Coping with a relationship with a workaholic?
January 21, 2007 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Coping with a relationship with a workaholic?

I'm dating a very successful man who has a very demanding and stressful job. It is hard for me to relate because my jobs have always been 9-5 and I've also never dated someone who worked so much and had so many obligations (he is also a parent).

My guy isn't actually a workaholic...but his job demands crazy, unpredictable hours so he might as well be one. He is wonderful, but it is still really hard for me to feel like I'm not his first priority, and that's because I'm not.

This takes some getting used to. Besides for the fact that I really love this guy and want to make this work, I'm hoping this can be a growing experience for me. However, I'm naturally needy (something I'm working on), and it's really hard for me. I'm treading a fine line between telling him my needs and feeling guilty because I should be an "easy" girlfriend who doesn't add to his stress.

Anyone here successfully dealt with being in a relationship with a doctor/lawyer/business owner? How do you deal with it? Any tips for making it work?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I didn't date a doctor or lawyer, but there was a period of time where my then-fiance (now my husband) was working as well as going to school. Unfortunately I have a job working at a high school and was only available at night, and his classes and project groups met mostly at night. With his schedule we didn't see each other much.

One thing that helped was knowing that there was an end to the the end of the semester he'd be done. Will your boyfriend have his current, hectic position forever, or is there room for advancement to a less demanding position? Another thing that helped was making sure that we spent quality time together...even though it would have been easy to just collapse on the couch and watch Law & Order when we eventually got together, we made a point of always doing something that made us feel closer and made me feel emotionally satisfied.

Another thing I did a few times was clean or do his grocery shopping so he could spend more time with me. I know some women would feel too subservient doing that, but I thought it was a pretty practical way to maximize our time together during the most hectic parts of his schedule.

Good luck...I hope things work out for you!
posted by christinetheslp at 9:22 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

You better learn to live with it and make him believe you are okay with his work schedule. He will love you for it. If you go the other way, and complain about his work ethic, you are going to come off as appearing "child-like" and immature with a lack of understanding what the "real world" dictates to be successful. You better be sure you can emotionally handle this type of releationship before you get too deep in this rabbit hole.
posted by bkeene12 at 9:31 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

For the first couple of years that my husband and I were dating, he was in a startup. Now that was insane. At the office until 10PM or midnight regularly, often later. Working every weekend, both days. Getting woken up on a nightly basis by server meltdowns at 3 and 4AM. Even when more staff joined (and he wasn't the only person making it work), it barely got better. Sure, there were more people to back him up, but a) more stuff to break b) he was still the primary go-to and c) the staff would regularly let off steam by going out and getting wasted. By regularly, I mean up to 2-3 nights a week almost every week, and by wasted, I mean not entirely infrequently showing up at home between 4 and 7AM or giving up and crashing on the couch in the office. That was rough.

I'm not going to lie, it was really hard. We didn't get much time together, even though we were living together, and what time we had was always available to be sacrificed to the company. We didn't go on any vacation longer than a long weekend for 2 years. And even then, we had to be in constant communication with his office, have access to internet, etc.

My job was less demanding at the time -- and still is less emergency-based, if equally time-consuming -- and it was difficult for me to constantly be the "second girlfriend" after his work.

