Wedded to Work
What to do when your partner puts the job before your relationship.
Posted Oct 20, 2020
Has your partner failed to appear at family gatherings too many times because of work? Has she promised to spend more time with you and not delivered, because work comes first? Has he said, “I’ll quit tomorrow,” but tomorrow never comes? Or has she stood you up or kept you waiting because of work? If you answered yes to these questions, your partner might be suffering from work addiction.
Wedded to Work
Kate’s work obsession became like a weekend lover. She lied to her family so she could rendezvous with work at the office: “I’d tell my family I was going shopping on a Saturday, and I’d end up in my office working. Or I’d tell them I was going to my girlfriend’s house. After calling my girlfriend’s and not finding me, they’d call the office and say, ‘I thought you were going to Dottie’s.’ I felt like I’d been caught with my hand in the cookie jar.”
“Nobody can ever understand my pain when they see the million-dollar house I live in or my beach house, the cars, boat, clothes, travel,” she said. “I have luxuries that some people don’t even dare to dream about, and most importantly, I have a dedicated husband who works hard for the family.
"But the problem is I’ve been living like a single mother for my three sons, watching my husband’s work run out of control. Hudson is competitive, seeking perfection in everything he does, killing himself working weekends until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, taking no lunch breaks, conducting business while wolfing down meals, even while in the bathroom. He works while driving and has had several accidents as a result. When he’s not working, his mind is constantly on work.
"On the beach in Europe, Hawaii, or Florida, he’s thinking about work, oblivious to what’s going on around him. We go to dinner with friends, and he misses lengthy conversations that took place during the evening. He cannot relax and feels he’s wasting time if he’s not engaged with work. Our life revolves around his impossible work schedule. I’m pursuing him, and he’s constantly distancing himself. I enabled him without realizing it, at the time thinking I was being supportive."
If you’re the mate of a workaholic, like Jena, you probably feel alone as a partner and parent, as if you’ve been left with the responsibility of holding the family together. You feel unimportant and minimized, even innately defective, because you get so little attention from your partner. You might even harbor feelings of anger, resentment, sadness, and guilt.
Or you may live under a distinct set of unwritten and unspoken rules dictated by your mate’s work habits: Handle everything at home. Don’t expect anything from me, because I have enough on my plate at work. Put me at the center of your life, and plan the household and family and social life around my work schedule. I’m depending on you to do your best, be perfect, and not let me down.
What Does the Research Show?
Along with my research team at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I led a series of research studies that showed couples in which one spouse is a workaholic are more likely to divorce than couples when neither party is a workaholic.
The first study observed a random sample of 326 women, asking them to fill out questionnaires on their husband’s work habits and the state of their marriage. The 22 percent who reported being in workaholic marriages also reported far more marital estrangement, emotional withdrawal, and thoughts of separation and divorce than those whose partners were not workaholics. The workaholic husbands worked an average of nine and a half more hours a week than the non-workaholic husbands. And only 45 percent of the women married to workaholics were still married, compared to 84 percent of the women married to non-workaholics. The spouses of workaholics also felt more helpless: They were more likely than the partners of non-workaholics to say that external events controlled their lives.
We repeated this study with a random sample of 272 men, asking them to rate their wives’ work habits and the state of their marriage. We found that the more husbands perceived their wives as workaholics, the more likely they were to say the women worked longer hours and to report their marriages as having greater incidences of marital estrangement and negative feelings. Together, these two studies suggest that the strength and cohesion of a marriage are associated with the presence or absence of a spouse’s work addiction.
What Can You Do?
Another feeling frequently expressed by partners of workaholics is reflected in Eric’s comment: “I feel like one of her employees, that the only way to be close to her is to join her in her work.” And that is exactly what many do.
Have you put your life on hold because of a workaholic mate? If so, you could be enabling the very addiction you wish to erase from your life. Many partners and spouses build their lives around the workaholic because they want to feel connected and supportive. That’s natural, right?
Although it’s important to include your workaholic in your plans and let him know he was missed and how disappointed you were by his absence, you don’t have to continue putting your family’s lives on hold. As with any addiction, molding your life around a workaholic spouse only leads to disappointment and enabling. The key to avoiding enabling when you’re desperate to spend time with your workaholic partner is to stop postponing your life. If you plan a trip to the zoo with the kids, and the workaholic cancels (for the umpteenth time) because of last-minute demands at the office, go without her. When your workaholic promises to be home in time for dinner and never shows, consider eating on time without him and, instead of putting dinner on the table at midnight, let him fix his own meal.
You can refrain from such activities as bringing your loved one work when he goes to bed sick, making alibis for her absenteeism or lateness at social functions or family gatherings, and leaving the responsibility for explaining with the workaholic. You can also stop assuming your workaholic’s household duties, returning phone calls for him, or covering for her by lying to business associates on the telephone—all because the workaholic is too busy working. When you go forward with your life, you often get your partner’s attention, and it provides the groundwork for positive change.
When all else fails, ask your partner to go with you to counseling. If he or she refuses, seek help on your own through a support group or individual counseling. In severe health cases, a family intervention might be appropriate.
Family interventions with workaholics are similar to those used with alcoholics. The workaholic is lovingly confronted by family, friends, and significant colleagues (for example, employers, supervisors, or employees) under the supervision of an experienced family therapist. Each person tells the workaholic how it feels to watch him or her deteriorate and explain what they plan to do about the relationship (threats are never used) unless the workaholic gets help for the problem. Another resource is Workaholics Anonymous, which treats work addiction similarly to substance addiction, masking deeper issues that have never been faced.
Robinson, B. E. (2014). Chained to the desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them. New York: New York University Press.
Robinson, B. E., et. al (2001). Marital estrangement, positive affect, and locus of control among spouses of workaholics and spouses of non-workaholics: A national study. American Journal of Family Therapy, 29, 397-410.
Robinson, B. E., et. al (2006). The relationship between workaholism and marital disaffection: Husbands’ perspective. Family Journal, 14, 213-220.