One of the saddest things I ever read in a dating profile was written by a man – the gist was, “I’ve spent all my life putting work first. Now I’m retiring and realise I have no one to spend my time with.” He might have been cynically playing a ‘poor me’ line but as a former sufferer myself I did sympathise, although not enough to actually get in touch. Work addiction, or being married to the job, is a tough nut to crack. It can strike anyone, any time, anywhere and it’s a problem as old as the hills. Imagine, for example, being a baker’s wife in 1666. He’s up in the middle of the night, knackered by lunchtime and his customers see more of him than you do – then he takes his eye off the ball for half-an-hour and burns down half the City of London. I suppose the modern equivalent would be a rogue trader.
The problem with today’s working life is where do we draw the line between necessity and compulsion? The difference being that while a career in Tudor baking would have been a matter of doing what you did in order to live – where modern life is concerned it’s more often than not the other way around. Once we’ve risen to the dizzying heights of earning enough to cover the basics, that urge kicks in to keep working harder, faster and longer for a little more, and then a little more on top of that. Ironically that can mean dropping a dollop of hard-earned income on the latest state-of-the-art technology to keep us in touch with all things – but mostly the office – at all times of the day and night. And it’s surprising how quickly we become accustomed to regarding previously unattainable luxuries as absolute essentials.
There’s also the matter of self-esteem. It feels nice to feel needed and important. It’s one of the ways we evaluate our place in society and build our confidence. But self-worth comes in many guises and our mistake in the 21st century is to equate that and everything else to our professional lives and owning the latest Porsche. Down-to-earth driven types might scoff at the term ‘work-life balance’ but that’s what we’re talking about here. A place for everything and everything in its place applies to more than just the filing.
One of the best (and most hilarious) illustrations of work taking over when you’re not at work is to be found in the film ‘Carnage’ when Mrs Cowan grabs Mr Cowan’s constantly interrupting phone, and dumps it into a vase of tulips. It also neatly demonstrates my point about self-importance because that, of course, is why he keeps taking calls during a tense meeting with another couple about their sons. He seeks to intimidate them with his absolute indispensability and impressive client list. And perhaps, just maybe, he can’t actually cope with life either.
The burning question is whatever can we do if we find ourselves in a relationship with someone whose life revolves around one premise only, that the office cannot function without them? The first thing is counterintuitive: don’t complain. I know you want to – in the same situation I wanted to very badly indeed – but it gets you nowhere. They’re probably getting complained at every hour on the hour at work anyway so you become just another person who wants something. Get to the back of the queue! Try listening instead and at some point try offering a remedy in the form of what we will call ‘downtime’. Initially this is likely to go in one ear and out of the other and if it keeps doing that you might find yourself officially scheduling something via Outlook but if you’re persistent it will eventually lodge somewhere and begin to sound appealing. This would emphatically not be a ‘date night’, an expression that comes burdened with expectation.
What I have in mind is ‘downtime’ that takes the form of unstructured not-doing-anything-in-particular-with-no-expectations-whatsoever time. This is the hardest thing for a work obsessed person to contemplate – they need to be physically doing something every second of the day and it’s a hard habit to break. Mobile devices play into that and most of us start to twitch after about 30 minutes of not checking emails, messages, social media, the world in general… So be realistic because things are likely to be a bit prickly in the early stages of rehabilitation.
Having said that, it’s important to remember that there will always be occasions in anyone’s working life when the job must take priority. What you need to ask yourself is whether two months of flat-out 60-hour weeks is just a phase while a big contract is negotiated and put to bed or whether it’s a pattern but you’ll need to watch and wait to answer that one. Times when it’s a genuine case of all hands to the pump are times when unquestioning support is required from your partner and which one of you has the biggest pay packet is largely irrelevant. If one of you is under pressure the other steps up and props up. A relationship is not a competition and the word ‘reciprocal’ has a vital role in it.
But let’s not be too hard on the poor workaholic because there are many positive aspects to these kinds of relationships, chief of which is that your commitment to each other will be thoroughly tested. And that can never be a bad thing.