This article first appeared in the March/April 1996 issue.
A DOLEFUL COUPLE SITS IN THE THERAPIST’S OFFICE, SLOWLY realizing that the one thing that was going to make both of their lives successful has exploded in their faces and led them to the brink of divorce. He is a doctor, and from the time of their first serious dating when he was in medical school, being a doctor and a doctor’s wife was the centerpiece of their future. Now, they fight incessantly about his work. She hates it and says it’s worse than his having a mistress, “because it’s so damned noble,” and admits she feels like a heel for complaining. She has stopped empathizing with him and has taken it as her mission “to get half as much out of him as his career gets.”
For his part, he feels betrayed and abandoned. “She knew what she was getting into, I didn’t sugar coat it,” he says. They were going to be a team, until she not only quit the team but made his preoccupation with his practice her sworn enemy. That has left him feeling angry and conflicted, as if to do his job well and fully is to ignore her concerns and court her rival. “I don’t want to practice as much as I do,” he says lamely, as though trying to side with her a bit, “and I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to.” Then he adds defensively, “But I still have to do it, if we’re going to live well.”
“We’re not living well!” she snaps. “We don’t have a relationship. I pursue him, and he pursues his practice. I’m ready to give up and let him be married to it instead of me!”
This couple has two big problems. The obvious one is their increasing distance and disenchantment as a pair, but the larger problem belongs to the husband. This man does not understand his relationship to work. Of course, he knows he is deeply involved in it and that he enjoys it at times and resents it at others. When pushed, he agrees that he should be less embedded in it, though he’s not sure he wouldn’t be even more involved in it, and happily so, if his wife weren’t constantly after him to cut back. Ironically, as this battle grows more intense, he is more and more comfortable at the office and less and less so at home. As he spends more time defending and sometimes denying his strong, deeply felt involvement in his work, he feels more estranged from and ambivalent about his wife. And she, in turn, feels more unloved and ignored.
Both the authors know many men like the husband in this case. We see them clinically, we see them among our colleagues and we see them in the mirror. Many of the men in our world, including ourselves, are in a constant struggle with work. We complain about it, resent it and feel overwhelmed by it at times. Yet we also do it, and lots of it, knowing at some level that it is central to our very identity. In many ways, our work is who we are. When it goes well, it fills us up and carries us forward, giving us confidence in ourselves and hope for the future. When it goes badly, it can make us feel useless, hopeless and valueless. When it conflicts with family life and relationships, it can cause powerful, even crippling ambivalence as we get caught between the outside pull of people we cherish and the inner attraction of a strongly felt, dimly understood imperative.
Clearly, men are not alone in some of this confusion. More women than ever before, putting aside traditional roles to focus on professional advancement, are finding themselves on the same dizzying path. But they are not the focus of this piece. Instead of attempting to grasp women’s experience, we have decided to tackle the formidable challenge of deciphering our own. Thus, we offer our observations about ourselves and an undoubtedly skewed sample of our male clients, colleagues, friends and relatives, not trying to delineate some statistical norm, but trying to bring insights to the question of why so many men we know have arrived at their present state of confusion and conflict about work.
We hear this confusion expressed in many ways. “I’m working way too much,” men say, and then take on more. When asked, “How are things?” men answer, “My schedule is insane, but I’m fine,” as though the two were entirely separate entities. In our grousing, there is an obvious underlying pride in how needed we are, how much we can accomplish, and how successful we feel. This constant thread of ambivalence and confusion runs through men’s relationship with work. While it is likely that this confusion has always been present to some extent, it seems to be increasingly common. Several forces are colluding to produce this. First, the workplace is more tense and demanding than ever before. Everyone is being asked to do more, and usually for less. Every field seems to be down-sizing. The competition for a “shrinking dollar,” not just in health care but in every area, along with an intense emphasis on “accountability,” (read: everything you do has to generate income), translates to more work for most people. The possibilities of other career options has diminished, as other fields are closing down with equal speed. So work feels more like a narrow, entrapping and unrewarding arena than it has before.
