By Jessica and Kevin Lahner
Committed relationships are not always rainbows and roses. Being the chief executive in a city or county places stresses on romantic partnerships. Late-night meetings, public scrutiny, and the “always on” feeling that comes with living in a fishbowl are just a few of the pressures.
Married for 20 years, we’ve experienced all of these stressors and more. Kevin has spent 14 years in local government executive positions. Jessica, a psychologist at Carroll University, has ridden the roller coaster that accompanies the role of partner of the chief executive. As in all relationships, we’ve had highs and lows. Many of the lows resulted from the unique stressors of the local government management profession and had the potential to damage, even ruin, our marriage.
Fortunately, putting empirically validated psychological research into practice has allowed our relationship to thrive through tough times. These are practices that could benefit any marriage. However, we believe that they can especially protect the committed relationships of local government management professionals, as people in that line of work face unique vulnerabilities.
Psychologist and renowned relationship expert John Gottman spent four decades studying the ingredients of successful relationships. In fact, his research allows him to accurately predict divorce more than 90 percent of the time.1 By using the tools informed by Gottman’s research, we can work on our relationships as hard as we work on managing the city’s budget.
Tips for Handling Unique Stressors
Relationships in the local government management profession come with unique risks. According to Gottman’s research, job stressors (which can include job changes, relocations, and shifts in financial status) pose significant threats to marriages2 —and all of these are common in local government management. Mix in the high visibility of our roles that often have an impact on our partners, and you wonder how we manage to stay married! We know that approximately 50 percent of couples in the United States divorce (although millennial divorce rates seem to be trending lower).3 Given this perfect combination of stressors, we suspect the rate in city administration is even higher.
The average tenure of a local government chief administrative officer in any single position is seven years. Add residency requirements to the equation, and a job switch often means a move to a new community.
To reduce the liabilities this stressor can place on marriage, have conversations early about career priorities and potential moves. For example, we made the decision that Kevin’s higher earning potential meant we would prioritize his career. The frequent moves we predicted would accompany this choice meant that Jessica wasn’t able to pursue her goal of establishing a stable psychology practice. Instead, she pursued more flexible work that allows her career to roll with the changes that accompany Kevin’s city management positions.
Scot Simpson, city administrator in River Falls, Wisconsin, can relate to the sacrifices that spouses of city managers often make. “With all the things that my spouse has done for my profession, and her forgoing professional opportunities for herself, I’ve got to be a help to her with whatever I can,” Simpson said.
The risk of being fired is also higher than in many professions. Have discussions with your family about this possibility. Preparing children is especially important. Kids will be navigating the firing of a parent on a personal level and may even read about it online or be asked about it at school.
Navigating social and professional boundaries
Drawing a line between social and professional relationships poses another unique stressor, often for both the manager and the family. We spend considerable time with elected officials and members of the local business community. Conscious decisions about whom we interact with socially are critical.
Ask yourself whether the professional and personal relationships will conflict at some point during your tenure, and if the relationship is worth that risk. Likewise, spouses should consider their personal relationships—developing a friendship with the spouse of a council member, for example, can be challenging during times of manager-council conflict.
Especially when we live in the communities we manage, we often feel forced to put on our “manager hat” when we prefer to be off the clock. Many managers who are out with their families are approached by residents about city-related issues. Unfortunately, residents may approach spouses as well. Jessica is often confronted with complaints about snow plowing while she’s grocery shopping. She’s become adept at passing along Kevin’s contact information after clearly stating that she doesn’t involve herself in city-related issues!
Pressures on the manager’s children
In the worst cases, these social pressures extend to managers’ children. We’ll never forget when our 10-year-old twins were questioned by a teacher about a contentious issue reported in our local paper. It’s helpful to prepare yourself and your family for these situations and develop specific strategies for coping. We learned, for example, that role-playing responses helped our kids feel confident when adults in our community put them in these unfortunate situations.
Signs of Trouble and Their Remedies
How can we tell if we’re managing our relationship for long-term success? What can we do if we recognize problems in our marriage? Gottman’s research4 uncovered common red-flag behaviors that result in divorce nearly 80 percent of the time. The good news is that this research also outlines alternative proactive behaviors couples can use to help their relationships thrive.
Criticism versus complaints
The first red flag is criticism, or attacking our partners personally instead of confronting the behavior that’s frustrating us. For example, because we prioritized Kevin’s career, there was a point in our marriage when Jessica believed Kevin was consistently disregarding her plans to accommodate his work commitments. Kevin’s frequent, “I just found out I have a meeting tonight; can you cancel your book club plans to stay with the kids?” requests were starting to sound selfish. Jessica was also creating stories in her head that assumed Kevin didn’t care about her needs and didn’t perceive them as important.
The remedy to this situation, according to Gottman, is to neutrally “state complaints” while sharing feelings. For example, Jessica could have attacked Kevin personally: “You never prioritize my commitments. It’s like you don’t care about what I need just because we decided that your career will be the priority.”
See how this personal attack assumed that the story in Jessica’s head was true? Most of us would react defensively to this criticism—it’s the perfect invitation to unhealthy conflict. Managers experience frequent public criticism, so personal attacks that continue at home can be especially exhausting.
Instead, Jessica could have stated her complaints and accompanying feelings neutrally: “I’m frustrated when you ask me to give up something that’s important to me. I’d like us to find a way to fit my plans and your work commitments into our calendar.” This allows Kevin to see the impact on Jessica and invites collaboration toward a workable solution.
