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The Hill Life: Relationship Dynamics

Hi Belle, 
I’ve been a reader/lurker ever since I found out that I would probably be moving to DC this summer. My boyfriend and I are moving so that he can begin his career on the Hill. After reading your topics in “The Hill Life” I feel like I need to ask this question.

You talk a lot about how stressful or time consuming working on the Hill can be. Do you have any advice for a significant other of a Hill Staffer in terms of what to expect and how to deal with your partner becoming married to this new career? While he was interning I wasn’t living up there, so I still don’t completely know about everything I should expect. I will be busy with my new career as well, but something tells me not quite the same as on the Hill. 

Thanks, B

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t have a boyfriend and haven’t dated in years, preferring to focus on other things.  So to say that I am not an expert in this area would be a colossal understatement, luckily, I have a couple of co-workers who are married and were willing to offer some advice in this area. 

The Hours. There are two kinds of Bosses on the Hill: The kind who let employees leave at a certain time and the kind who make their staffers stay until votes conclude.  If your boyfriend works in the first office, he might be home at 6:00PM or 9:00PM or 3:00AM based on the day but mostly, he’ll be home at a reasonable hour.  If he works for a Boss who requires staffers to stay until votes conclude, you’ll be up for a lot of late nights since voting sometimes doesn’t even start until 6:30PM.

Virginia explains, “Remember that the nature of our work ebbs and flows.  During a week that the House or Senate is in session, the boyfriend may be stuck at work until after 8 p.m. every night and exhausted when he gets home.  Recess weeks, though, are the best and are for catching up and getting out of the office at a decent time.  Plan anything that you need to guarantee he can attend during Recess periods.”

Recess.  As staffers we live our lives on Hill time.  Our calendar is not your calendar.  You may want to go on vacation on April 1st, but unless we’re in recess, your likely vacationing alone.  “Your vacations will be planned around Congressional Recess.  Get used to it,” says Trailblazer, our communications director.  

What does this mean for you?  Want to make big plans, make them in August at least one week into the recess so that the chance they’ll be interrupted by an extended schedule will be lessened.  And you should never, ever book anything that is non-refundable. 

After Work.  We’ve discussed office Happy Hours before in this space, but they mean something else to spouses and significant others who are waiting at home.  And occasionally, the non-staffers don’t realize that these after work functions aren’t a good time that they’re missing out on.

“Happy hours aren’t like they were in college.  They are work functions.  Your spouse isn’t going to “parties” without you.  Test it out.  Go to a few,” says Trailblazer.

As a staffer, I understand exactly what TB is saying.  However, it’s important that you and your significant other discuss what his Boss’ after work expectations are and try to find a balance.  Most staffers I know are at some kind of function Tuesday-Thursday nights, but this varies by office.

As for attending a function, my co-workers and colleagues sometimes bring their wives and husbands to going away parties, fundraisers and receptions.  Sometimes this is a good thing.  It humanizes you and can help you connect with the other guests, but there will always be functions where this won’t be okay.  It’s incumbent upon you to know when it’s okay and when it’s not.  Virginia notes that this can be particularly important when someone is new on the job.

“It will be an adjustment period as he figures out his place in the office and as you both navigate your new city together.  If his co-workers are going out to a reception or Happy Hour on the Hill, you should do your best to join him and get to know the people he’s spending 10 hours a day with and what it is they do.  That will give you a nice leg up in understanding how this place works.”


On Call. “Your spouse (probably) doesn’t need to be at the office 24/7.  But he or she will need to be on call 24/7.  That might interrupt dinner or a movie.  That’s the job,” says Traillblazer.  

Yes, it is.  And the way most staffers stat on call is with our very own electronic leash…

The Crackberry.  I’ve been on a raft in the middle of a river in the Rocky Mountains on my Blackberry.  I’ve been woken up in the pre-dawn hours because the Boss had an early radio interview.  I’ve been on the phone with a colleague while trying on bridesmaid’s dresses.  I’ve been known to ask friends to set “Blackberry rules” before dinner starts, and I’m not even the worst Crackberry addict that I know (by a longshot).

“Try and not get too annoyed at the blackberry that will be permanently attached to his hand,” says Virginia.  “If there’s anything Hill staffers hate, it’s being out of the loop.  Especially as he starts his career he will probably be checking that thing the second the red light blinks.  He’ll probably chill out a little more as he gets more relaxed in his job, but expect him to be glancing at it probably more than you would like him to.”

If you’re out to a really nice dinner, and you don’t want him to look at his Blackberry, there is something you can do.  My old Boss used to spend one hour before a dinner date with his wife responding to e-mails, making notes on his to do list for later, and wrapping up any pressing business.  Then he would give her the phone to keep.  He was allowed to look at it between dinner and dessert for a moment and then she would drive home so that he could get back to work.  

Yes, this regimentation seems crazy, but it was a compromise that they worked out and it worked for them.  So if you see your significant other doing something that makes you nuts, talk to him about it with the understanding that he might not be able to stop completely, work out a compromise and stick to it.  Your needs and feelings matter, and unless there’s a real crisis, he can go without a Crackberry fix for a couple of hours on a Saturday night.