A second force is the change in men’s awareness of the need to be more helpful and accountable to their spouses and families for both active contributions and emotional awareness. That means that men are less willing to brush off family needs for work demands, and families are less willing to be brushed off. But even as interest in family life grows, there is no concomitant decrease in work pressure: the importance of work to our identity and self-respect as men remains the same, as does the increasingly relentless pace of a merciless work world. And so we find ourselves squeezed from three sides outside, alongside and inside. Historically, men have not been good at talking about this kind of squeeze and working out the difficult choices openly and logically. In general, when men have felt challenged and endangered, we have retreated to the place where we could exercise the most control and experience the greatest sense of mastery: work. That isn’t cutting it anymore, with ourselves or our partners.
To master this confusion, we need to understand our relationship to work. Rather than dealing with it by acting out both sides I hate it, give me more and staying in a muddle, we need to know what it means to us and how it both feeds and starves us.
AS WE TALKED TO MEN ABOUT work, especially professional men both colleagues and clients we have found that they tend to have extremely strong feelings about work, but relatively few clear ideas about it. They brood about it a lot, but their thinking tends to get caught in a repetitive groove: “I want to work less,” or “Work is what keeps me going,” or “Work isn’t fun anymore,” or any of a number of other sound bites that only superficially deal with their relationship to work. This is a relationship whose depths men seem not to plumb easily. Yet, when given the push to delve into it, it has enormous importance and even fascination for many men.
It is easy to vilify work, to complain that we work too hard and have too little balance. But that is too narrow a view. Never criticize something for being too popular without having a respectful understanding of the reasons for its popularity. How is it that work seems to be getting an ever-stronger hold on so many of us, even as we resent it more?
Men tend to confuse what they do with who they are. The doctor quoted at the outset was asked by his wife, “What is it you get at work that you don’t get at home?” He thought for a minute and answered, “It’s the only time I really feel like I know who I am.” Men tend to build their adult self primarily and often exclusively around work and career. Marriage and children may be very important to us, but it is typically through our careers that we establish who we are to the world. For many men, family does not seem as much of an accomplishment as does work, and we are trained to measure ourselves and other men by accomplishments. The need to be a good worker, a hard worker, a respected worker, is very powerful, and often comes from a deeper, older well than the need to be a good husband.
One man voiced the changing demands of work this way: “My mother used to say she could set her watch by my father’s car turning into the driveway. And she always said it with great pride a sense of her importance to him came with that dependability. I think of that and wince when my wife complains about my later and later hours. I really love her, but there’s something about just heading out at quitting time that feels wrong. I just can’t be the first one or second, or tenth out of there. I don’t know what it is, but it’s really strong.” The myriad issues involved in being a good worker relate not just to what we do but also to how we do it. It is often put in terms of whether or not we are “a player.” If you’re not a player, you’re either a substitute or a spectator and those, we are taught, are not as important or worthwhile.
In addition to a basic and long-held internal identity to which our work is central, there is the question of how others see us and how seriously they take us. Men tend to be competitive, and to the extent that they are, work can serve as a means of testing oneself against others who works harder, longer, in more important pursuits and with more success (financial success especially) are issues that many men cannot ignore. Manhood and work success are virtually synonymous for many men, whose primary expression of power and effectiveness comes through their work. At work, we can exercise our need for aggressiveness, dominance and power. In a personnel decision or a corporate strategy, we may allow ourselves to express an aggressiveness not allowed anywhere else in society.
If work expresses our manhood, then letting up on work can seem like being less of a man. A professional man in therapy for depression came back from a vacation with an interesting insight. He had been very different on vacation, relaxed and content. His wife had found him more available than he had been in years, and both she and the children had loved the vacation as much as he had. Back one week, he reported, “It’s all gone. It’s specific to Nantucket somehow. I can’t do it here. I walk into work and the rhythm of work takes over: squeezing in another client, handling the crises and doing everything I should. Three days after I got back, I was coming in early and leaving late, and two weeks of pleasure were destroyed.” Despite a push from the therapist and a real wish to hold onto the slower rhythm that put family first, he soon found himself feeling like a quitter at work. “If I put myself and my family seriously in the picture,” he said the next week, “I feel like I’m just not really trying at work, like everyone else is going to get ahead of me and I’m washed up. I know it’s illogical, but it’s like work is all or nothing either I go 100 percent or I’m a has-been.” A work-family balance is difficult when it has never been practiced and feels incompatible with the competitive hard-driving spirit of work. If work equals meeting our responsibilities as a man, working less or balancing life and being more carefree can feel like behaving less responsibly, not being a “real man.”
