Has your spouse or intimate partner failed to appear at family gatherings too many times? Has she promised to spend more time with you and not delivered because work comes first? Has he said, “I’ll quit tomorrow,” but tomorrow never comes? Or has she stood you up or kept you waiting because of work? If you answered yes to these questions, you might be suffering from the effects of something I call work infidelity.
If so, chances are you feel cheated on, alone, as if you’ve been left with the responsibility of holding the relationship together. You feel unimportant and minimized, even innately defective because you get so little attention from your mate. You might even harbor feelings of anger, resentment, sadness, or guilt.
Or you may live under a distinct set of unwritten and unspoken rules, dictated by your partner’s career habits: Handle everything in the relationship, because I have enough on my plate. Put me at the center of your life and plan everything else around my schedule. I’m depending on you to do your best, be perfect, and not let me down.
Married to the Job
There was a time when I needed my work—and hid it from others—the way my father, who had a substance use disorder, needed and hid his bourbon. And just as I once tried to control my father’s drinking by pouring out his booze and refilling the bottle with vinegar, the people who loved me sulked, pleaded, and tore their hair out trying to get me to spend time with them away from work.
Every summer just before we left on vacation, my spouse would search my bags and confiscate any work I planned to smuggle into our rented beach house on the South Carolina shore. But, however, thorough the search, Jamey would always miss the tightly folded papers covered with work notes that I had stuffed into the pockets of my jeans. Later, when Jamey and our close friends invited me to stroll on the beach, I’d say I was tired and wanted to nap.
While they were off swimming and playing in the surf—which I considered a big waste of time—I secretly worked in the empty house, bent over a lap desk fashioned from a board. At the sound of their returning footsteps, I’d stuff my papers back into my jeans, hide the board, and stretch out on the bed, pretending to be asleep.
At the time, I saw nothing strange about my behavior; it’s only in hindsight that I say “work infidelity”—the concealment and deceit of work projects to deal with stress after loved ones put their foot down. By this, I mean something quite different from saying that I worked hard. I mean that work infidelity defended me against unwelcome emotional states—to modulate anxiety, sadness, and frustration the way a person with a substance use disorder uses booze or drugs—a way for me to get my fix. And I am not alone.
Romancing the Grindstone
Sometimes partners feel jealous, even suspicious that their mate is having an affair because of the long and late hours he or she spends away from home. You’ve probably heard the old adage that some people are “wedded to their work.” If you suffer from this, you don’t tolerate obstacles to working.
Case in point, Mildred committed to work and dealt with the stress and anxiety caused by her husband’s expectation that she be home with him by 5:00 p.m. She told him she’d enrolled in an aerobics class after work. Her husband was thrilled that she was finally taking an interest in activities outside work. But the truth was that Mildred was working two hours overtime, changing in her office from business outfit to aerobic garb, tousling her hair, and dampening her tights with water—all to convince her husband that she was coming around.