Men: Your Primary Marital Value Is Not Being A Workhorse

Photo: Pilyong Lee, mixetto, eclipse_images | Canva
Man working hard, handing out his money like that determines his worth

I work with many smart, successful men who say things like, "I’m not that smart, I can just outwork anyone" or "I got where I am through hard work alone." 

They pride themselves on never taking a sick day and being able to stay up all night if necessary to complete a project. They can study or prepare tirelessly for exams, which they feel explains their high test scores. Bosses love them, and coworkers consider them excellent team players. They rise through the ranks of their profession, and at any time that they are not working, they are doing things for their home or family.

With all of their work achievements and the recognition of their commitments to work and family, these men are still often unhappy. They cannot put their finger on exactly why they feel insecure and unfulfilled at a basic level. If you try to tell them how successful they are, they tend to minimize their accomplishments and say things like, "My job isn’t actually that difficult."

These men often have deep fears about how much their wives value them.

They often complain that their primary value to their partners is being the guy who pays for things and does a lot of home projects. They have always been complimented primarily on their ability to tirelessly get things done, so they fear that there is no other value that they add to the world or to a relationship.

If their wives reject sleeping together, whether frequently or infrequently, or look at their phones during a conversation, workhorses tend to personalize this and interpret it as evidence that their wives do not care for them deeply but only care about what they can provide.

Even when partners compliment them for being smart or kind, the "workhorse" secretly doubts that these compliments are true or that they matter. 

They mostly think of themselves as providers, or boring and stable, even when others insist that this isn’t their only role. This is the man who says, "My wife only sees me as an ATM" or "My kids don’t care about me as long as their bills get paid.” Or, he may not say those things openly, but deep down, he feels that if he were to stop being productive and earning money, nobody in his life would love him anymore.

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Men like this were generally raised in a home where they were expected to squash their vulnerable feelings and cater to the needs of a parent. 

Men with narcissistic mothers (especially covert "victim" narcissists with a range of emotional and physical problems) often act as surrogate husbands to them from a very young age, reassuring and comforting the mother and making her happy by bringing home good grades and athletic accolades. 

This boy’s primary role in the family is to make no problems, to never add to his mother’s emotional or physical burdens, and to be present for anything the mother needs, whether it is physical help around the house or a shoulder to metaphorically or literally cry on, all while still getting his own schoolwork or other work done.

In adulthood, the workhorse is drawn to vulnerable women whose issues with depression, anxiety, trauma, and/or difficult childhoods are familiar to him from his own experience with his mother. 

He may also be drawn to women who are fairly self-involved.

The workhorse then starts a precedent in the relationship of deferring his own emotional needs to fulfill those of his partner, which is convenient for him as he is uncomfortable with having any emotional needs and often is unaware that they exist, having tamped them down for so long. 

The partner can feel like she has met her knight in shining armor, who will care for her in the ways she needs. Only later in the relationship does she begin to feel lonely and unnecessary, because her husband seems to be as self-reliant as a robot. 

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The workhorse often rises before his wife does, cares for the kids, and comes home to do housework after a long workday. 

He feels most comfortable giving, whether this is in the workplace, in the home, or in bed. 

After pleasing his partner, the workhorse wants his own needs to be met; it is one of the rare times when he expresses a need, even indirectly. As discussed, this leads to resentment, manifested as emotional withdrawal or passive-aggressive remarks, when his wife doesn’t want to sleep with him, which ironically she often stops wanting because she feels a lack of emotional connection.

Issues often arise when the workhorse must serve two masters, i.e. work and family. 

He finds it so uncomfortable to ever leave work early or take a day off that his wife becomes angry and lonely. He feels trapped in a no-win situation — he only has 24 hours in the day and cannot understand that his track record at work would allow him some flexibility. 

He is black and white in his thinking: either he is the guy that can always be counted on at work, or he has no value to the company and will be fired.

Working with “workhorses” in therapy is similar to working with a self-made man. He needs to learn to identify and express his emotions, often working through childhood grief about being forced to be an adult before he was developmentally ready. He needs to get to a place where he sees that, in another type of home, his innate positive traits would have been celebrated, not just his ability to meet others’ needs and achieve. 

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When he can appreciate that he brings value to the world and to others just by being himself, he can stop relying on the workhorse persona and live his life more authentically and fully.

In marital therapy, the workhorse needs to learn to open up to his wife and trust her with his feelings. He needs to be able to be flexible and open with her, and truly intimate.

However, quite honestly, changing this dynamic can be difficult because the pattern of his deferring to his wife is already set, and she has her own resentments toward him, often for a history of perceived emotional unavailability. Fortunately, if this type of man decides to embark on marital counseling, he will bring his hallmark work ethic into this dynamic as well, and can often make great strides when given concrete things to think about and work on.

If you fit the bill of this personality type, or your partner does, therapy can be transformative for these men.  Everyone deserves to live life fully, unhampered by a limited and rigid view of their place in the world. 

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Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This article was originally published at Dr. Psych Mom. Reprinted with permission from the author.