Work is also our main contact with the world of men. It is where we are most apt to find and develop friendships and connections with our male peers. In non-Western societies, there was (and is) often a “male compound,” a place where the men would gather for large periods of time, often to communicate about life (men’s life, anyway) more than to accomplish anything in particular. In our society, many work settings have some of that function incidental to the main goal of the work place. It is where we find a large portion of our male companionship, for anything from talking sports to complaining about or appreciating women, to “running the company the way it should be run.” Men and women seem to have different communication styles and different interpersonal needs, and both sexes need same-sex validation and nurturance. Women, in general, are better at finding other women to connect with in friendship or common purpose. Men often need to encounter other men in situations where there are shared tasks, since actively seeking them out for pure friendship can stir up anxiety and homophobic concerns. One man said, “I hate the idea that I need contact with other men. It feels weak, like there’s something wrong with me.” Work puts us in one another’s paths, with shared tasks and reasons to lean on and learn from each other. (The importance of work for many men as a “men’s compound” may also explain why we have kept women out of many levels and aspects of work. )
At its best, work provides clear tasks, with beginnings and endings, and recognition and reward for effective functioning. The more important the job we do, and/or the more money we make at it, the more effective and valued we may feel. Work provides both audience and feedback of a kind men need and find lacking at home. The common joke that men expect women to applaud when they do a dish or change a diaper reflects both men’s need for an appreciative audience and their training at work that some payoff will be forthcoming.
It is through work that many men feel most keenly some excitement and sense of possibility about the future. One man in couple’s therapy gave a vivid example of this while describing a fight between him and his wife. “I was sitting at home last night feeling kind of unfocused and flat, listening to music. The phone rang. It was the most up-and-coming guy in my department at work. He needed an update on a minor committee I run, as part of a major presentation he has to make to the board. We talked for 10 or 15 minutes (“at least 30 or 40,” his wife interjected), ending with him complimenting both my leadership of the committee and my articulate expression of its work. I returned to the den excited and charged, told Sally about the phone call, and started expounding on future possibilities. Her face crumpled. Sadness, resentment, I couldn’t tell what. I asked defiantly, ‘What’s wrong with you? This is great!’ And she said, ‘I can’t imagine anything I could do or say that could lift your spirits or change your mood like that phone call.’ And I couldn’t say anything. I knew she was right.”
Rooted in action, accomplishment and production, men need something to do all the time, and something to show for having done it. If we don’t have that, we are apt to become anxious and insecure. We love our leisure, but usually enjoy it best in contrast to productive time. Men coming back from vacation often say, “Well, back to the real world.” The idea that work is more grounded in what matters is telling does that mean that family and relationship time aren’t quite as “real” to men?
For many men, work is their primary means of maintaining psychological balance, of warding off anxiety and depression. When men feel scared, insignificant or hopeless, they may turn reflexively to work: a new project, a big idea, a sense of working on something that will make them “a player.” Not knowing how to get that same . kind of boost from home and relationships, men often experience the prospects for that kind of renewal only at work.
A couple in therapy was struggling with the husband’s distance from his wife and constant immersion in work. He said to her, testily, at one point, “Look you know me! I need excitement. I love the feeling of ‘hitting the road,’ breaking into something new. Work just does that for me, and I guess I need that push. It’s not against you, it’s just how it works!” His wife looked hurt and said nothing. She started the next session, however, before she had sat down. “I couldn’t figure out why I was so hurt and mad about what you said last week. But then I figured it out, and it’s just so unfair! I’ve been putting adventures under your nose for the last two or three years, and you don’t get it! Who suggested learning scuba and going to the Caymans? Who bought home the brochures about the Rhine River trips that’s not ‘hitting the road’?! I found out about [his professional organization] being in Hawaii and suggested we go and stay over extra time. No response. But then your boss puts you in charge of a project in Toledo Toledo, for god’s sake! and you’re like a kid in a candy store. I resent and reject the idea that there’s no excitement to be had at home. You just can’t see it because you have it in your head that work is where the action is.” The husband was momentarily dumbfounded by this impressive array of data. After he started to enumerate why each idea she’d had wouldn’t work, the therapist encouraged him to consider whether she might be right was it indeed hard to imagine excitement coming out of the home front? He slowly realized it was, that any excitement generated there seemed like a vacation, a break, but not real. Not an accomplishment, just fun. He felt the difference acutely, and finally deduced that it had to do with what he called “points.” “I don’t give myself any points for just going off with her, much as I enjoy it. The points I get are for tackling something tough, and then seeing it get done. I finished the report on the Toledo project the other day that was a real ball-buster to do assembling all kinds of statistics, reviewing data, interviewing lots of people, and on a short dead line. But when I finished, and 10 copies all neat and collated together were sitting on my desk, I felt I had actually produced something real, which would have a real impact. Anyone can go scuba diving, but maybe nobody else could untangle that Toledo mess. No one admires me or thanks me for having fun, but I get big points for what I do at work that helps the company. It feeds me in a way vacation doesn’t.”
