A client of mine just got back from her family's annual August vacation and when I asked her if it was relaxing, she replied, "Well, not really. We spent some of our days finding a hotspot for Jim's computer so he could catch up on emails, while the kids and I went off to Butterfly World or Parrot Jungle. When we were at the beach, there was a constant ping of texts coming in on his BlackBerry. He even talked to a client on his Bluetooth headset the whole time he played catch with Jason. It made me tense."
Does this vacation scenario sound familiar to you? Does your partner consistently duck out during family dinners and celebrations to take calls and respond to texts? When your spouse comes home from work, is he/she still connected to work via text, email and phone every hour and minute of your night?
It's not surprising that my therapy client had a negative reaction to her husband's workaholism. When the "other woman or man" is your partner's work, it definitely puts a strain on your relationship and often triggers many of the same emotions as an affair. You may feel jealous or resentful. You may want to lash out in anger. You may simply feel like giving up and withdrawing. These are three very typical responses.
Although changing his or her behavior is ultimately up to your partner, there are strategies that can help you cope with each type of emotional reaction you're likely to have. When you deal with your own emotions, it can be healing for your partner and the relationship as well.
How to Counter Feelings of Jealousy and Resentment
See if there's a pattern.
Be sure to differentiate between a one-time (or one-project) situation and a daily occurrence. Ask yourself: Are they able to compartmentalize when we go on a vacation, out to dinner or to the kids' school activities? Or are they regularly working extra hours, regardless of where you are and what's happening with you or the kids? It's important to differentiate between a pattern of working too many hours versus just a deadline situation or nonroutine occurrence.
Don't personalize it.
In most cases, it isn't that your partner is "choosing" work over you. It's that they've gotten stuck in a rut, or believe it's a financial necessity to work more, or are "addicted" to the excitement and stress of the work. (In the last case, spouses might need the help of an outsider, such as a therapist, to help them sort out these workaholism issues.)
Stop blaming yourself.
Like any relationship betrayal (i.e. cheating, gambling), your partner's actions have more to do with their own issues than with you personally. Remember that your self-esteem and self-worth are not dependent on your partner's behaviors. You can be a part of the solution by working to change the relationship, but you're not the cause of his or her work addiction.
Continue to do.
If your spouse isn't able to disconnect from work to go to that party, see the play or head up north for the weekend -- do it anyway! Don't let your spouse's work habits prevent you from experiencing, doing, traveling and having fun. Often, when a spouse sees how much you're getting out of life, he or she will pick up on your positive attitude and resolve to change. The best way to get your partner to change is to lead by example.
This situation can be difficult for anyone, regardless of how strong you are. When a relationship gets into a consistent pattern of hurt and anger, it's tough to break the pattern. A therapist's perspective can be beneficial. Talking to trustworthy friends and family about the situation is also useful.
How to Avoid Reacting Angrily
Get in touch with your anger.
Don't let your anger get bottled up. Be sure to express your anger in a constructive way. Studies show that journaling or writing a letter to your partner can be helpful. After you're done with the letter, don't show it to your partner. Throw it in the garbage. This exercise is just for you.
Set physical boundaries between work and home.
The bedroom should not be a home office. Suggest to your spouse that you redo a room in your house for the office. All work should take place there -- not in the kitchen, patio, dining room or elsewhere.
Work out a contract.
When your spouse does schedule something with you, agree (together) to set some boundaries. Also, set a specific time period (say, two hours) during which your partner pledges not to connect to work (no cell phone, no computer, no work reports) and commits to spending time with you (or kids). Revisit your agreement after a month and see if you can extend the hours.
Use your "I" statements.
Instead of saying, "You never spend time with me," switch it to let her or him know how much you miss them and want to spend time with them. "I miss our time together. How about we go on a hike Sunday, get away from it all, and unplug for a while?"
How to Keep the Flame Alive and Avoid Withdrawing
Reassure them that you're here to support. If their work schedule will temporarily include longer hours for a while, be supportive. But ask them if at least one night during the week, and one day during the weekend, you can spend time together. Offer compromises and suggestions for balance.
Help your spouse transition between work and home.
Encourage your spouse to vent and get it all on the table right away. This often helps them relax and turn their attentions elsewhere. Also, help your spouse find a way to unwind from the office before the evening begins -- with a gym membership, or with some gym equipment at home. Working out together, by the way, is a good way to stimulate the libido.
Greet her/him with a big kiss and hug. Make the connection with your spouse, right when they walk in the door. This sets the stage right away, even before they have time to recognize that they are home and need to connect with work again.
Find exciting things to do together. Schedule it. Plan it. Buy the tickets to that concert she always wanted to go to. Buy baseball tickets to his hometown team that he secretly roots for. Sometimes this can backfire, but usually your spouse will be tempted by the event he/she so enjoys! This is affirming to your partner, and a sweet gesture that shows you don't take them for granted.
Finally, if you have a partner who is a workaholic and can't "turn off" their professional life, know that you can't change them. Your spouse has to want to change. The best you can do is let them know that it's affecting you, the relationship,= and that you want to help.
Follow Dr. Terri Orbuch on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drterrilovedr