Is Workaholism and Over-Spending Hurting Your Coupleship

This post covers just one segment of the discussion in this episode with Debra Kaplan, my co-author of the book Coupleship Inc.: From Financial Conflict to Financial Intimacy. Let’s look at the impact of workaholism on a marriage or committed relationship.

Workaholism is my own drug of choice. In my first marriage, I worked some 80 hours a week, and my reaction to an argument or other stress in the relationship was to go to the office and bury my feelings with work. At the time, I would have told you that was a positive way to channel stress and frustration into healthy and productive behavior. Up to a point, it may have been. I went way beyond that point.

To clarify, there is nothing wrong with working hard. It is healthy and productive to have strong convictions, to have goals and work hard to achieve them. This is different from a compulsion or drive to have to work.

Where is the line between healthy coping behavior and problematic behavior? It’s hard to establish, especially with a behavior like workaholism that is often rewarded by society with praise, positive feedback, and financial and career success. Unlike an alcoholic who may reach their unhealthiest emotional point or “hit bottom” in painful and obvious ways, a workaholic is likely to be at their unhealthiest emotional point at the same time they are highly successful in their career. It is not easy for a work addict to learn to have a healthy relationship with money and work.

This is especially true for someone, like me, who loves what they do and for whom work feels like play. How do I know when I am recovered from work addiction? How do I tell the difference between taking joy in my work and medicating with work? What I use is a rather simplistic approach. I ask myself, “Am I in pain now?” In the past, I didn’t even know I was in emotional pain. Now, if I’m aware of experiencing some difficult emotions, that is a sign that I may be using work to try to soothe or numb my feelings or to escape from life.

The path to recovery for a workaholic often starts with complaints from their partner. It may be the partner who intervenes or asks for advice from a financial planner or therapist. “I never see my spouse; they’re working all the time. Sure, we can afford nice things and could even retire early, but I’m living with a ghost.” That’s probably a strong sign, for both the over-working partner and the advisor, that there’s an issue of work addiction.

As with any addiction, it’s not likely to go down well for a planner or therapist to advise, “You’re addicted to work, and you probably should go get some counseling.” This is an addiction. More knowledge may be useful, but it will not be enough to help many couples because most problematic money behaviors are anchored in emotional trauma. What an advisor or therapist can do is help the couple explore this issue in a supportive way and help them have the necessary conversations, without labeling either partner as being wrong or right.

One helpful tool is the three circle exercise that is often used in addiction recovery. We describe it more fully in Coupleship Inc. Picture three concentric circles. The innermost one, the red circle, represents behaviors or actions that we take when our compulsion or addiction is active. For an alcoholic, this would be using alcohol to medicate. For a workaholic, it would be using work to medicate.

The middle, yellow circle is slippery slope behaviors: things we do that may cause us to fall deeper into compulsive addictive behaviors. This could include such things as not taking physical care of ourselves or not talking with our partner about something we are angry about.

The outer, green circle is the behaviors or actions we take that are healthy, that maintain and support our emotional health and help keep us in a balanced, mindful place.

These three circles apply to any behaviors that someone would like to be able to clearly see and categorize so they can work on. Once you have identified your own problematic behaviors, it helps in using the circles to work from the inside out.

While workaholism definitely can harm a coupleship, recovery involves deep personal work. Both partners can benefit from counseling and support outside of the coupleship. Then, together, they can support each other in building a more balanced relationship with work, money, and each other.

Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.

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