She's a Total Workaholic and It's Ruining Our Marriage

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The Counselor's Turn

The counselor: Many couples clash over their different financial styles, but money often is a surface issue. The root problem tends to be about the feelings -- love, security, self-esteem -- that have become attached to money. So in our first session, I wanted to uncover what was really behind Meg and John's conflict. As I listened to them describe their upbringings, it was easy to see why he'd become a big spender and why she'd become a workaholic.

John came from an upper-middle-class family that never lacked for money or nice things. John's father suffered from depression and expressed affection by lavishing his son with gifts. John didn't feel valued in his marriage because Meg was wrapped up in her career, so he repeated a pattern from childhood. "You're buying expensive things to feel loved and fill the emotional gap," I told him.

Meanwhile, money was tight and praise was scarce in Meg's blue-collar family. She had a critical and cold mother, so she became a worker-bee perfectionist who tried to do everything to the nth degree to please her mother and feel good about herself. Meg glowed when she spoke about her career and accomplishments, making it clear that she didn't work long hours just to pay the bills -- she worked hard because it made her feel good. Over time I helped Meg see that she was wrongly blaming John for her own issue: "You're a workaholic. Your job may be physically and emotionally exhausting, but it's filling an emotional need. This isn't about money and John's spending, it's about your self-esteem."

The couple had talked often about whether Meg should go part-time, but they'd never done a spreadsheet to see if they could afford it. Both argued their positions from emotion, not fact. They needed to discuss their money differences calmly, without Meg criticizing John's materialism or him sniping about her frugality. I recommended a thorough review of their finances -- preferably with an accountant or financial adviser -- to determine whether they could maintain their lifestyle and meet their goals on John's income alone. "Even though Meg is a workaholic, she has a legitimate concern about what the loss of her full-time salary would mean for your family," I explained to John. "Don't tell her she's wrong -- prove you're right." Their tax accountant's number crunching showed that not only could the couple make ends meet on John's salary and save for the future, but there would be enough money for John to buy what he wanted. "If you stay in your job, it's because you want to -- not because you have to," I told Meg.

Faced with hard numbers, she acknowledged that she'd made John a scapegoat. Meg took responsibility for her workaholic ways and set a date to give notice. But when she submitted her resignation, her boss made a counteroffer she couldn't refuse: a part-time position, with no evening or weekend work. She took it.

Meanwhile, though John denied being materialistic, he agreed to scale back his spending. He apologized for buying the bedroom set and promised to seek her input on all large household purchases. They also followed my advice to set a budget and review their finances monthly. "We're talking about money openly and honestly for the first time in our marriage, and I trust John with our finances now," Meg said.

Meg and John worked out a system to split the chores so he doesn't feel like everything is on his shoulders. I also discussed the importance of couple time. They started making a point of hanging out together after the kids are asleep and occasionally going out to the movies or to dinner. These simple changes really strengthened the connection between the two of them. Meg still slips into workaholic mode at times, and John's spending still bugs her. But overall, the couple is back on track. John is much happier now that his wife is spending more time with the kids and with him. And Meg is thrilled with her lifestyle change. "I have the best of both worlds: I'm busy while Alex and Kim are in school, but I'm home to meet them at the bus stop," Meg told me in the last session. "I love being more involved in their lives."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2012.


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