Defensiveness versus responsibility
The second red flag Gottman identified is defensiveness—the natural response to criticism. A sure sign of defensiveness is when you continually repeat yourself in an argument to get your point across, or you respond to your partner’s point with “yes, but.” Take this interaction, for example:
Jessica: “I need you to prioritize my commitments. It’s like you don’t care about my needs.”
Kevin: “Yes, but my career is important. I don’t think it’s that big a deal if some of your social events have to be rescheduled.”
Using “yes, but” makes it sound like Kevin is listening and agreeing, but really he’s disagreeing and restating his case. An effective alternative is acknowledging responsibility. Here’s a healthier exchange:
Jessica: “I understand that it’s difficult to handle all the competing commitments of your job. I’ll try to plan my activities so that they’re known in advance, and you can schedule around them.”
Kevin: “I appreciate your need to have a social life. I’ll work on drawing clear boundaries at work as to when I’m available.”
Instead of striking back defensively, both parties acknowledge their responsibility in the situation while responding to their partner’s needs.
Contempt versus appreciation
A third red flag is contempt—expressing superiority through insults, mockery, hostile humor, or eye rolling in hopes of hurting your partner. This is the most dangerous and strongest predictor of divorce. Contempt can build if unaddressed issues stew over time.
Regularly demonstrating authentic appreciation for your spouse can prevent the buildup of contempt. The most effective method of expressing appreciation involves doing small things often. Little gestures like bringing your spouse morning coffee or sending quick “love” texts, will help couples weather the storm of inevitable conflict and stress. Gottman’s research indicates that the most stable marriages have a 5:1 ratio—five positive interactions for every negative one.5
Keys to a Thriving Relationship
Gottman’s 45 years of accumulated research suggest key behaviors in thriving relationships: Think of these as protective factors. They protect our relationship from the stress, scrutiny, and uncertainty that often accompany public sector careers.
Handle conflict constructively
Handling conflict constructively provides the most protection from relationship stress. Constructive conflict resolution often involves reframing the root of the problem. The issue in contention (e.g., Kevin’s meetings that conflict with Jessica’s commitments) is generally not the “problem.” Rather, the problem is how we handle the conflict.
Maintain your friendship
The second key is maintaining your friendship and continuing to get to know your partner as he or she changes over time. Regular date nights, for example, provide meaningful opportunities for emotional intimacy. Prioritizing time for connection can be a struggle. “With the stress of the city and the issues of the day, you try to leave that behind for your spouse,” said Jeremy Smith, city administrator in Sussex, Wisconsin. “We try to have a date night here and there, but with all the responsibilities of the job, it can be a challenge.”
Gottman advises that you make this connection time non-negotiable. Morning coffee, leisurely walks, or long talks on the couch after putting the kids to bed all count. Ask each other open-ended questions that lead to meaningful conversation. Don’t know where to start? Try questions like these:
- What was your favorite part of today?
- How have things turned out differently for us than you predicted when we first got together?
- What do you enjoy most about our relationship?
- What are the top 3 things on your personal bucket list you’d like to accomplish in the next decade?
- If there were no limitations, what would be your next career move and why?
These conversation starters are similar to those suggested in Gottman’s latest book, Eight Dates: Essential conversations for a lifetime of love. 6 Gottman’s latest research suggests that tackling eight specific topics will add depth and longevity to your romantic partnership.
Turn toward your partner
The final protective factor is “turning toward” your partner when he or she makes a bid for your attention. For example, if your partner says: “Look at that beautiful sunset,” you have a choice. You can say something dismissive like, “That’s nice” with a quick glance. Or you can say something like, “Wow! Those colors are beautiful.”
Each time you turn toward your partner, you’re making a deposit in your “relationship piggy bank.” This is the bank that we draw from in tough times. Gottman’s research shows that happy couples turn toward each other 85 percent of the time, while unsatisfied couples do so only 36 times out of 100.
In our experience, healthy relationships at home nurture successful careers—whatever the profession. But maintaining a committed relationship is hard work. The effort we put in is not just about the life we’re leading right now, it’s about the relationship we want in the future. When the stress of the profession threatens to seep into your partnership (because it will!) remember the goal—filling your relationship piggy bank for today and firstname.lastname@example.org). Kevin M. Lahner is city administrator, Waukesha, Wisconsin (email@example.com).
Endnotes and Resources
1 Gottman, J. & Levenson, R. (2002). A Two-Factor Model for Predicting When Couples Will Divorce: Exploratory analysis using 14-year longitudinal data. Family Processes Journal, 41, 83-96.
2 Gottman, J.M. (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Harmony Books, NY.
3 Kennedy, S. & Ruggles, S. (2014). Breaking Up is Hard to Count: The rise of divorce in the United States, 1980-2010, (51), 587-598.; DePaulo, P. (Feb. 2017). What is the Divorce Rate Really? Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-single/201702/what-is-the...
4 Gottman, J. (1994). What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., Hillsdale, NJ.
5 Gottman, J., Levenson, R. (1999). What Predicts Change in Marital Interaction Over Time? A Study of Alternative Models. Family Process Journal, 38, 143-58.
6 Gottman, J., Gottman, G, Abrams, D, & Abrams C. (2019). Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Workman Publishing, NY.