explaining to my boss that marital stress is impacting my work

A reader writes:

I’m a software developer, and I’ve been separated from my wife for eight months; we’ve been together over ten years. I brought the house into the marriage, but didn’t get a pre-nuptial agreement, so family law in my jurisdiction says she gets half the value of the house. When she gets her half of the family capital, she’s moving out — yes, we’ve been living together for the last eight months. The older step-son is attending university, and I’ve said I’ll pay for that while he stays with me. My younger step-son is moving out with my wife, and will finish high school while living with her. If I want to keep the house (I do), I’m going to have to re-mortgage the house; with interest rates rising I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get approval for that, which means selling the house I’ve been in for 20 years, paying the real estate agent a huge commission and moving.

While this has been going on, I’ve been driving my wife into work and picking her up on the way home — so I’m on her schedule. In anticipation of taking the house back, I’ve been paying all of the family-related bills, including insurance on the van she drives and her cell phone.

I tried to resolve the marital issue — when I knew things were going downhill, starting about 2.5 years ago, I tried to discuss things with my wife, without success. Eventually, I arranged sessions with a marriage counsellor, and we saw her every two weeks for 14 months; the conclusion was that we were trying to revive a marriage that had been dead for some time. I then contacted a lawyer, collected all of the family’s financials, and got the lawyer to do the calculations to suggest a buyout that I could offer my wife. My wife ridiculed my lawyer’s calculations, demanded more than twice what my lawyer suggested would be fair, but refused to get a lawyer of her own until three weeks ago.

I’ve been with my employer 2.5 years, and is my six month review is coming up. Friday I got a hint from my team lead that he was hoping my production would improve soon. The complication is that he’s a good friend of mine — we’ve known each other for close to ten years. He’s aware of the stresses I’m going through; when I’m able to focus on my work, I’m very good at what I do. Sometimes I can’t focus, and I surf the net, read the headlines, and generally goof off (no games, no porn, I’m just not doing any work).

I understand this sounds like a ridiculous and tragic soap opera; all along I’ve tried my best to resolve the situation, but right now I’m carrying a lot of stress, and on of the things it’s affecting is my job performance. I just hope I can explain that in a rational way at my performance review. Your thoughts?

Tell your boss that you know the stress is impacting your performance. It’s far better to have him think that your performance is suffering due to stress in your personal life than just that your performance is suffering. Tell him you’re aware of it, it’s a difficult time, and that you’re making a concerted effort to get past it. Ask for some flexibility in the meanwhile.

Good bosses understand that employees are human and that they have personal lives, and that sometimes really difficult things happen in their personal lives. If you were dealing with the death of a close family member, I wonder if you’d be being so hard on yourself for being impacted by it. Divorce is stressful too, and you should allow yourself that.

That said, you do need to make a point of working on strategies to minimize the impact on your work. Stop giving in to the impulse to goof off online at work. You might even consider one of the programs that block you from the Internet for specific chunks of time.

On a personal note, it might be worth considering that driving your wife to and from work everyday might really be above and beyond the call of duty, particularly since it’s impacting your ability to devote more time to your job, and particularly since your wife isn’t exactly being nice to you in return. You might also do whatever you can to speed up your wife’s exit from your home, since I have to think that continuing to live together is simply prolonging this suffering, and delaying the day when you can start moving forward.

This sucks. Talk to your boss about how it’s impacting your work, ask him to work with you while this is playing out, and good luck.

You can read updates to this post here and here.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Arlena*

    Divorce is stressful. I'm sorry it's so hard. It is understandable that it's affecting every other areas of your life.

    That said, you CAN take control of some things. Your company may have an EAP program that will provide you with free, confidential counseling. Use it. Or find your own counselor. You need to set priorities and figure out what you can and can't control. Alison's comment about getting your wife to and from work is spot-on. She's not your problem now. Your job is your problem.

  2. Class factotum*

    My husband, who was in a similar situation with his first wife (two stepchildren whose father paid no child support and whom my husband paid to educate – he also paid for ex's college), suggests that LW should not pay for stepson's tuition and should stop being so nice to the ex, especially when LW is getting nothing out of it.

  3. Anonymous*

    My ex and I lived in the same house for 18 months after he decided he wanted out. It was unbelievably stressful as much of the time he wouldn't even speak to me as we came and went, but I kept hanging in there thinking we could work things out. It affected my work as well as my health (both physical and emotional).