Thinking back on what made it work, despite the occasional screaming argument:
1. We didn't start there -- for the first 6 months or so of our dating/living together, he worked more normal hours, and we had built a solid foundation of love/devotion/assurance before the startup came in to destroy our lives.
2. I spent time on my own while he was busy. I saw a lot of my friends, I worked on projects, etc. And thus, also, when he wasn't busy, I was free, having done my stuff on other days.
3. Declaring one day a week off-limits. Neither one of us was allowed to schedule drinks w/friends, etc., or stay too late at the office on Friday night. That night was held sacred as our night together come hell or high water.
4. Consistent contact during the day -- short phone calls, emails, basically just a low-level reminder that someone is thinking of you. They didn't have to be love notes -- just trying to communicate at all, even if it's a dumb joke, battles that sense of isolation or being ignored/forgotten about.
5. Learning not to have any important discussions over email. It can be tempting, when you don't see someone that much, to hash something out via the magic of computers. I strongly advise against it. It almost invariably leads to misunderstandings and frustration.
6. Being up-front about my needs, but being very selective as to what was important. Prioritize. Be honest if you really need something to be happy or feel loved, but be prepared to let smaller things go. Likewise be careful not to just sacrifice all of your needs to the gaping maw of his schedule. Don't let the important things fester -- he can't do anything to fix it if you don't tell him it's important to you.
7. An almost zen-like acceptance on my part. At a certain point, you just have to acknowledge that this is the way it's going to be, it has nothing to do with you, and if you love this person you just have to roll with it. You have to keep in mind that not spending time with you is not choosing not to spend time with you, and it doesn't mean he cares about you any less -- the current work situation demands certain sacrifices. He would be with you if he could.
posted by tigerbelly at 9:40 AM on January 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

You have to keep in mind that not spending time with you is not choosing not to spend time with you, and it doesn't mean he cares about you any less -- the current work situation demands certain sacrifices.

I dunno...I'm inclined to think that not spending time with you on an ongoing basis means exactly that he is choosing not to spend time with you. It's a matter of priorities: some people place work above all else, other people have different priorities. If work hours are harming a relationship, there is certainly a reasonable case to be made that either the work situation needs to change, or the relationship does. If someone's job is more important than their relationship or anything else, then you need to be prepared to always be second to work (and people whose priorities fall in this order tend to continue to do this, even if they change jobs). Once in a while, this is to be expected in most any relationship, on a permanent either accept that your relationship is secondary to the job, or you don't.
posted by biscotti at 9:59 AM on January 21, 2007

Well, I disagree with biscotti. It's more complicated than that. Some jobs are intensely demanding, and it's not so much a matter of the person choosing not to be with you, but rather, a job is integral to one's identity, and people don't entirely choose the kind of work they do. I don't think it is fair to characterize the super-busy partner as "putting you second." Sure, the person could "put you first" and get a job in state government, where the employees line up at the punchclock at 4:59 (seriously, I saw this recently) and you've got your partner all to yourself except for 40 hours a week. But do you really want that?

I think it is possible for someone to put you "first," but at the same time accept that they will be gone 70 hours a week, or whatever.
posted by jayder at 10:16 AM on January 21, 2007

I was about to make exactly one of tigerbelly's suggestions:

Being up-front about my needs, but being very selective as to what was important. Prioritize. Be honest if you really need something to be happy or feel loved, but be prepared to let smaller things go. Likewise be careful not to just sacrifice all of your needs to the gaping maw of his schedule. Don't let the important things fester -- he can't do anything to fix it if you don't tell him it's important to you.

Make sure you find a balance here for yourself. You need to know what's really important to you (and to let go of the rest) and you both need to find ways of making sure you're getting that. Don't let yourself be railroaded into being the only putting any work into the relationship -- especially if you're the one doing the railroading by pre-emptively deciding that none of your needs are important enough to mention.
posted by occhiblu at 10:18 AM on January 21, 2007

I can qualify as a workaholic -- I'm about to head into the office (it's Sunday... sheesh) to finish up a project demo for tomorrow. She's also a veterinary student, which doesn't make it easier.

My S.O. and I deal with it by trying to make sure that we spend *SOME* time communicating each day, and we try to work out with each other daily.

And honestly, we also deal with it by not being too 'serious' -- by focusing on the love and appreciation we have for each other instead of taking it personally when one of us can't do something because we're busy with work/school/contract work, etc.
posted by SpecialK at 10:46 AM on January 21, 2007

Biscotti is making a not invalid point, and one to consider in some situatiuons, but I don't see it as always a matter of job vs. love. And in addressing this particular situation, I'm thinking more in terms of dealing with either a particularly bad patch in a generally busy worklife or with a job that is unusually demanding -- not an individual who derives his/her sense of worth solely from work successes, and who doesn't know how to turn off. The OP states that he's not exactly a "workaholic", just has crazy hours, which is what I'm going from.

