowing I am able to support my family. If your husband is like me, his defensive behaviour stems from years working in an office and being micro managed.

I unfortunately spent the better part of six years working with a maniac tech lead who was a super micro manager, always asking me what I was working on, what I was doing and questioning everything I did. When I left this toxic place, it took me so long to realise that this wasn't normal and most decent places are hands off and not like this at all. but the damage had already been done.

As a result I have a defensive instinct when I am being asked how things are going not only by my wife, but also other people. My mind immediately jumps to the defense because it's like working with the micro managing tech lead all over again. I am desperately trying to overcome this flaw, and I am getting better at stopping myself before jumping to the defence.

My best bit of advice wouldn't be to ask questions that a manager would ask, ask them informally.

  • How is your day going?
  • Is everything going okay?
  • Is there anything I can do for you?

Because I've acknowledged my behaviour with my wife, she is more understanding and has used the above approches to communicate with me about my day. She usually brings me over a coffee and a snack when she gets a moment (although her hands are full with the kids).

1

I've been with my wife for 41 terrific years. We almost broke up several times, and what helps keep relationships going is improving communication around conflict. The Gottman institute has some great, evidence-based advice for couples. They have specific stuff about 'new baby' situations.

Basically, relationships succeed if they have 5x positive vs. negative interactions. There's a temptation to only talk about problems, and not the positives, so one of Gottman's great pieces of advice is

"Before starting, name five things your partner did for you over the past week that you appreciate."

THEN you can make "I statements," like "It bothers me that we're fighting so much, and I want to make things better. I found this resource online about how to make it easier to talk about things. I'd like to try it."

I would like to be able to talk to my husband without him becoming defensive and thinking I'm an enemy

There was a great book about conflict in relationships called "The Intimate Enemy; how to fight fair in love and marriage," covering much of the same material, now out of print, but still can be found in libraries.

0

When he is defensive, obviously he is little behind his expectations. When asked on performance, he compares all his actual work (career, you and the kid) with his expected work and conclude he is failing.

Ask him about his general feelings instead. "Ain't it exhausting?" "Wanna a sip of coffee?" Let him to answer this question without asking directly and belittle his feeling of failure, the delay is not that bad.

Maybe he is defensive because he expects that you want him to work. Either on earning (more) money or with your daughter. "Katie is finally sleeping well, are you busy?" diffuse the daddy-duties while your positive tone (if possible) can diffuse the other "attack".

Maybe he wants to be with you and Katie more, but his work is preventing from that. And while defensive he is shouting "Why are you asking whether I want to be with you. I do want but those bloody papers make me stuck there instead!" When Katie is calm and happy go visit him playing asking her about him. "Look daddy is having hard day, can we make him smile?"

VWFeature reminded me of one diffusing "tool" that solves a lot. Be thankful for everything he is doing for you (both singular and plural) and let him know that. Do not take anything for granted. That little "thank you" can recharge the batteries a lot.