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Workaholic Breakdown Syndrome – Loss of Intimacy

Workaholics eventually lose their ability to be intimate. Find out why.

Loss of the Ability to be Intimate

To be truly loving and compassionate, one must feel and be able to express not only genuine emotional support, but also grateful appreciation. The language, behavior, and values of the feeling function do this best. The challenge becomes how to develop mutual respect, trust, and loyalty, while still remaining a distinct and autonomous Self within the relationship.

Of relevance here is Maggie Scarf’s reminder in her Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage (1) that “Intimacy is a merging and fusion of the self and other – which involves the threat of losing one’s own separate personality.” (p. 362) It is important to acknowledge that as the “feeling-being” authentic Self of workaholics is gradually sacrificed to the values and priorities of their “doing-and-performing” public persona, the threat of giving up control and risking self-annihilation is just too threatening to contemplate.

Intimacy requires good communication and a reciprocal sharing of power and responsibility for the health of the relationship, and for each partner’s emotional, intellectual and physical well-being. Such a commitment requires an easy give and take, to be receptive but not controlling, to give without expectations or strings attached. There is no unconditional generosity when one member of the couple decides to “give in” and let the spouse have his or her own way, unless the other’s happiness is foremost in one’s thoughts. Performance-driven workaholics are masters at being physically present but not emotionally involved. There, but not there!

Previous posts have explored many of the factors involved as the breakdown progresses that contribute to the workaholic’s insecurity and lose of confidence. Drained of all energy by escalating personal and professional pressures, emotionally-crippled workaholics make faulty judgments and unwise pragmatic decisions that lack “big picture” vision. As too many things start to go wrong, overwhelming anxiety and panic attacks undermine the will and energy necessary to be capable of intimacy. Their focus is now on survival tactics.

Power struggles ensue as workaholics assume their autonomous stance in the relationship. By default, the partner is left in charge of intimacy. Emotionally-loaded scenes are especially threatening to workaholics who no longer know how they do feel, or even how they should feel. Subsequent angry outbursts over seemingly insignificant issues and their reactive habit of projecting blame onto their partner or child in order to avoid taking responsibility for their own insensitive comments or vindictive actions can be devastating.

Partners who do become assertive, and spell out the importance of their own needs and wishes in the relationship experience even more trauma when workaholics retaliate, make blaming accusations, or show indifference. One workaholic client expressed his resistance to his spouse’s sexual expectations this way. “I’m going to get swallowed up and disappear if I give in to her demands.”

Ego boundaries are blurred when selfish, self-centered and egotistical workaholics expect others to cater to their particular immediate needs, and support their specific agenda. Entitlement issues are often at the root of the ugly power struggles that develop when there is no other-directed empathy and compassion to guide the workaholic’s reactions to unwelcomed stress.

Real intimacy requires two-way communication and a mutually-agreed-upon sharing of power. No wonder these partners remain locked in control struggles that destroy the trust, respect, and friendship necessary for real love. Many couples in my practice report that they have not been sexual for years. For some, the sexual act has become one more expected performance. As confidence wanes, Pleaser-types focus on self-pleasure during intercourse in order to gain nurturance and relieve tension, but make too many frequent demands. A common complaint here is that their foreplay is too brief or unimaginative. Those who are alienated from their spouse often work late into the evening or watch TV to avoid going to bed until the spouse is asleep. The spouse who has become well aware of coming in second in a list of priorities, or fifth as one man confessed, begins to lose confidence in her own desirability. Couples no longer enjoy sex for its own sake because there is little spontaneity, and they can’t relax or enjoy each other’s bodies as tensions between them rise.

A spouse who is afraid and intimated by the workaholic’s uncontrolled rages or threats feels trapped, demoralized and helpless. Scarf describes the couple’s mutual frustration. “In truth, the intimacy seeker has promised to chase but never to overtake the partner, just as the autonomy seeker has promised to run but never to get too distant from her breathless, dissatisfied pursuer.” (p. 365)

As the workaholic’s integrity breaks down, infidelity is not uncommon. Today’s media are full of stories about prominent politicians and governing individuals who have been toppled from powerful positions as a result of their sexual exploits. Some sought out prostitutes, while others kept on-going affairs secret for years and even had children outside the marriage. Affairs are the ideal escape for workaholics who are being challenged by the demands for more intimacy by an unhappy spouse. There is no real intimacy and commitment in affairs because everyone can go home to their own world after. Distance creates its own autonomous barrier.

Although many couples choose to stay together for financial reasons and tolerate infidelity, the loss of intimacy and mutual respect erodes family life and threatens the emotional lives of their children. The pull between work and family has never been greater. Although there is much talk about work-life balance today, it remains elusive for too many workaholic families.

Intimacy is an expressed goal for many recovering workaholic couples. Their struggle is a challenging but exciting journey. Remarkable progress is made as couples learn to Internalize, a technique I developed to help my clients get back in touch with their feelings and be able to communicate so that each understands and respects the other’s thoughts and feelings. Exploring one’s own strengths and personal weaknesses plays an important role in this journey. (2)

Our exploration of intimacy ends on a hopeful note. “I used to feel “yukky” when Phil made love to me because he just took all my love and gave it away,” Janice confided one day. “Now that he’s so in touch with his feelings, he is really there for me. He’s so sensitive and thoughtful now. I’m a real person to him again! We can’t thank you enough.” She beamed in delight. “It’s truly a miracle!”

See my website for publications and contact information.

Copyright 2012 – Barbara Killinger.


(1) Scarf, M. Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage. New York: Random House, 1987.

(2) Killinger, B. Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times. Montreal. Kingston. London. Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

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