A behavior that can rip your intimate relationship apart.
Posted Aug 03, 2020
Has your spouse or intimate partner failed to appear at family gatherings too many times? 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, you might be suffering from the effects of something I call work infidelity.
If so, chances are you feel cheated on, alone, as if you’ve been left with the responsibility of holding the relationship together. You feel unimportant and minimized, even innately defective because you get so little attention from your mate. You might even harbor feelings of anger, resentment, sadness, or guilt.
Or you may live under a distinct set of unwritten and unspoken rules, dictated by your partner’s career habits: Handle everything in the relationship, because I have enough on my plate. Put me at the center of your life and plan everything else around my schedule. I’m depending on you to do your best, be perfect, and not let me down.
Married to the Job
There was a time when I needed my work—and hid it from others—the way my father, who had a substance use disorder, needed and hid his bourbon. And just as I once tried to control my father’s drinking by pouring out his booze and refilling the bottle with vinegar, the people who loved me sulked, pleaded, and tore their hair out trying to get me to spend time with them away from work.
Every summer just before we left on vacation, my spouse would search my bags and confiscate any work I planned to smuggle into our rented beach house on the South Carolina shore. But, however, thorough the search, Jamey would always miss the tightly folded papers covered with work notes that I had stuffed into the pockets of my jeans. Later, when Jamey and our close friends invited me to stroll on the beach, I’d say I was tired and wanted to nap. While they were off swimming and playing in the surf—which I considered a big waste of time—I secretly worked in the empty house, bent over a lap desk fashioned from a board. At the sound of their returning footsteps, I’d stuff my papers back into my jeans, hide the board, and stretch out on the bed, pretending to be asleep.
At the time, I saw nothing strange about my behavior; it’s only in hindsight that I say "work infidelity"—the concealment and deceit of work projects to deal with stress after loved ones put their foot down. By this, I mean something quite different from saying that I worked hard. I mean that work infidelity defended me against unwelcome emotional states—to modulate anxiety, sadness, and frustration the way a person with a substance use disorder uses booze or drugs—a way for me to get my fix. And I am not alone.
Romancing the Grindstone
Sometimes partners feel jealous, even suspicious that their mate is having an affair because of the long and late hours he or she spends away from home. You’ve probably heard the old adage that some people are “wedded to their work.” If you suffer from this, you don’t tolerate obstacles to working.
Case in point, Mildred committed to work and dealt with the stress and anxiety caused by her husband’s expectation that she be home with him by 5:00 p.m. She told him she’d enrolled in an aerobics class after work. Her husband was thrilled that she was finally taking an interest in activities outside work. But the truth was that Mildred was working two hours overtime, changing in her office from business outfit to aerobic garb, tousling her hair, and dampening her tights with water—all to convince her husband that she was coming around.
This problem causes projects to go everywhere the worker goes, regardless of what family or friends say: in briefcases or luggage, under car seats, in glove compartments, in car trunks, beneath spare tires, in dirty laundry bags, stuffed inside pants or a skirt, and, in at least one case, hidden in a secret compartment of another person’s suitcase, unbeknown to that person.
Once people start bootlegging their work compulsions, you might as well admit it: They’re desperate; they must get their fix at all costs, even if it means being deceitful and dishonest, even if it hurts the ones they love the most. Elizabeth confessed: “I remember my ex-husband saying to me, ‘I feel so lonely. You’re here in this house, and I feel so lonely.’ At the same time, he was saying that I felt lonely, too. Work was what was filling me up. He wanted me to fill him up, and I couldn’t.”
If your partner is like most people suffering from this, she caves in to your demands by concealing work in an effort to please you and avoid criticisms, much like people with substance use disorders hide beer bottles. They might hide memos or files in a suitcase, pretend to rest while you’re off at the grocery store, or feign going to the gym and working out at the end of the day in order to sneak in an extra hour or two of work.
Kate’s work projects became her 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.”
In his book Working, Studs Terkel described how the broadcast executive Ward Quaal concealed his working from his family: “Although I don’t go to the office on Saturday or Sunday, I do have mail brought out to my home for the weekend. I dictate on Saturday and Sunday. When I do this on holidays like Christmas, New Year’s, and Thanksgiving, I have to sneak a little bit, so the family doesn’t know what I’m doing.”
‘Til Death Do Us Part
Have you put life on hold because of a mate who suffers? If so, you could be enabling the very behavior you wish to erase from your life. Many partners and spouses build their lives around work because they want to feel connected and supportive. That’s natural, right?
But molding your life around this malady only leads to more hurt, disappointment, and enabling. When you’re longing to spend time with your partner, the key is to stop postponing your life. If you plan a trip to the zoo with the kids and your spouse cancels (for the umpteenth time) because of last-minute job demands, go without her. When your main squeeze 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. Not out of anger but out of self-care.
You can be true to yourself and refuse to be complicit by refraining from bringing electronic devices when he goes to bed sick, making alibis for absenteeism or lateness at social functions or family gatherings, and leaving the responsibility with your mate to explain the work infidelity. You can also stop assuming household duties, returning phone calls for him or covering for her by lying to business associates—all because he or she is too busy working. Although it’s important for you to include your loved one in plans and let him know he was missed and how disappointed you were by his absence, you don’t have to continue putting your life on hold. It’s a paradox, but being true to yourself and moving forward with your life without your loved one who is in the grips of work is often the exact healing medicine your relationship needs to recover.
Robinson, B. E. (2019). #Chill: Turn Off Your Job And Turn On Your Life. New York: William Morrow.