Work indeed “feeds” us in ways that nothing else can neither vacations, nor other activities that bring us pleasure and joy, nor even our most treasured relationships, however barren our lives would be without them. And because satisfying, challenging work can be so compelling demanding constant, willed effort and rewarding us for its accomplishment in quite immediate, unambiguous ways it is easy to become dependent upon work. We turn again and again to it for that tangible proof of our worth, our place in the world, our selfhood.
So what’s the problem? If work provides men with a sense of satisfaction, worth, importance and personal identity, what’s wrong with it? Why do men struggle so with it, feel so ambivalent and confused about their relationship to it? Why do we complain so much about something we care so much about, that means so much to us? What’s going on here?
AS EVERYONE who has ever heard the term “workaholic” knows by now, a life of all work and no play makes Jack not only a dull boy, but usually an unhappy one. The reason that therapists increasingly see not only resentful wives but husbands who concede that overwork is a problem is that men, too, are recognizing more and more that they need and want the human connection they can only get from a personal life not devoted to making, getting and doing. The siren call of work perhaps as seductive as sex when , we are young and hell bent on building our careers eventually begins to ring off-key as we gather some age and wisdom, and come to feel the poverty of a life that has no other meaning. We ‘ grow to dread our wives’ resentment and feel obscurely guilty, knowing that our dedication to work isn’t exactly as praiseworthy as we like to pretend. Or, worse, the time comes when we notice that our wives no longer seem to care whether they get our attention or not, or we are startled to see that our children have grown up while we were otherwise engaged. A life devoted to work then begins to seem bleak indeed, and the old adage, “No one ever lay on his deathbed wishing he’d spent more time at the office,” strikes a bitter note of truth. Work begins to be, in the end, just work, our self-important fantasies of power and mastery just fantasies.
But for all our dawning realization of the personal costs entailed by work, the losses we have sustained pursuing it, we cannot let it go it is fueled by a powerful inner drive that cannot be shut off at will, nor can we deny the real and palpable personal benefits we derive from it. So we square the circle by working harder and complaining about it the harder we work, the louder we gripe, as if the complaint were itself a ritual gesture of appeasement, a compensation to wife and family for our lost selves. Ironically, the deeper the anguish and greater our ambivalence about the place of work in our lives, the more likely we are to retreat not to home, but to the office, where we always find solace in our proven mastery and comfort in our assured ability to control our circumstances.
It has become a convention among therapists these days to tell men (or women) who work “too much” (whatever that is) to “cut back,” to “reorder their priorities,” to become less obsessive about their jobs and give more time to their families, take more vacations, get a hobby, learn to meditate, smell the flowers. This critique of the often inhumane pressures of work in our society appeals powerfully to a very deep yearning in many people for a more balanced way of life. And yet, the suggestion that we simply peel off a few layers of our working selves, like fusty winter clothes in early spring, not only underestimates the profound meaning of work in the lives of many men, it is often woefully ineffective as a clinical strategy. Work may be the most important romance in a man’s life, the only story in which he feels he can be (even briefly, and on a small stage) a hero. Telling him his values are terrible and he ought to suspend his passion for his work is more likely to drive him out of therapy than change his mind and heart. Like any passion, or obsession, or need, or desire, reasonable or not, the meaning of work for him and its importance in his life must be honored and validated by the therapist if the therapeutic work is to have any effect at all.
Strangely enough, men themselves often do not fully understand how and why work is so important in their own lives, and often hide from themselves its importance under the guise of obligation. “But, I’m doing it all for yon and the kids,” is a plaintive cry probably as sincerely believed as it is bogus. Men talk about their work in the confused tones of shame and pride, guilt and righteousness, apology and defiance, making excuses for an obsession they don’t themselves understand or even fully recognize. The therapist who takes the man’s work seriously tries to engage him in exploring what it is he gets from it, how it meets emotional needs of which he is only dimly aware not an easy process, because if his wife regards his work as an illicit mistress, the man can hardly bring himself to admit how viscerally important it is to his very being.
