You, Me and Both of Us: Rules That Apply to Our Relationships and Our Work

by Stephanie Stern

If my job were a person, she would be a kind and gentle woman (my workplace is 90 percent female). She’d be quiet — someone that generally leaves me alone. She cares deeply about having a positive impact on the world, but sees that as a long term objective, something to toil over for the next decade or two. As a partner, she would be aloof. Appreciation would be rare. We would not have a passionate relationship, more one of convenience, circumstance and mutual appreciation.

She kind of sounds like a pill. So it’s lucky that I am not dating my job. And yet, there are many ways in which work and relationships are quite alike.

It’s a Two-Way Fit.

I’ve been on many bad dates and survived some bad job interviews; they are quite similar. I start out wanting to impress, perhaps more concerned with making sure that the other person likes me, only to realize midway through that I actually don’t want to be there. I’d rather be home, at my current job, or even at a the dentist for a deep cleaning if it’s going really badly.

With both dates and jobs, it takes two to make it work. In an interview or first date, you are looking for a two-way fit. I’ve gotten weird vibes during interviews and brushed them off. I’ve gone on second dates because I thought I was being too picky. Neither has worked out. I’ve taken the job and regretted it (though not for very long before we broke up — it was them, not me). It’s not enough for a job to like you and make you an offer when you had a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Both job opportunities (when you have the luxury of being selective; ignore this advice if you just need to make money right now) and good dates should make you excited to invest more time and energy in them. Being wanted feels good, but it’s not enough.

You Should Stay Because You Want To.

In a healthy relationship, you should feel like you can leave. Not that you wouldn’t be heartbroken, just that you would remain a complete person on your own, you would work through the heartache, and possibly meet someone else. As psychologistHarriet Lernerwrote, “The strongest relationships are between two people who can live without each other but don’t want to.”

The same is true at work. Ideally, you have the confidence that you could find another job if you wanted to. You know that you are valuable, understand your strengths, and believe that someone will look at your resume and want to hire you. (Speaking of which, you have a relatively up to date resume.) You aren’t staying put because of inertia, or because you don’t think anyone else would ever have you. Maybe you stay because you love your coworkers, it pays well, you believe in your organization’s mission or you love your day-to-day tasks. Maybe you stay because you have a family and want to prioritize stability. It may not be the perfect job or relationship, but you are there because you continue to choose to be.

Hard Times are Normal.

Despite it being a good fit and wanting to be there, neither your job nor your relationship will be perfect, and both will have their rough patches. When things get hard — whether that means a bad project or a difficult coworker — it is tempting to flee. Though this might be warranted, everything goes through ups and downs and I firmly believe that hard times are normal and don’t necessarily mean that something is wrong. The decision to leave either a relationship or a job, especially one you have been in for a while, should be considered thoughtfully, rather than a decision made hastily. There are always other things out there, but they too will have their own challenges and hard times.

Both jobs and relationships are both substantial parts of our lives, taking up a significant amount of time and mental energy. They both can either poke at our weak spots or lift us up and confirm our self-worth. And just like people, jobs can change. What starts out as a great fit might not be after some time as either you outgrow your position or organization, or as the work environment changes. And you change too in the course of any given job. You may be ready to face new challenges, or want to go in a different direction.

The same thing is true for relationships and jobs: though it takes two to make it work, it only takes one to end it.

This story is part of our relationships month series.

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).

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