My personal bias is probably that, like my husband and the OP's boyfriend, I also value my career highly. Not my paycheck or my office, but my career. And it requires a certain amount of extra time/energy that I necessarily must invest. I don't exactly put those demands above my relationship, but I would expect that my spouse would work with me to make our relationship work within the context of our respective careers. I suppose to be more accurate, I don't see putting that time/energy into my career as a binary choice between job and relationship. Both require sacrifices and both can flourish.

Building from what jaydar said -- what can be lost here is the difference between a "job" and what I would call a career. One is for making money, the other is more entwined in other goals, interests, and passions as well as one's identity and values. If two people in a relationship have different work experiences -- one has only ever worked jobs while the other is working on a career -- it can be difficult for one to understand why the other would put so much into something that is "just work."
posted by tigerbelly at 10:52 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

obligatory typo self-correction: "situations".
posted by tigerbelly at 10:53 AM on January 21, 2007

I don't see it as always a matter of job vs. love.

Neither do I. The point I'm making is that people have different priorities, and if there is a serious difference between the priorities of the people in the relationship, then you may have a problem. Some people need to spend more time with their SO than others to feel happy and secure in their relationship, such people might have trouble having a successful relationship with someone who needs less time than they do and who also likes to spend a lot of time on their career. There isn't a "right or wrong" with this (within reason), but there is definitely a "compatible or incompatible". If your relationship expectations are completely out of whack with your SO's relationship expectations, then you have a problem.

anonymous says "it is still really hard for me to feel like I'm not his first priority, and that's because I'm not. " To me, this says that there is a genuine problem here, and I don't know that there's necessarily a good solution to this kind of issue - you can either accept being second to the job, or you can't. No amount of semantic whitewashing is going to change the fact that anonymous' SO has work as his first priority, and that anonymous is on some level hurt by this. Neither of them are right or wrong, but there's not really an easy solution to this kind of issue: either the SO cuts back on work (which is in reality his #1 priority) which can well lead to his resenting anonymous/the relationship/whatever for it (as he is passed over for promotions or simply loses out on whatever it is he enjoys so much about his job), or anonymous pretends than she can deal with the fact that she is second to the job, which can well lead to her resenting the SO for it.

I don't mean to sound negative, but I think it's pretty rare for people to truly change their life priorities, and in my opinion, a wide disparity in priorities and expectations is an enormous thing to overcome in a relationship.
posted by biscotti at 11:37 AM on January 21, 2007

Even if this man's job was "just work", he is a parent, too. Which may mean that he doesn't try to ask the boss to adjust his hours, since he doesn't want to jeopardize his position knowing he has offspring to support. Or he may want to save his days off for child-related emergencies and obligations that come up.

I don't think it's helpful to think about relationships in terms of who is putting who "first". Many lives cannot be characterized so neatly. This man has a career, which is probably somewhat intertwined with his personality and sense of self, which in turn provides for his life with his child(ren) as well as his life with his girlfriend (the OP). There is no "first" priority. It's just life.

I think the OP should ask herself about her specific needs, and then discuss with her boyfriend about getting them met. Needs like "more time" and "more attention" are perhaps too vague to be useful. How much time feels sufficient? Is it a little bit of contact every day, or could you go all week without significant contact if you knew that all day Sunday was yours? How much attention do you require to feel valued? Do texts and emails do the trick, or do you feel best if you have a real conversation at some point each day?

From there you can strategize about getting those needs met. For more daily contact, you may choose to bring him dinner at the office and spend that hour break with him. You may choose to drive him to work and pick him up for some extra time together. You may ask him to text you more often, or call you at some point during the work day. For more significant contact, you might have to get more involved with his child(ren) so that you're a part of his weekends, or take on more organizational tasks for him so that his free time is more free. He should be able to identify points during his day during which he can call you for a few minutes, or upcoming free time that he can plan to spend with you. But unfortunately, because he's the one with the long hours AND the parenting, you will probably being the one doing more "work" to free him up for you.

