How to deal with a workaholic partner

Some spouses lament that their partners are excessively involved with their work to the exclusion of their mates and family. They label this conduct “workaholism”.

The term ‘workaholism’ came into use around thirty years ago with the expanded definition of addiction. Yet, researchers have yet to agree on the nature and definition of this term.

Some scientists positively view workaholics as committed and satisfied employees, while others negatively label them as obsessive addicts.

Dr. Susan Mosier defines workaholism by the number of hours spent on the job, (fifty or over). Dr. Marilyn Machlowitz, a workaholism research psychologist, disagrees and defines workaholics as people “who always devote more time and thoughts to their work than the situation demands…not the number of hours they work”.

There are couples who do not feel that long working hours and job distractions are problematic to their relationship.
Those who suffer from the distance and loneliness caused by a mate’s absence, I offer the interpersonal context. If one’s job involvement creates ongoing marital or family discontent, it must be addressed as a serious relationship problem, regardless of its label.

The key issue here is how much of one’s attention is placed upon his/her loved ones. If a partner or the children feel ignored, excluded or unimportant due to the mate’s preoccupation with work, the family is in crisis. The concerns of the person who feels left out need to be addressed for the benefit of all.

The complaints should not center upon the highly involved worker’s failure or addictive nature, but focus on the desired, missed attention the family craves.

The workaholic’s focus on his/her career is to a large extent a personal indulgence in external attention and validation. Often the driven, obsessive single–mindedness is propelled by the desire for affirmation of one’s self-importance. The job often provides the bulk of the workaholic’s identity and worth. Feeling needed, important and even indispensable confirms the worker’s significance.

When the workaholic is challenged about the long hours away, the focused attention on the phone, email, text messaging, computer or blackberry, s/he responds with justifications and threats: “I have to provide for the family, keep my job, advance in my career, and I don’t like the job demands either, but what would you like me to do –quit?” The subsequent arguments are futile and leave both partners frustrated, exhausted and even hopeless.

Some spouses of the preoccupied mates eventually cease to complain. They settle for feeling unworthy of attention, abandoned and as primary parents – while the couple’s connection continues to fray.

An unattended partner may be at a high risk for depression, anxiety and agitation that often unintentionally negatively impacts the children. Sometimes the neglected partner may seek attention through an excessive attachment to a child who becomes a “surrogate spouse”. This is an unhealthy and damaging pattern to both parent and child.

A forlorn and neglected partner may also be at risk of being receptive to the attention of a third party, who is willing to affirm his/her importance and uniqueness.

During love commitment ceremonies partners vow that they will continue to keep each other at their highest priority. They often promise to always love, cherish and attend to each other’s needs in good and bad times. It clearly excludes any mention of substitution for their primacy to each other. When work becomes one’s primary focus it is in clear violation of the original love contract.

Handling a partner’s “workaholism” requires:

• Understanding that the basic emotional component of the excessive attachment to work is a quest for personal significance – not a statement about the partner’s insignificance.
• Realizing that the need for contribution and importance is cloaked with justifications associated with being loyal and providing for the family.
• Avoiding seeing the job as the partner’s “lover” and abstaining from competitive jealousy about it.
• Believing that it is not intended to abandon you but to better care for you.
• Affirming your partner’s value to the children.
• Talking to your preoccupied mate and expressing your desire for his/her companionship, presence and partnership is more effective than criticizing his/her excessive involvement with work.
• Offering guilt-free loving invitations to join you in family and couple’s activities.
• Providing appreciation, adulation, love and admiration and affirming your partner’s worth and significance to you may help reduce the constant distraction. It may facilitate your mate’s realization that what ultimately truly matters is not his/her work, but the ever-growing lifelong intimate connection with loved ones.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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