The Sunday Magazine

How our relationships with work, others, and ourselves are inextricably linked

In his book, The Three Marriages, poet, philosopher and organizational expert David Whyte argues that it’s critical to nurture all three of these relationships and to recognize how much they affect each other. It’s a reality that has come into clearer focus with the pandemic, as so many of us are negotiating the blurring of work and home.

Whyte believes to think deeply about our lives, we need to … take time to contemplate

David Whyte is a poet, author, speaker and organizational thinker. (Michael Stadler/Penguin Random House Canada)

Striking the right work life balance has been a defining challenge for our culture for decades. But the poet and philosopher David Whyte says we're coming at it from the wrong direction.

In his book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationships, Whyte argues we shouldn't try to separate the three most important facets of our lives: our relationships to work, to other people and to our inner selves. They are tied together and one needs to tend to these three marriages together, too.

With the pandemic bringing work home for so many of us, all aspects of our lives are staring back at us from the same room at the same time, as though we're in the middle of a vast living experiment meant to test exactly what Whyte has written about.

He grew up in England and now lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of nine books of poetry and four books of prose, and is an associate fellow at the Said Business School at the University of Oxford.

Whyte believes to think deeply about our lives, we need to stop the everyday conversations we have with others and ourselves, and take time to contemplate.

All of us in years to come, we'll all talk about this time and we'll all be at dinner parties and in the pub and saying, 'What did you do during the pandemic?'- David Whyte

"The main conversation we have to stop is the one we're having with ourselves. I often think that if you spoke to other people the way you speak to yourself in the mirror, you'd never have another friend in your life," he said, in conversation with Laurie Brown, guest host of The Sunday Edition. "It's all about judgment, around coercion, around self-bullying. You know, 'Stand up straight. And why did you have that second drink last night and why did you say that? And lose a few pounds, for God's sake.'"

He acknowledges that many people feel threatened by the idea of stopping and rethinking their lives: "You're going to find another person underneath who actually wants something different than the person you've become in hurrying from place to place. Stopping is a kind of death."

Whyte does not accept the argument that it's impossible to find the time to step off the daily treadmill.

"Even if you're a single mother with kids, you can take the time when they're all finally asleep, a moment to yourself that's not just taking in what the television has for you or doom-scrolling through the Internet. You just take a little space," he said.

He does not subscribe to the idea of work-life balance because he views work and life as integrated, not as aspects of our lives that require balance.

"There are quite often courageous conversations you cannot have in the workplace until you've had a courageous conversation in your marriage. If your marriage is based in an unspoken way on keeping yourselves in the manner to which you want to become accustomed: having the house, having the garden, having the cars, and you've never really talked about it, if you come across a threshold conversation where your job is at stake, you will always elide it," he said, "because you haven't risked yourself in the conversation at home to find out whether your spouse would support you in standing up for this and risking your work."

Along with many challenges and tragedies, Whyte believes the pandemic has presented us with a unique opportunity.

"I feel this incredible worldwide intimacy is being created," he said. "All of us in years to come, we'll all talk about this time and we'll all be at dinner parties and in the pub and saying, 'What did you do during the pandemic?'"

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.