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,