The rest of it is just coping. Involve yourself with after work projects (cooking for the week, a class, a personal project, friends, family, reading, movies, exercise). If you've ever wanted to foster interests outside of your job, now is the time. Any languages you want to learn? Trips to plan? Household stuff that needs renovating? These things give you a fuller life (you'll begin to identify with him better) and help the time fly till you see him next.
posted by xo at 11:42 AM on January 21, 2007

My SO and I are long distance, and he's in the second year of his graduate program. This means that even when I fly out there to spend time with him, he doesn't have much to spend. Is this a choice on his part? Yes, and no. He would spend more time with me if he could, but right now getting succesfully through grad school is more important than spending time with me, and I accept that. As a naturally needy person myself, it can be hard sometimes. And I totally feel your guilt about being the "easy" girlfriend. I am always thinking that I am supposed to be the one stress-free thing in his life!

When I'm there, I insist on two things that have really helped make things bearable: 1) We eat dinner together. If this means I wait until 8 p.m. to eat, so be it. He's not allowed to have his computer at dinner, and I am not allowed to bring a book. Even if it is only 10 minutes, having his undivided attention and talking about our days makes it priceless to me. 2) He hugs me when he comes to bed at 4 AM. I go to bed earlier, he stays up to get papers done. Even if it wakes me up when he hugs me, having that hug makes me feel connected to him.

So, I agree with those who are saying set aside time that you spend together. Can you eat dinner together every night? Every Tuesday and Friday? Or even only every Friday? Touching base at least once a day always makes me feel better -- could you ask him to send you a short email every day, or a quick 10-minute phone call before bed? These things allow both of you to stay connected while not necessarily taking up a huge amount of time.

Hope this helps!
posted by rosethorn at 12:31 PM on January 21, 2007

He is wonderful, but it is still really hard for me to feel like I'm not his first priority, and that's because I'm not.

I know a lot of people have jumped on this one statement already, but I think it's important to realize that working a demanding job in some people's minds is part of putting their partner first. Being a good provider means having both a well-paid and stable career. This is often achieved through going above and beyond the required minimum in the workplace.

I've spent VERY long hours at work in the past (my record is 30 straight through, and 120 in a week), and due to the nature of my job my schedule is often unpredictable. There are times I could have pushed back more and reclaimed some of the time I "had" to spend at work, but building up political capital at work is important in ensuring that the family is well supported when a crisis hits.

My work schedule was hard on my late wife, and is hard on my girlfriend now. They've both felt like they were put second, but one thing that helps: when I'm needed, I'm always there. Even though I'm not around much, when there's a crisis I prove that I'm putting my relationship first and work second by being there. That's one of the advantages of working long hours without complaint or push-back - when I do need the time, I can take it without a hassle and be where I need to be; this is extra important when there's kids involved.

Note that this mainly works well with partners that properly understand the word "need". I have a friend in a similar job situation whose ex used to ask him to stay home from work all the time because she "needed" him, to the point where he started getting in trouble at work for attendance.
posted by tkolstee at 7:02 AM on January 22, 2007

There's no shame in wanting a 9-5 guy -- plenty of them are out there, and you shouldn't sell yourself short for having totally reasonable needs like seeing your boyfriend during daylight hours now and again. You should be upfront with him about what you want out of your relationship.

And you shouldn't assume your guy is ever going to change into a 9-5er, because he's not gonna unless he has a clear exit plan from his current job. Even if he's not a "workaholic," people don't end up in those sorts of demanding professions by accident.
posted by footnote at 2:07 PM on January 23, 2007

I'm on the other end... not a doctor or lawyer, but an upandcoming musician... whose career is just beginning to really take off. We've been flirting for awhile, and getting to know each other, and finally hooked up before christmas.

He thinks the world of me, is really attracted to me, but things ended almost immediately because he just doesn't have the energy to have a relationship and his music.

I've been thinking about it a lot, and if we did get together again / had stayed together I think the whole coming second to his career would be a definite killer... that and the thousands of girls screaming out for him on a daily basis!!

It's a shame I think he's worth the pain, and I guess that's what it comes down to - is he worth the stress and insecurity that comes from knowing you're not his #1 priority?

wish you better luck than I had!
posted by jonathanstrange at 11:11 PM on January 28, 2007

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