On Labor and Love—How workaholism can hurt your marriage

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This spring, Headspace, a leading provider of accessible mental health systems, released its sixth annual “Workforce State of Mind” report.

In the study, 71% of employees said that work stress had “caused a personal relationship to end.” Gen X workers (currently aged 44-59) were most likely to report work-related break-ups and divorces, at 79%. Close to 40% of employees said that work has negatively impacted their ability to care for their family or children’s mental health.

In a 2023 Forbes advisor survey, 46% of divorced couples “listed career choices as the most common type of conflict they experienced with their spouses, with 46% listing this issue as a cause of marital woes”– the most prevalent form of conflict overall.

Earlier research supports these findings. Bryan E. Robinson, a University of North Carolina researcher and psychotherapist, has studied work-life balance for decades. His 1998 book Chained to the Desk has been updated with several new editions, including the most recent, Chained to the Desk in a Hybrid World, which includes guidance for our hyper-connected digital lives.

Robinson’s research reveals that divorce rates are 40% higher among workaholics. Other estimates say marriages in which at least one spouse is a work addict are twice as likely to fail. In a survey of couples by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, respondents put preoccupation with work among the top four causes of divorce.

Work-from-home arrangements forced by the pandemic have evolved into an ability to work virtually from almost anywhere. While remote work capabilities offer many benefits, it’s easy for working from anywhere to lead to working from everywhere, and an expectation that we’re accessible to bosses and clients at all times. Some people describe working from home as more like living at work. It’s increasingly difficult to leave work at the office—whether brick and mortar or digital.

The “lack of boundaries within the workplace generally leads to unhealthy marriages, as workaholic spouses can often sacrifice their personal lives to get ahead at work, usually at the expense of their partner and family health,” says Brides magazine

What is workaholism?

It’s crucial to differentiate between hard work and workaholism, as the line between them can often blur in our productivity-driven society. While hard work is a virtue, workaholism is a compulsive behavior mistakenly celebrated as a badge of honor. A workaholic sacrifices sleep, leisure activities, time with family and friends, and their physical and mental health for work’s sake. This unhealthy obsession makes work the top priority, overshadowing and often excluding other important aspects of life.

Signs of workaholism:

  • Feels stress when not working
  • Find ways to make more time and room in life for work
  • Consistently brings work home
  • Misses out on important occasions and life events for work
  • Rarely takes time off or vacations or makes all vacations “working vacations.”
  • Maintains the intensity of work even though financially stable
  • Works even when ill or injured
  • Continues at their intense work pace despite adverse effects on health, relationships, etc., such as anxiety, depression, marital strain/conflict
  • Experiences marital conflict
  • May experience a reduction in productivity and efficiency and feel burned out.

The spouse of a workaholic often feels lonely, disconnected, and estranged. With their partner emotionally withdrawn, preoccupied, and frequently unavailable, they may find themselves handling household tasks and child-rearing duties alone, burdened with overwhelming expectations. Feeling low on their partner’s priority list and deprived of intimacy, attention, and quality time, the spouse may experience workaholism as a form of infidelity. This can lead to a loss of self-esteem and feelings of undesirability or unworthiness.

Unfortunately, the husband or wife of a workaholic, who spends excessive time waiting around, putting life on hold for the workaholic, or making everything revolve around their partner’s career, may be enabling the work addiction.

Are you wedded to someone who is wedded to work? Here are five important steps you can take if your marriage is suffering the effects of workaholism:

Talk to your spouse about your concerns. Have a calm discussion. Workaholics may not realize their behavior is problematic. Try to frame the conversation positively: instead of criticizing their work habits, blaming them for their absence, or saying how neglected you feel, talk about how much you and the kids love having them around and how much their presence is appreciated. Explain what worries you about how much emphasis they put on work.

Try to understand the workaholic’s point of view. How much do you know about your spouse’s job—what they do, and what they find satisfying or important about it? Is there something more behind their workaholism—workplace culture, family upbringing, financial circumstances, a value system or attitudes that shaped their mindset about work, money, and success—even if it’s gone too far? Or are you both putting in more hours at your respective jobs to avoid something deeper you need to confront in the relationship?

Set healthy boundaries around work and stick to them. Discuss what ground rules could help restore some balance and make you and the family feel prioritized with quality time. Maybe it’s agreeing to a specific dinnertime, or certain device free hours; maybe it’s agreeing to keep phones and computers out of the bedroom, or sitting down with the family calendar and deciding what events are non-negotiable.

Don’t be an enabler. “Break the cycle by sticking to a normal schedule—make workaholics think about what they’re missing,” advises Forbes. Stop covering for the missing spouse at family events, delaying plans, making excuses and alibis, holding dinner indefinitely, and taking over household duties for them.

Find hobbies you like to do together and make time to do them. “Workaholics often feel like they have to be doing something,” says Robinson. Committing to some activities you both enjoy can deepen your connection while keeping the workaholic engaged.

Get counseling. Work addiction can leave you both exhausted, depleted, and disconnected from each other; it can be devastating to a marriage. Don’t be afraid to admit you need professional help.

If you’ve come to the difficult decision that it’s time to end your marriage, the experienced family attorneys at SFLG can help you navigate your dissolution.

by Debra Schoenberg

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