Often, not ready to admit that his identity and manhood are deeply enmeshed in his work persona, a man hedges the issue by trying to negotiate a time-sharing arrangement with his wife “I’ll spend more time at home, if you’ll quit badgering me about work” as if the problem were simply one of logistics. But the implicit bargain is doomed to fail, because it assumes that the solution to the problem of doing too much at work is to do more at home. Without realizing it, both spouses are relying on the work ethic to solve the problem of the work imbalance, which sidesteps the fact that the dilemma encompasses fundamental and conflicting pressures of love, loyalty, integrity and identity. Not only will the these pressures increase as the man tries to keep an impossible commitment how many hours are there in a day? but neither spouse will come any closer to understanding that home and work do not have to represent antagonistic forces in a struggle for his soul, that his devotion to work is not a judgment of her and family life, that her desire to have him home is not a rejection of the part of him that needs his work.
The doctor and his wife made a lot of headway because each was willing to stop the either/or, who-do-you-love-more battle. They began to look at their shared investment in home and work, trying to understand rather than attack each other’s concerns. It was difficult for the wife to see his work as important to both of them, and difficult for the husband to look at the needs his work met for him and the things he avoided by hiding behind its importance.
One day, they hit a snag that captured a lot of the dilemma. The husband said, “Sometimes, I still feel that you don’t understand how important it is that I’m there and doing what I have to do.” His wife responded, “And sometimes I feel like it’s all you understand and you don’t have any sense of how important it is to me and the kids that we matter to you.” After a long silence, she continued, “Imagine this: imagine you have a beeper on your belt that whenever it went off it meant, ‘drop everything and call home, and you’ll probably have to go to there immediately.'”
The husband thought that was ridiculous, saying one of his patients could die. But his wife immediately shot back, “And what about that we could die? That our life as a family might be in danger? Our family is sick. We may be dying. Why can’t we have as strong a hold on you as your damn hospital beeper?”
The husband got defensive. “I try to get home as much as I can. You said yourself I’m doing better. The beeper idea misses the point.”
“It’s exactly the point,” she said. “I’m trying to say, we have to be as important to you as your work. Or more so. You have to learn how to put your work aside and join the world. You put us aside easily when your office beeper goes off. You think we’ll always be there, and you can make it up to us, but we won’t. You need a beeper to learn to come out of the spell your work has on you and realize there’s a whole world out there!”
She didn’t get him a home beeper, but the metaphor served them well because it came to stand for both the problem and a response to it. As he became more aware of how much of his ego and sense of self-worth was invested in work, the beeper came to symbolize a little internal alarm that reminded him, when he was inclined to get lost in his job, that the world was larger than his practice, and that he was in grave danger of losing something inestimably precious if he did not remember this. The metaphor reminded him, emotionally, to “call home,” to bring more of his attention to his wife and family, when he became too absorbed in work. But she, too, had her metaphorical beeper, which sounded when she began to assume that his long hours were a reflection on her, a sign of his disregard, and that his job was a breach of loyalty to her however frustrating its demands might be. Therapy didn’t transform him into a relaxed homebody, or her into an obliging ‘company wife,’ but it did help both spouses to know each other better, the first step to mutual acceptance, even in the absence of perfect solutions.
Like every serious marital issue that has ever been raised in therapy, this one suggests no easy, pat prescriptions “work less, play more” doesn’t even come close though helping both spouses speak their own rock-bottom truths and learn to listen for other possibilities is the direction of resolution. For a long time, women have been leagues ahead of men in articulating what they want and need, how they feel and what matters to them; men are famously less practiced in discussing their emotional lives. As for being able to express clearly what they really get from work minus the self-justifications men are still rank amateurs. Therapists who help husbands listen to their wives talk about what they want at home must return the favor help husbands talk about what they get from work if work, as well as home, is ever to be part of the shared terrain of marriage.
The author co-wrote this piece with J. Terry Saunders, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Medical Education in Internal Medicine at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center.
David Waters, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was a professor of family medicine and psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School for 37 years. He retired in 2008.