Speak up.  Maintaining a happy relationship while being a staffer (or dating a staffer) is all about balance.  Too many spouses/significant others accept a lot of guff in the beginning and then only speak up when it’s gotten to a breaking point.  Don’t be that person.  When you identify a problem behavior, address it in a timely manner.  It’s easier to stop a new habit from forming (or getting out of control) than it is to break a bad habit after several months or years.

Your partner will need to remember that the Hill is just a job, and will you need to remember that it is a job that means a lot to him.  If you can do that, you’ll be fine.  It’s when the give and take becomes uneven that people seem to have problems.  Good luck.

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  1. gingerr says:

    DC is a fun place to live and being with a boyfriend who is close to politics should bring some interesting experiences your way.

    But also be sure you make an effort to create your own life and cultivate a group of friends. Relationships need balance and it's easier when both people have other interests and activities going on.

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  2. gingerr says:

    DC is a fun place to live and being with a boyfriend who is close to politics should bring some interesting experiences your way.

    But also be sure you make an effort to create your own life and cultivate a group of friends. Relationships need balance and it's easier when both people have other interests and activities going on.

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  3. Sarah says:

    It would be helpful to know what B's job is going to be. If she is going to be a teacher, artist, etc. it is one thing but I would say that the life of a hill staffer is not tougher than most jobs in DC. So you're probably going to be experiencing the same things as your hill staff boyfriend so there won't be a problem — you'll both have an insane schedule.

    April 13, 2011/Reply
  4. Jamie says:

    I'm in law school and my fiance is a staffer. I'd say our schedules line up pretty well- but then again law school is demanding. He has to work some Saturdays, and I have to be at the library some Saturdays. That's life. For a while, anyway.

    April 13, 2011/Reply
  5. P says:

    Um, I think being a teacher in DC would be a LOT harder than being a Hill staffer. That's coming from a current Hill staffer.

    I would encourage her to be understanding, but also to warn her that a lot of times, the job goes to your head. So don't indulge him in fantasies that his work is more important than that of any one else in this city of very important people, or that he alone is crucial to the legislative process of our nation. If he's a new staffer, he's probably not that important. Help him keep it in perspective.

    April 13, 2011/Reply
  6. Allison says:

    P, I want to high five you for that post. It annoys the crud out of me when some hill people think that they are more important than everyone in non-hill jobs. So. Irritating.

    April 13, 2011/Reply
  7. prosecutordc says:

    Most jobs in DC are about as demanding or maybe even more so than being a HIll staffer. As a lawyer…we don't get recess so there are no set downtimes to plan around. Being able to plan is key and the staffers I know have never had trouble with that and have never had to cancel a vacation. Lawyers on the other hand….

    I think the questioner will be just fine and is blowing this a bit out of proportion. Modern life = being available 24/7. Unfortunately.

    April 13, 2011/Reply
  8. Belle says:

    Allison-I'm not saying that at all. But I would imagine that if he's moving to DC specifically to work on the Hill, he will take his job very seriously. What's wrong with being committed to your work?

    April 13, 2011/Reply
  9. Zoe says:

    I think it really is specific to the office, like Belle said. As a hill staffer, I know my experience is drastically different from the person across the hall. I think its best to wait and see what kind of office environment your boyfriend will be working in before freaking out, but do be prepared for him to have to pay his dues if he is new. And yea, I agree with P and the like. Just because he is working on the hill and you aren't doesn't mean his job is any more important than yours. Best of luck!

    April 13, 2011/Reply
  10. Harder says:

    My husband is Prince in regards to making our relationship flourish while I chug away on the Hill. He controls his work schedule, so he aligns it as closely with mine as possible. If I have late nights, he works late so that he can justify leaving early when I'm in recess. Also, while eat lunch at my desk, I try to take a 10-15 minute break a couple days a week to call him and chat about our days. That brief conversation has been oxygen to many a days. My husband is also very fluent in politics, so I love bringing him along to mixers.

    April 13, 2011/Reply
  11. gingerr says:

    DC is a fun place to live and being with a boyfriend who is close to politics should bring some interesting experiences your way.

    But also be sure you make an effort to create your own life and cultivate a group of friends. Relationships need balance and it's easier when both people have other interests and activities going on.

    April 14, 2011/Reply
  12. Brigid says:

    Wow, thanks for the post Belle and all the comments! (I am B.) I am a dentist and as the new young associate will likely be stuck with after hour calls and weekend emergencies, so I know that we will both be busy with our respective jobs and we're used to that. Its nice to hear about jobs on the Hill from a female perspective though and the recess/vacation thing was something I hadn't thought about.

    April 14, 2011/Reply
  13. Allison says:

    Absolutely nothing is wrong with being committed to your work. I said some hill people “think they are more important” than people with non-hill jobs. That's not commitment. (Also, stress the some people, lots of people aren't like this.) I hate the, “Oh I work around senators so clearly I should drone on about how crucial I am to the world and be-little your non-proximity to power job.” I am committed to my job as well, and I respect that, its the false sense of self importance that is irritating.

    April 18, 2011/Reply