Thursday, May 28, 2009

Managing a Marriage

No one likes to be the bearer of bad tidings. Apparently I recently conveyed the bad news that some IT professionals are somewhat lacking in social and communications skills.

I draw this conclusion from the comments written on the CIO website in response to Meridith Levinson's article "IT Professionals Are From Mars...." Link here.

I could draw a similar conclusion from the debate on these issues that is appended to a post by Dr. Helen Smith on her website. Link here.

The reaction was only partly dismissive. Lauren, the wife of an IT executive, a woman who has a career of her own and who manages her home and children, wrote the following: "Having my husband communicate throughout the day-- a brief voice mail or email of love or encouragement will do-- makes a huge difference in how I feel about him."

Lauren said it better than I did.

At the least, people should recognize that her statement reflects conjugal harmony. Hopefully that is everyone's goal. Lauren and her husband are not bickering over who returns phone calls, whether or not he has any time for her, or why she seems so needy?

The men who wrote in to say that they were feeling misunderstood seemed to be saying that they wanted someone to explain to their wives why they cannot communicate more effectively.

Were I to accept the charge I would be taking sides in a marital dispute, and I would also be absolving the husband of all responsibility to improve communication with his wife. Beyond that I would be telling him that he is right and that she is a harridan and a nag. Who knows how that opinion would play out within the marriage.

So I proposed, in an article that was posted on a website whose readers are primarily IT professionals, to try to solve the problem without going to war or turning it all into a psychodrama.

I was offering IT professionals-- who are mostly men, as it happens-- a constructive way to manage their marriages.

Many of them seem to have a bunker mentality: they are hunkered down in the righteousness of their inviolate workspace and feel that any alien message or demand on their time is an unnecessary distraction and intrusion.

I was telling them that there are other ways to deal with conflict. I suggested that they become proactive. Instead of sitting back dreading the calls from home they could try to take an initiative and pick up the phone.

I was also trying to show a way that a man can affect a change in his situation by changing his own behavior. Most of the respondents to the Linked-in questionnaire seemed to want their wives to change their attitudes.

There is a basic principle at work here: If you cannot change your own conduct you are not very well placed to demand that someone else change his or hers.

The basic principle behind my remarks is central to all of the world's ethical thinking. In the Bible, it is expressed: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Expressed that way, it surely applies to more situations than the ones I was addressing.

But to stick to the questionnaire, my response was: if a man wants his wife to show more respect for his concerns, then he needs to show more respect for her concerns.

The best chance for creating conjugal harmony is to offer an open hand of friendship, consideration, and respect.

To help people to exit their bunker mentality I suggested that IT professionals become proactive. To better manage expectations I suggested that they begin their phone calls by saying that they have only a few minutes to talk.

For those who declared that in the course of their long work days they do not have any time whatsoever to pick up a phone or send an email, I would say that they need to learn how to manage their time better. And I would add that if you are going to make an excuse, then it has to be vaguely plausible.

The most powerful and important people in the world always find the time to make small gestures of courtesy and respect. If they did not they would not attain to their positions.

IT professionals hate to be interrupted. Granted. But the best way to avoid being interrupted is to find a time that is convenient to you and send a message to the home front.

One commenter asked about those rare occasions when the person on the other end of then line is unwilling to end the conversation within the allotted time frame.

If you have said at the outset that you have only a few minutes, then you need merely excuse yourself and hang up, even if that requires an abrupt exit.

If your interlocutor finds that inadequate, then, the fault has shifted to her. If you make a gesture of friendship and receive contempt or neediness in return, you have gained the moral high ground. Step back from the situation and allow your spouse to come to his or her senses.

Several commenters noted that scientific research has shown that interruptions are not cost-effective. They ruin concentration and focus, causing the IT professional to waste time getting back into the job at hand. In the end a 5 minute phone call would cause him to get home 30 minutes later.

Again, if you act preemptively you will be able to control your own time and minimize interruptions.

Moreover, ask yourself this. How stressful is it to be constantly bickering with your wife? How much of your focus is compromised by conjugal stress? Contentiousness does not foster harmony. And disharmony distracts the best of us.

A more interesting set of remarks was offered by commenters who suggested that I did not understand the way women's lives had changed in the recent past.

Actually it is not that painful being accused of being an anachronism, but, let us look at this complaint more closely.

1. I am recommending that IT professionals be more involved in family life, something that is far more necessary in a modern, two-career marriage. This is not a retrograde thought. To believe that when a man goes to work he should not be disturbed except in the most extreme emergency feels more retrograde to me.

2. Modern women have many more options than did women in days of yore. This means that they are less patient with disrespectful spouses. And that requires their husbands to make a special effort to respect their concerns. Even when he does not quite understand them. Again, showing respect does not feel very retrograde to me.

I was trying to tell IT professionals the same thing I have often told their comrades in my office. Modern women have careers, they take care of children, they do the lion's share of the housework. In return they require some communication, of the sort that Lauren's husband offers her. That does not sound very retrograde to me.

If a man wants more appreciation for the work that he does, he should not insist that his wife bow down to his demands. He should begin by showing more appreciation for the jobs that she does.

As for the larger issue, one which was discussed in several comments on Dr. Helen's site: Do IT professionals have especially defective social skills?

Most of what I know suggests that they do. IT professionals owe their careers to technical wizardry, not schmoozing.

People who are in sales or PR, or who negotiate for a living, will understand perfectly what I am saying and will not need very much guidance from me. An IT professional lives in a world that is short on people and long on hardware and software, programs and code, bits and bytes.

The skills that have brought him career success cannot as easily be applied to his marriage.

This means that he has probably not given much thought to the little things that help produce domestic harmony and conjugal tranquility... and that ultimately will liberate him to focus fully on his work when he is at work.

Happily, some of those who commented on Meridith Levinson's article on the CIO site, took that lesson from her piece.

Dare I say that I am gratified and wish them the best.

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