Written by Alix Fox
Relentless grafting might be the key to a successful professional life, but what happens when it jeopardises your relationship as a result? Writer Alix Fox investigates…
An international supermodel, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback and three beautiful kids: for a long time, the union between Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady seemed more wholesome than… well, The Brady Bunch. But after 13 years together, the couple finalised a $700 million (£611m) divorce last month, with reports suggesting they disagreed about his decision to come out of retirement and return to the playing field.
If the rumours are to be believed, Brady isn’t exactly on his own in having a preoccupation with his occupation. According to data from business advisory service Evelyn Partners, one in three people in the UK have pressed pause on major personal milestones, such as getting married or having a baby, to prioritise career targets instead. And while we may have been conditioned to believe that relentlessly grafting is the key to a successful professional life, 28% of men and 20% of women come to regret these decisions. Especially when their refusal to take a break causes a breakup.
Aaron*, 34, used to work hours so far beyond the 9-5 that he made Dolly Parton look like Dolly Part-Time. “I’m employed in record label and artist management, and for years it was all-consuming: calls with Australia in the early morning, LA in the evening, WhatsApps around the clock… Even by the standards of a demanding industry, I worked intensely – and honestly, I felt validated by the recognition I got for my zealous work ethics,” he admits. “My partner, Melissa*, and I started planning for a family, and I convinced myself that my growing commission was essential to provide for us, while ignoring the fact my work/life balance had zero boundaries and was completely out of control. Melissa felt increasingly sidelined while I carried on, convinced the chaos and compromise was an essential part of competitive working life. I was so fixated on trying to keep all my career plates spinning, issues went unchecked… until there was no room left for anything but the stresses, and our marriage broke down.”
Becky Hall is the author of The Art Of Enough, a guide to achieving a greater equilibrium between the jostling elements of life. She sees many lessons in Aaron’s tale – not least a warning to avoid depending too much on our vocations for validation and our sense of self-esteem.“Addiction to work often stems from a deep sense of insecurity and personal lack, with roots in early experiences,” she explains. “As children, if we perceive that the way to get approval, to belong, or even to be loved is based on what we do – and not who we are – this can lead to an ingrained belief that to be ‘enough’, we must work day in and day out to prove our worth to the world. Diving into examining whose approval we’re truly seeking through our work habits, and questioning whether that’s properly serving us, can be the start of breaking unhealthy patterns.”
Psychotherapist Jordan Vyas-Lee, co-founder of mental health clinic Kove, asks whether some individuals lean into work to feed their self-worth as it seems like an easier way to score ‘wins’ compared with the vulnerability of learning to be a good partner – something which grows increasingly difficult in relationships strained by over-involvement in the office. “The dynamic of pleasing a boss via task-focused jobs can give instant gratification, whereas working alongside your partner to learn new skills in your relationship can feel embarrassing or just too hard,” he says. “Yet taking a risk to learn to act in ways that your partner needs will be an experience that connects you better, and you’ll feel a sense of self-worth that you can’t achieve at your desk.”
Alex Limanówka, a former divorce lawyer turned relationship counsellor, believes that many of her legal clients could have avoided splitting if they’d scheduled dedicated, ring-fenced time at least once a week for ‘check-ins’, and paid attention to talking and listening with curiosity and compassion, rather than going in on the offensive. “People are often better at communicating respectfully with their professional peers than their partners, as there’s a communication etiquette we need to preserve at work,” she observes. As a result, this can breed understandable resentment within your partner to an unsalvageable degree.
Vyas-Lee advises using sentences beginning “I feel…” rather than “You are…” during check-ins to avoid making a partner feel attacked. “It’s hard to resist using accusatory language like ‘You don’t understand the pressure of my deadlines’ or ‘You only care about your work and yourself’, for example, but language that makes people feel blamed and ashamed means they’re more likely to return insults. In contrast, “I feel sad and isolated when you text to say you’re working late again – how can we resolve this together?” is clear but contains positivity, and places you shoulder to shoulder with your partner in fixing problems.”
Freya*, 27, who works in marketing, and her advertising exec partner Manny*, 29, are both invested in demanding jobs, but find that honestly managing expectations of how long brutally busy periods will last helps them cope as a couple. “I’ve had weeks where I’ve worked 80 hours, and once Manny came in at 2am when we were supposed to get up to catch a holiday flight at 4.30am – he rolled over in bed, confessed that he felt too anxious and wrecked to go, and we had to cancel,” she admits. “Obviously it’s awful, but we find it easier to suck it up and support each other when we know it will only last a week or two, and we’re strict about those timescales. I’ve found I’m actually better at my job when I’m setting and holding boundaries, too.”
The pair also arrange ‘microdates’ – half-hour lunchtime walks – that better enable them to carve out time for each other. Limanówka applauds this, saying: “If you’re really busy, don’t agree to meet for a whole evening. It’s better to have one hour together where your attention is fully focused on each other and you’re building intimacy than a longer stretch when you’re there physically but your mind is elsewhere, making your partner feel ignored and devalued.” Whatever the quantity, make sure the time you share is high quality, she advises: so no work phone and no emails.
While couples are bending over backwards like yoga masters trying to strike a work/love balance, what responsibility do employers have to support their staff? “I’d like to see employees rewarded for attending wellbeing workshops, rather than punished because these so-called ‘mental health benefits’ mean there’s less time to do work – which ironically creates more stress,” says Vyas-Lee. “It might be nice for companies to give rewards that, where appropriate, acknowledge the supportive role partners play in helping individuals hit targets, like gifting a meal for two,” suggests Freya.
Aaron, however, thinks there are limits to how much businesses can influence how ‘married to their job’ people feel and that, ultimately, adopting a well-rounded attitude comes down to the individual. “Companies could do better at promoting healthier cultures, but for me, real breakthroughs came by building my own ‘wellness toolkit’ via therapy, talking openly to friends and loved ones, blocking in space for sleep, exercise, breaks from the digital matrix, examining my motivations and the insecurities beneath my ego,” he reflects.
Fundamentally, if you find yourself continually prioritising performing well professionally over being there for your partner, you have likely made personal choices that have led to that situation. And while there are practical steps you can take to communicate better and show up more in your relationship, you might have to ask yourself some deeper, more uncomfortable questions about where you derive your value from – and why. It seems, to some degree, striking a work/love balance is something you have to do on your own. Before “on your own” is the only option left.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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