The Tiny Factor Silently Killing Your Otherwise-Great Relationship

Photo: Sviatlana Yankouskaya, Khosro | Canva 
Man annoyed over girlfriend working so much

Often referred to as "the invisible addiction" because it flies under the radar, workaholism, or being a workaholic, can be a threat to your relationship or marriage.

Unlike alcoholism, drug addiction, or hoarding, this addiction is not only almost impossible for an outsider to recognize but it’s viewed by most of the population as being valuable and even worthy of admiration. And it’s rewarded with praise, money, and a variety of other benefits.

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There's only one problem with it: It’s a killer. It’s been known to destroy health (physical and mental), well-being, pleasure, and healthy relationships. 

The term "workaholic" refers to the tendency to be obsessed with or over-concerned about work to the degree that one invests so much time and effort working and/or thinking and talking about work that other important areas of life (like relationships) are neglected or impaired.

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You may not realize, but these can also be symptoms of addiction — work addiction. 

Like food addiction, workaholism isn’t something that we can just kick cold turkey or even gradually. For workaholics, meeting their material and physical needs depends upon their ability to generate income, and, for most of them, that involves work.

Although doing so isn’t easy, it is possible to quit drinking or taking drugs. We can’t, however, quit working, unless we are independently wealthy, which most of us are not. And even if we are, work provides us with more than money.

For most of us, it gives our lives a sense of meaning, purpose, and usefulness that enhances our self-esteem and well-being. Having meaningful work is one of the best ways to diminish feelings of depression and minimize the likelihood of getting the blues in the future.

When too large a part of our motivation to work is driven by a desire to fill psychological needs, we can become blind to the degree to which we may be compromising or diminishing our overall quality of life to meet emotional needs.

There is a domain in our life that is more geared to the fulfillment of our emotional needs and that domain is, you guessed it, relationships. 



When you're in a relationship or married, you are expected to fulfill your obligations and responsibilities to your partner and, if you have them, your kids. 

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Unfortunately, when much of our time and energy is consumed with work due to being a workaholic, these relationships often tend to get neglected. And, consequently, we lose access to this very vital source of fulfillment.

It’s ironic that in opting to overly invest in work, we lose touch with something potentially far more enriching — a healthy relationship.

Ironic, but not surprising, since it’s human nature to choose commitments that we feel more skilled in over those in which we feel ourselves to be less competent.

Like many men, in my younger days, I was preoccupied with work, partly because with three young kids, I felt obligated to stay on track regarding my work to keep the wolf away from the door.

I gave an increasing percentage of my time and energy to work, not just because I wanted to keep bringing home the bacon or in our case, the tofu (it was the 80s) but because work was something that I felt competent in, could do pretty well and got a lot of satisfaction from.

Parenting and husbanding, on the other hand, was far less fulfilling, kind of boring, and something that I felt myself to be inept at, so I opted to have my contribution to the family take the form of a paycheck, rather than more of my presence.

This decision led to predictable results: unhappy marital partner (Linda), unhappy kids, unhappy self (since it’s hard to be happy when those whom you love aren’t), and a hardcore work addiction that turned out to be about as difficult to kick as heroin.

As it turned out, I did go cold turkey and fortunately, Linda was willing and able to trade roles and responsibilities with me while I got to find out firsthand what the saying "a woman’s (parent’s) work is never done" really means.

I got to see what I had been avoiding by feeding my addiction. In doing so, I got to connect on a deep level with Linda, the kids, and myself. I also got to experience and appreciate what is involved in being a full-time child caregiver. I saw that work (for me, anyway) was a vacation by comparison.

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I became completely disabused of my illusion that the unpaid job that I had inside of the home side was a lot harder and more demanding than the paid job that I had outside of the home was easier than the work side.

On the plus side, I got to see how in being home and spending more time with the kids I found a different and in many ways more satisfying kind of fulfillment than the short-term bursts of ego-pleasure that I got from my outside job.

Leaving a job or trading roles isn’t an option for most of us these days. We were a one-income family when I quit work and became a full-time householder for a year. That year was 1987 and things were different thirty years ago. These days two-income couples are the norm and most families can’t get by with just one.

Consequently, the pressure to work hard and demonstrate one’s productivity and indispensability is strong. Perhaps that is one of the factors that put America at the bottom of the list of countries that provide paid vacations, which includes every developed nation except for the United States.

The U.S. is the only country that does not by law require employers to provide paid vacations. While 75 percent of American employees do receive some paid vacation time, they use only 51 percent of what is available, a smaller percentage than in any other developed country.

The European Union requires all countries to provide a minimum of 20 paid vacation days annually, and some, provide much more. France and Finland require at least 30. The average amount of vacation days received by Americans annually is 10.

Notably, according to a 2008 study conducted by the Families and Work Institute, "Having paid vacation time bodes well for personal health and well-being as well as job satisfaction and intent to stay in one’s job."

It sounds like a win-win all around. So why aren’t we as individuals and as a society acting accordingly?

Good question. I’d love to answer it but I’ve got to get back to work. Excuse me.

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Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, MSW, are psychotherapists and relationship counselors who have worked with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations since 1975.

This article was originally published at Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission from the author.