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'I’m Married to My Work'

The price of dedication.

Source: wk1003mike/Shutterstock
Source: wk1003mike/Shutterstock

Channeling all your energy into your work comes at a high cost. In fact, if you’re “married to your job,” it probably means you’ve made the choice to make yourself unavailable for emotional connection to others.

For some people, the idea of a life built to keep others out is frightening, while for others it’s an imperative. No doubt, some argue that their work gives them the satisfaction and fulfillment others find in love and intimacy. While this may be true for some, others may use work as a way to avoid the hard work of dealing with people.

One of the most basic premises of irrelationship is that avoidance of the possibility of intimacy is often an unconscious acting out of unhappy emotional experiences going back to early childhood. Putting an exaggerated amount of time into your work may be how you’re pushing aside awareness of pain left over from those childhood experiences. An added layer to the problem is that the anxiety suffered by the child who felt insecure carries over into adulthood, masking itself in avoidant behaviors as we grow older—such as being a “work-a-holic.”

This set-up falls squarely in the realm of irrelationship. Compulsive behaviors—even compulsive behaviors that appear to having little to do with relationships, such as extreme dedication to our job—are a great way to duck anxiety-provoking emotional experiences connected with getting close to others. And this doesn’t apply only to potential romantic interests, but to any human connection that opens us to the vulnerability that’s part of allowing others to be important in our lives.

We might think that the rules of social engagement are different in the relative formality of the workplace, thus making it “safer.” But since the workplace is made of people, is it really a less likely setting for encountering others who might engage our hearts?

The fact is, our work lives often involve repeated, prolonged contact with others. Over time, whether we want it to or not, this type of exposure inevitably reveals things about ourselves that we may prefer to keep dark, or, at least, unremarked-upon—all in the name of avoiding the empathy, emotional investment and vulnerability that comes with closeness. That means that, the work setting has the same potential for triggering at least a yearning for intimacy as any other setting—whether we want it to or not.

Let’s take a closer look at that loaded word, “intimacy.” Most of us use it in connection with romantic relationships, or synonymously with sexuality. But if we think of intimacy as taking a chance on letting ourselves become known and accepted as we really are, “intimacy” can apply to non-romantic relationships that develop in the work-setting. The downside is that, like romantic attractions, work-based relationships can trigger defensive reactions just like any connection that threatens to become important emotionally. In other words, like romantic connections, our worklife is a great set-up for irrelationship.

An added twist to irrelationship in the workplace is that if we become highly invested in a caretaking role on the job, we’re liable to develop resentments related to feeling ripped-off, regardless of how much money we're making. This is because after putting “everything” into our work, we’re not getting the rewards—pride, esteem of others, gratitude and appreciation, a sense of fulfillment—that we feel we should be getting back for our “dedication.” This can be particularly disturbing if our professional identity is crucial to how we define ourselves as a person.

The big question is, are you saying "I don't" or “I won’t” to everything and everyone else when you marry your job? Or, worse, is saying "I do" to the job really an unconscious means of cutting yourself off from the possibility of being known and loved as you really are? And if so, what does such isolation mean when it comes to learning about yourself?

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More from Mark B. Borg, Jr, Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, MD, & Daniel Berry, RN, MHA
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