IT People Are From Mars: Why Your Marriages Are From Hell or Headed There

We asked you, IT pros: What do you wish your spouse knew about your job? Surprise: Your answers spoke more about your communication mistakes at home than they did about your spouse's shortcomings. Read on for advice on how to fix this before a nasty crash.

Recently, I posed the following question to the CIO Forum on LinkedIn: What do you wish your spouse understood about your job?

A dozen IT executives and IT directors—11 men and one woman—responded to the question publicly in the forum or privately via e-mail. Only one respondent, Jim Weeks, answered, "Nothing. She knows it all." Weeks attributed his wife's understanding of his job to the fact that they work together at Greenwich Hospital—she as the telecom manager and he as the CIO—and that they collaborate on projects both at work and at home.

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Most of the 11 other respondents' answers to my question expressed some frustration with their jobs or with their marriages, or both. (The one woman who responded to my question wrote about the guilt-trips her kids lay on her for having to work long hours.) Their responses boiled down to the following five themes:

  1. I don't want to discuss the details of my workday when I get home.
  2. Don't call me at work unless it's an emergency.
  3. If I don't return your phone call, it's not because I'm mad at you/don't love you. It's because I'm busy.
  4. IT management is not a 9-to-5 job. It's complicated, demanding and stressful.
  5. I'm not a tech support person, and I can't fix all of the family's home technology problems, especially when I'm at work. I spend my time on strategic issues and networking with other C-level executives.

Sound familiar?

Wanting to get some insight into the CIO Forum members' responses, I presented the five points to Stuart Schneiderman, a psychoanalyst turned life coach who helps executives navigate their relationships and careers. His take? Well, IT folks, take a deep breath because you're not gonna like it.

Schneiderman thinks the IT leaders' wishes speak more about their own foibles than they do about their spouses' shortcomings.

"The way some of these guys are treating their wives is just terrible," he says. "I don't think they harbor hostility; they just don't understand what their behavior means, how it's being received [by their spouses], and how to go about changing it. Presumably, these guys know how to manage people, but they're not using their management skills at home."

Schneiderman makes an important point about management skills. If IT leaders mistreat people at work, their organizations don't run effectively, he notes. And that's precisely the problem they're facing at home, he says: Their home organizations are dysfunctional because they're not treating their spouses well; they're taking them for granted.

Instead of dismissing their spouses as harpies, these IT leaders should approach their marital problems as a management challenge, he says. With the right type of communication, and by taking small, proactive measures to demonstrate that they're thinking about their spouses, Schneiderman says IT leaders can have happier, more satisfying marriages. And who doesn't want that?

Below, Schneiderman explains the subtext behind each of the five points and suggests easy ways IT leaders can address their significant others' emotional needs.

1. I don't want to discuss the details of my workday when I get home.

Schneiderman: "She probably doesn't want to hear about it, either. She's just trying to make conversation and get you to talk about something. A wife who's staying home to take care of small children, for example, is spending her day running after and talking to six-year-olds. She is looking for a bit of adult conversation and that's what she's trying to initiate."

"Don't take her question about your day literally, and if you don't want to talk about the specifics of your day, find some other way to engage her. If you have a highly technical job and can't discuss it with your spouse because she wouldn't understand it, find non-technical stuff you can talk about, like management. You're talking to someone who presumably is a good judge of character because she married you. Use what she's smart about and bring her in."

2. Don't call me at work unless it's an emergency.

Schneiderman: "These guys don't understand that women call their husbands for other reasons besides an emergency. They want to check in. They want to connect. The way you deal with that is to preempt it. If you don't want to have a long conversation on the phone with you wife, call her and say, 'I only have three minutes before my next meeting, but I just wanted to tell you I love you.' That will get you a weeks' worth of whatever you want. Little gestures that show consideration and thoughtfulness solve a lot of these problems and allow you to avoid huge conflicts."

3. If I don't return your phone call, it's not because I'm mad at you/don't love you. It's just because I'm busy.

Schneiderman: "A lot of this comes down to respect and good manners. No one is so busy that they can't return a phone call. It's rude not to return phone calls. That's bad behavior. You shouldn't do it to your staff or colleagues, and just because you're married doesn't give you the right to be rude to your spouse. To think that you can't treat your wife with respect and courtesy because she's your wife is really strange. She will get upset, and that's a normal reaction. If you call in for 12 seconds and say, 'Honey, I just want you to know that I love you,' you're covered. Otherwise, it feels like a cat-and-mouse game: She calls. He doesn't call back. She calls again and doesn't reach him. She gets upset. These guys are caught in a battle of the wills."

4. IT management is not a 9-to-5 job. It's complicated, demanding and stressful.

Schneiderman: "What makes you think your spouse doesn't know your job is stressful? She knows that. To assume she doesn't is rude and insulting."

"It's easier for a husband or wife to deal with the fact that his or her spouse has a 9-to-9 job if the spouse calls in at 5 or 6 and says, 'You wouldn't believe what's happening around here. I wish I was home with you.' Those sentences take 15 seconds."

"When your spouse complains about the long hours you have to work, she's saying she'd like to spend more time with you. She's expressing a wish, not a demand. Would you rather she didn't want to spend more time with you? She's saying she misses you, and that's kind of nice. If you could provide some companionship to your wife, you'd have a happier marriage. If she doesn't get it from you, she'll start chatting with the pool boy, and that's not going to make you happy, either."

5. I'm not a tech support person, and I can't fix all of the family's home technology problems, especially when I'm at work. I spend my time on strategic issues and networking with other C-level executives.

Schneiderman: "If your spouse doesn't understand exactly what you do, maybe you haven't explained it clearly to her. You can't expect anyone to understand something you haven't explained.

"You may not be a tech support person, but you probably know more than your spouse does. You can either a) walk her through the process of fixing whatever's not working, b) tell her to call Apple or Dell tech support, or c) tell her you'll take care of it when you get home. Say something that shows you want to be cooperative, not dismissive. Saying, 'I'm a high-level executive focused on strategy' sounds like an ego trip or a power trip."

"Think about how your dismissiveness sounds to your kids. Your kids think you're a tech genius and a hero. When your wife calls you for help with the computer, it may be because your kid needs the computer to do his or her homework. When you essentially tell your wife to bug off, your kid can't do his or her homework. It makes your kid feel like he isn't important enough for you, and you go from hero to zero in one step."

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