    I managed to keep my house (never co-mingle your assets), but if I had it to do over again, I would have kicked him out the first night or left myself. NO HOUSE IS WORTH YOUR HEALTH AND YOUR CAREER! Get out now.

  4. Anonymous*

    Yes stop the codependency with your soon-to-be ex. And yes tell your boss that you are dealing with some personal issues. But don't go into that long-winded explanation. What you wrote is far far far too much detail for anyone at work to know. Just tell them you are going through a divorce and the dividing of assets and life is difficult. Period.

  5. Aileen*

    I honestly cannot believe that you are doing all of this for your soon-to-be ex … even if you still love her, driving her to work, paying for all her bills (cell phone??) is just not your job anymore. She is taking advantage of you BIG time! Being a married girl myself, I cannot believe how scrupulous some women are. Stop catering to her and focus on your job. Good luck!

  6. Ask a Manager*

    I agree that, on the surface at least, it does sound like he's being way too generous with his wife. However, relationships are complicated and we don't know the full picture just from a few paragraphs here. There may be more to the story that, if known, would explain this. Impossible to judge from the outside.

    That said, at a minimum I think the driving back and forth should stop, since it's impacting his job.

  7. clobbered*

    As a boss I have an unlimited amount of patience but not an infinite amount of patience. By this I mean that I am willing to give people a giant break for personal issues, but I fervently hope there is an end in sight and worry badly when there isn't.

    In this case I am worried what with the 8 months of strained cohabitation this has already dragged on too long from the employer's point of view. One bad year, from a good employee, sure. Two, and it's starting to be a real problem, since other people are being affected by having to pick up the slack.

    So I would go in the performance review saying "look I have had these issues, and I am taking these steps which will take about two months and after that my head will be much clearer.

    In case it sounds heartless, this is probably the best thing for yourself too. You don't want an open wound for this long. If the marriage is beyond repair, the sooner you put an end to it the sooner you can start recovering.

    Watch with the goofing off too – it can be a bad habit to shake after a while, even if things improve.

  8. Anonymous*

    family law in my jurisdiction says she gets half the value of the house

    Not at all likely.

    Consider this case: You marry her, and a week later, she demands a divorce. Is she still entitled to half the value of the house?

    Cases will vary by circumstances, but half the equity in the house acquired since the marriage began would be more common as eventual results go.

    If your wife continues to be difficult, let it go to trial.

    No judge is going to award her "half the value of the house," particularly since the value can't possibly be established until such time as the house is sold.

    It also seems improbable anyone could be in this situation and not be aware of these basic facts.

  9. Anonymous*

    As a boss who has had staff go through some stressful events, please do talk to your boss about it before s/he has to call you on your behavior.

    I am understanding – if your father is in the hospital, you might have to be on the phone a lot making personal calls, but if I don't know that, it just looks to me you're slacking off.

    In the same way, if you're going through an acrimonious divorce, you may have to take unexpected days off and not be able to concentrate on work as well as you had. I might give you some leeway if you are generally a good employee but eventually I will have to confront you. Even if your boss has not said anything, it's likely that s/he has noticed.

    I also second the suggestion of getting some counseling for yourself. You're dealing with a huge amount of stress and change, complicated with the whole family arrangements.

  10. Rebecca*

    Definitely check your benefits manuals and health insurance information to see if they will pay for further counseling for you. I understand that you're doing your best to do the right thing and hold it together, but you've got to be running out of energy trying to do it alone. You are not dealing with small insignificant problems here. It's better to get professional help than it is to let life continue to crush you. Decent health insurance will pay for at least a few sessions, and as Arlena said, some companies have accounts with services that provide free confidential counseling.

    What a sh*tty situation, OP. I do hope things get better relatively soon and turn out OK in the end.

  11. Richard*

    To those saying 'she won't get half the value of the house', it really depends on your local laws. In New Zealand, for example, once a couple have been married for 3 years or more, should they divorce, the courts state that the value of their assets undergo a 50/50 split.

    I was suffering from stress in my last job due to personal issues; namely, my mom was going through a divorce with an emotionally abusive spouse in New Zealand, and I found myself distracted by the fact that I wasn't there for her, able to help out and offer support, and such. On top of this, it meant that she could no longer financially support me through university in my final year, which meant that I was leading up to a tough year ahead.

