The wife of a workaholic.



Hey Wendi –

Hello from Shanghai!  Sometimes when you talk about ‘reverse culture shock’ and raising your kids in another culture I nod in agreement on the bus and no one knows why.  Anyway…

My husband is a workaholic.  He is generally on the road 80% of the time (he does very cool stuff, I’m proud of his success).  But even when he’s working from the office he’s never home before 7pm (usually it’s more like 10pm) and on the weekends he’s on his phone, or computer, working.  I also work, and all of the parenting of our son falls on me.  He’s young, and he’s starting to voice how resentful he is (I really REALLY try not to let my feelings on this rub off on him) that his father is almost never available.  I also feel like he is not present in our relationship.  The only time we spend together is on vacations, and even then he will often take time out to work.  It’s starting to really feel like we’re not in a relationship.

We’ve been together for 6 years and our son is 3.  I thought a lot of it comes from different cultural expectations, he’s German and I’m Canadian, but I’ve spoken to a German therapist about it and she swears that it’s not about being German, it’s about him.  We went through a really difficult patch a while ago and things are somewhat better now, but I’m feeling pretty abandoned, and I can’t seem to start a conversation about it without him being really defensive and accusing me of not having realistic expectations about how hard he needs to work to succeed and goes on long rants that just leave me feeling horrible and depressed.  So is that true?  Am I supposed to spend years of him being gone and just look forward to our retirement when we can spend time together?  I hear you and Scott talk about how you need to look on the long term in relationship issues and I agree, BUT I’m tired of this now!

Any help or insights you have would be very appreciated.




Dear J –

I’m afraid there will not be much of a relationship left if you wait until retirement to spend time together.  It sounds like you might be married to a bona fide workaholic.  It’s one of the only “holic’s” or addicts in our society that we have mixed feelings about as a general rule. When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, we don’t also say “don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the drugs he is doing, but maybe it’s just too much.”  The reality is, he is making choices every day, for whatever reasons, to pursue the success of his career and not the success of his marriage and family.   He is likely not consciously doing this, but it might possibly be the reality.   A common refrain from a work-a-holic is “I’m doing this for you and for our family.”  It’s the chemical addict’s “I don’t have a problem, get off my back” with a twist of “it’s your fault”.    He’s defensive of your “accusations” for a reason.  He’s torn, he probably feels guilty, and on some level, he must know he is “failing” at things at home.   He may also have no idea what to do.  Every time you bring it up, even if you are saying “I love you and want to spend time with you” – he hears “you are not good enough or you are neglecting us or you can’t do it all.”  Defensiveness comes only when we feel threatened.  We feel we must defend our choices or behaviors, often while in denial about the real impact we are having on others.  Sadly, the unintended consequence of these discussions, is that success at work becomes even more tantalizing and important because it feels so good to do well somewhere.   That somewhere is not home.  It’s at the office. There he isn’t disappointing anyone and in fact, gets the opposite – praise.  The cycle, regardless of how it may have started, only gets stronger and stronger as it continues.

This may sound strange, after I just made the case that “he has the problem”, but you need to start with yourself.  Every addict has a partner in crime.  Someone who plays a co-dependent role, to keep life functioning/relationships functioning while the addict stays addicted.   It’s important that you figure out how you are playing the “co-dependent” role.   Ask yourself these questions and be really really honest with your role in this.  Are you benefitting from the financial success he is having?  If so, do you demand a certain lifestyle or shopping habit which requires him to make “enough money”?  (If you feel defensive at this question, then maybe there is something there to look at.)  In essence, what part of this problem can you own?  If he stopped working at his prestigious job tomorrow, and managed a McDonalds but threw himself into your marriage and life with your young son, what would happen inside you?

The problem you guys are facing is pretty common.  So is divorce.  Growing apart and the toll on family life is a real risk.  Often folks get to rock bottom (losing everything!) before they pay attention to what they have.  Maybe there is a way you could find some help to communicate, in a healthy way, about all of this, before it’s too late.  I hope so.

Warm regards,





  1. Hey J & Wendi,

    I just wanted to add/argue a couple points that Wendi made.

