Work has a way of, well, getting in the way. In any relationship, there are going to be nights, weekends, and even holidays, where one parent is forced to stay late at the office or spend the day behind the warm glow of a computer or phone screen. Recitals will be missed, dinner reservations will have to be canceled, family plans will have to be rearranged. These incidents, when isolated and spaced far apart, rarely have any long-term impact on a relationship and, after a few words and a mea culpa or two, tend to fade away.
However, when the scales begin to slip out of balance on a more regular basis and one partner is habitually working late, bringing work home, or going into the office on weekends, the hard feelings linger. Even if the other partner isn’t consciously saying, “I am choosing to go to work rather than be with you,” the fact remains that, by doing just that, even as a result of external pressure, they are making the choice to not be present, and that leads to emotional distress on both sides. This is an undeniably tricky problem to solve. But here’s how to go about it.
Why the “you’re always working” argument arises
According to Gabrielle Freire, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist, there are a number of reasons for a partner to overwork. “That person may be feeling stress or pressure either from work or from their partner,” says Freire. “For example, the workaholic may be working hard to impress their boss, or to keep up with the couples’ or the family’s lifestyle.”
Regardless of the reason, the end result is that someone is working a lot and not being present for their partner who, likely, is stressed, lonely, irritated or frustrated.
When persistent working threatens to drive a wedge between two people, it can be as difficult a hurdle to overcome as infidelity. And while that might sound like hyperbole, the fact is, the emotional wounds created by one partner seemingly choosing work over the other is similar to them sleeping with a different partner.
“The reason why someone might feel ‘cheated on’ when their partner is a workaholic is because the dynamics of work often parallel those of love,” says Mark Borg Jr, Ph.D., psychologist and co-author of Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships. “In many ways, this is about the ‘relationship’ that the ‘cheating’ partner has with work — and how this person is getting the needs that are meant to be met in partnership by work or career instead.”
When the idea that one partner may be having their needs fulfilled elsewhere crystalizes, experts agree that the argument then becomes less about absence and more about what’s happening at home. “When arguments arise,” says Borg, “it is an opportunity for both people in the relationship to hit pause and, with as little offensive- or defensiveness as possible, ask themselves, and each other, ‘What is my part in this?’”
What’s the short-term solution?
When the “you’re always working!” argument flares up it’s a good time to, as Borg suggests,, try and evaluate what is happening in the relationship. The overworking is only part of the problem and chances are there are unmet needs on both sides. Rather than focusing on the fact that one partner is out at work, try and unravel why they’re working so hard.
Freire proposes asking each other about their deeper thoughts and feelings on the issue in an effort to “identify and hopefully change outdated or unrealistic expectations, beliefs or behaviors that both partners are having about the overworking. Perhaps, for example, the workaholic believes they need to provide a certain lifestyle to their partner or family, or maybe they used to work a lot while the other partner was going to school, but not that partner graduated and is working again.”
Borg says that, in order for these conversations to be successful, the burden of responsibility has to be doled out, if not equally, at least as equitably as possible. “I often suggest to couplesworking through issues like this that each take no more than
60 percent and no less than 40 percent responsibility for whatever issue is at hand,” he says. “The 20 percent space between is a space of shared accountability, ownership and intimacy. Rather than simply blaming oneself or one’s partner, by accounting for one’s own part in the situation, each partner attains the awareness and power (individually) and empowerment (mutually) to work through tricky, painful and scary emotional issues together.”
What’s the long-term solution?
If couples can successfully crack what it is that’s driving one or the other to work as hard as they do, that still might not entirely fix the problem. This is a problem that will need to be likely tackled throughout the long term.
Experts agree that the usual fixes — physical contact, scheduled date nights, etc — should be put into play, but changes in behavior and communication need to take place as well. Work isn’t going to go away, but the way both partners approach it can help manage expectations and establish healthier reactions when a late night crops up.
“There are basic things couples do which only perpetuate the pattern of hurting one another, and making past problems just snowball,” says Grant Brenner, Borg’s Relationship Sanity co-author. “Each person has to seriously consider the idea of what it would mean to make a commitment to work on the relationship. It would mean not only developing more mutual and compassionate ways of interacting and speaking, learning to listen, and spending more time on the relationship, but also working on their own individual issues for the sake of the relationship.”