    I knew that it was impacting my work, so I decided that I needed to take control of the situation, and inform him of my personal situation before he started assuming the worst. I knocked on my manager's door, asked if he had time for a chat, and basically laid it out; I realised that my performance might not have been on par with my previous level, however I was dealing with some personal issues that at that moment that were causing me to become stressed and a little distracted from my work. He asked if I was able to give more details (in a concerned way, not a pushy, nosey way), and I explained the situation. He said that it was fine, and if he or the company could do anything to help, all I had to do was ask. I said that there was nothing they could do really, but that I just wanted to keep him informed as to why my performance may have dropped.

    My performance actually picked up after that, since I wasn't as worried about my manager afterwards. Sometimes it helps just getting things out in the open.

    This of course all depends on how approachable your manager is. Managers are human too (most of the time!), and generally approaching them as such when you have personal problems that are impacting your workflow is often the best policy.

  12. Charles*

    Fortunately, I have never been in such a personally stressful situation (keeping my fingers crossed for my own sake); however, I will say this:

    Yes, the OP needs to talk to his boss before being called out on his lack of work performance. The team lead was doing a favor by hinting at this – OP, take that as a sign that he might want you to say something!

    I agree that there is no need to go into all the detail; But, try to give an indication that there is an end in sight. By offering a "solution" the boss might be more willing to give some slack.

    FYI to all the other commentors here, there are jurisdictions where a judge will divide the property EXACTLY in half, regardless of who brought what to the marriage, regardless of how long the marriage lasted.

    Also, while it might seem like the OP is being a "pushover," keep in mind that a judge might take his "generous" behaviour into consideration when settling things; not a guarantee, but it might help. His lawyer should be telling him what behaviour is in his best interest.

  13. fposte*

    I suspect also that the OP is Canadian, so we're not talking U.S. laws.

    On the goofing off front, I strongly recommend the LeechBlock Add-On for Firefox. It's wonderfully customizable–you can even tell it not to let you turn it off during the blocked times–and while I could go to a time-sink site via another browser, the experience becomes enough of an obstacle that I don't. It's really helpful to me.

  14. Dawn*

    "I am understanding – if your father is in the hospital, you might have to be on the phone a lot making personal calls, but if I don't know that, it just looks to me you're slacking off."

    I totally agree with this. It's awful when an employee doesn't mention that she/he is going through a stressful situation. I see leaving to take a cell phone call, taking days off, etc. without explanation and I think she's just slacking off and taking advantage me. Then I have to start thinking about having "the talk." When I do have "the talk," I'm then told that she is going through a divorce or there's a family issue going on or something else.

    Please talk to your boss, though not in nearly as much detail as you did here. He doesn't need to know everything.

  15. Anonymous*

    Thanks for all your thoughts — I'm the Original Poster.

    Alison replied to my original query and asked me the hard question "Why are you still driving your wife into work?", I thought about it, and decided I needed to take care of myself first, and not worry about being seen as a 'bad guy'.

    Two weeks ago, I told my wife she could make her own way into work. It was the right decision (just maybe a few months late in coming). I feel much better already.

    I explained I'd made that change during my review after I explained my situation, and that my performance should improve. My director recommended I talk to HR, which I did during an hour long session with an empathetic professional. So the company's on board.

    I'm paying for my step-son's university because I'd never forgive myself for abandoning him 3/4 the way through his education — it's a personal decision. After that, it's Get A Job, Son.

    And I've trained myself to log out of GMail after checking it a) first thing, b) lunch time, and c) mid-afternoon. It seems to be working — my boss is happy with my productivity.

    Thanks again for all your feedback.

  16. Anonymous*

    Why not ask the step son to help out with a work-and-learn position at the school. This would be like an internship and help him to score a job easier when he graduates. The kids probably know what a people eater their mom is; and that she will probably take advantage of them as well for the rest of their lives.
    Do not pay her cell phone bill, and change the locks on the house today– posession is 9/10'ths the law. Close ALL joint accounts today–especially the charge cards. Call Equifax and the other charge companies and make sure that no new joint accounts are opened with your name on them. And make sure that you are divorced or legally separated before that 10th anniversary so she doesn't get half of your retirement and Social Security.

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