    I am neither a therapist, nor any type of counselor, but I am a man who spends an inordinate amount of time away from home. (More than I want to, anyway)
    I am in the US Military at a command that requires an exceptional amount of my time- more than what is considered “normal” for the military. Out of a 16 month period I will be gone 4 months consecutively, and of the remaining 12 months I’m usually gone for ~1/3 of it, leaving me at home for roughly 8 non-consecutive months out of 16. The days that I am home, I’m usually at work from 5 am until 5-7pm. This is in addition to randomly receiving recalls that could bring me back to work at any hour of any day.

    The point in telling you this, is that I disagree with a statement you made:

    “The reality is, he is making choices every day, for whatever reasons, to pursue the success of his career and not the success of his marriage and family.”

    While I’m sure you’re doing a fair amount of speculation because you can’t know everything about a situation from one short email, I think that this is an unfair assessment. Every minute that I spend away from my significant other is because I HAVE to, not because I choose to. J’s husband could feel the same, and feel like he HAS to do these things. As an obligation to his family and to his vision of his job field. (Maybe he’s a lawyer working for WWF or something noble like that.)

    Another unfair statement is:

    A common refrain from a work-a-holic is “I’m doing this for you and for our family.” It’s the chemical addict’s “I don’t have a problem, get off my back” with a twist of “it’s your fault”.

    I don’t know what J’s husband’s motivations are for working so much, but they are his own, and every person that I work with would never pass the buck for their motivations for doing what we do.

    In the end, the reason for this wall of text is to ask: How can a couple in this situation keep from growing apart, when reducing the work load just simply isn’t an option, whether through moral code, contractual obligations, or sense of duty?


    1. Hi Ryan – I really appreciate your feedback and question. You are absolutely right that not all cases are the same. I don’t know enough about this guy to say definitively that he doesn’t have noble reasons for working so much. Of course there are many, like you, that do. I concede that my accusations of work “addiction” would not be categorically true for someone who has chosen a life’s work that requires incredible sacrifices of time, family life and energy to perform. I’m so grateful for those willing to make those hard choices to provide valuable service to our communities. However, it is still a choice. No one puts a gun (at least in the western world) to your head and forces you to choose a field that requires that much. But here is where your story and J’s husband’s story go separate ways. I assume your wife has agreed to this lifestyle. It’s not easy even when you’ve agreed to such an arrangement of course. But that agreement (and the necessary work and constant adjustments and good communication) is the key foundation for a marriage to work long term. The work it takes to keep a marriage strong is required by everyone who is married, but may be especially important in situations where time together is scarce. “J” isn’t currently on board. She might not have had a chance to be on board, when her husband won’t communicate with her. When she tries to discuss her need for connection or the state of their relationship, she is met with defensiveness and blame. Those two things are key indicators that they are not on the same page. I appreciate your fair treatment of J’s husband. I know he has his reasons and they could be totally respectable, but the way they are communicating about it all is leading to very troubled territory. As far as your question goes, “what can couples do to stay connected?” is a great one. Email me and I’ll give you lots of ideas.

  2. Eventually she has had enough and leaves him. He is absolutely shattered and starts to question what he has been working for, as suddenly it all seems so pointless. Balancing work and a relationship is not easy for men but just being a good provider is not enough. So you need to explain to him that if he is not prepared to make changes eventually the marriage will break up.

  3. Wow, I just finally found this (OP here, thanks for your comments) Just wanted to say that there are things that financially make it ‘worth it’, as far as he is concerned. As far as I am concerned, my salary is enough for a whole family. In fact, many people at my job use their salary as the main one for their whole family. I don’t make as much as he does, but I make a decent living by anyone’s standards.
    Does his job mean that we get ‘extras’? Yes, sure. But we would be far from destitute without his work. I demand nothing from him financially, my biggest splurge is organic vegetables and imported meat.
    I’m absolutely sure that I’m enabling in some way, but I don’t think it’s by creating a financial expectation. I’d sure like to know, because this isn’t getting any better.

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