Married to the job

Work is supposed to be a hot bed of romance if Ally McBeal is anything to go by, but the reality of a workaholic's long hours can ruin a marriage. By Anita Chaudhuri
Click to follow
WORK HAS rarely been so fashionable. Switch on the TV and any number of trendy lifestyle dramas, from This Life to Ally McBeal, are all glittering advertisements for office life. Small wonder, then, that workaholism is on the up.

In Britain we already clock up the longest working week in Europe - 44.7 hours and counting - and it's only a matter of time before 12-step programmes like Work-Anon, a self-help group for the spouses of workaholics, starts up here.

Perhaps the Church should introduce a special clause to conventional marriage vows. Instead of "in sickness and in health", for some it would be more accurate to say "in million-dollar deal and during hostile takeover bid", and "til one overnight conference in Norwich too many do us part".

One of the perils of modern unions should be given official recognition. It's becoming all too easy to tie the knot with someone who is already married - to their job. A clutch of recent high-profile separations have underlined that living in holy matrimony with a driven and successful mate can be a recipe for disaster. Anne Scargill has split up with Arthur after 37 years and the rift appears in part to have been caused by his devotion to his job.

"One of the problems has been that Arthur is a workaholic. It got to the stage where Anne was lonely," a friend commented. Should she have known what she was in for? When she tied the knot with Arthur, she was a sales clerk at the local co-op in Barnsley, Yorkshire and he was just taking his first teetering steps out on the road to becoming the country's most rambunctious union baron. The two were united not just by their love for one another, but by a passion for politics.

Fast forward almost four decades. Arthur Scargill has become, well, Arthur Scargill. And Anne? After putting her heart and soul into supporting her husband for years, she's still working as a sales clerk in the local co- op. There's only one big difference - as of this week, she is living alone in the couple's pounds 200,000 bungalow while Arthur is holed up in what he calls his "granny flat", known as Arthur's Castle, over his union headquarters in Barnsley. "The only thing we have in common is a love of dogs and, I suppose, our politics," she told reporters.

The breakdown in the marriage between Anna Murdoch and tycoon Rupert has distinct parallels to the Scargill split. After 31 years together, Anna filed for divorce in Los Angeles last month. Her husband's business interests kept him away from home for weeks at a time. It is believed that Mrs Murdoch was hoping her husband would wind down his drive for world domination in old age. When she finally realised that hell would freeze over first, she decided to bail out.

Like many a workaholic's wife, Mrs Murdoch defines her own success in terms of her husband. Of her career as a novelist she once commented glumly: "I needed something to do with my time. I have a preoccupied husband and my children don't need me so much anymore. I do it to fill in the loneliness."

But it's not just the rich and powerful who suffer from workaholism, it can happen to anyone.

Professor Cary Cooper at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology recently published a study on workaholism for the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology.

He deplores what he calls "the culture of presenteeism" in British offices. The study concluded that whatever the job, lorry driver, lecturer, shift worker or estate agent, anyone can fall prey to work addiction. Common side-effects were listed as mood changes, breakdown in relationships, depression, anxiety and insomnia.

At its core, workaholic relationships are about power, especially when, as is usual, one partner has a much weightier job than the other. Lisa, who runs a sandwich shop, met Terry when she was selling her wares at his office. She was initially attracted to him because he seemed very driven and determined. "When I met him, he'd just started in the marketing department of this firm. He got promoted really quickly and seemed over the moon about it, in fact it was hard to get him to talk about anything apart from work." Then he started going on more trips and conferences and when he wasn't doing that, he was in the pub talking shop."

Although disheartened, Lisa stuck it out because he kept telling her things would get better. They never did.

"The situation became unbearable. I'd get home from work at around five and then I would call Terry and say, "What time are you coming home?", and he'd say "Oh, I'll be back at about eight." I'd be pacing the floor, looking at the clock. Then, invariably, he'd phone at half past nine, still at the office, and say he was waiting for a crucial phone call from America."

Lisa began to realise that Terry was controlling her through his addiction to work. "It began to dawn on me that his absence had a lot of power over me. He'd always tell me at the last possible minute that I'd have to go to the dinner party on my own because he'd been called into an urgent meeting, or that he would be going away to Brussels for three days when we'd planned a weekend away.

"I could never make plans of my own and I felt resentful at being the little woman sitting at home. Towards the end, I began to feel like a mistress, waiting by the phone, waiting and hoping." They have recently split up.

Sometimes though, the "work-widow" unwittingly colludes with a partner's addiction. Sally and Mark both had high-powered jobs and in their twenties, they had devoted themselves to their respective careers. "I always liked to have my independence," says Sally. "So for years, I didn't mind when Mark had to shoot off on work trips all over the globe. I'd hang out with my girlfriends and catch up on all the gossip, just as if I was single."

When Sally decided to take time out to have a baby, she got a rude awakening. "After the baby was born, Mark was interested for a few days but then had to go back to work. Within a week of my giving birth, he had to go to New York for a week, then a month later it was Chicago. At first I thought he would mend his ways - too late, I realised he was using his job to escape domestic life." In fact, he'd been doing this before the baby - they both had - but neither of them had stopped to analyse what was going on. "I've asked him to work fewer hours but he's the main earner and he claims that if he cuts back, he'll lose his job."

So is workaholism strictly a male problem? When Margaret Cook, ex-wife of Foreign Minister Robin, spoke out about the impact of work on her marriage, she said that she believed it was. "Women are less subject to the overdriven psyche. Probably by nature less aggressively competitive, those who have raised children and looked after elderly relations also learn that important things cannot be done in a perpetual hurry."