Work’s Role in Harming Healthy Relationships

A few years ago, I had the great privilege of hearing Clay Christensen speak at a conference. A renowned author, consultant, and Harvard Business School professor, Christensen radiated intelligence and humility, and I later learned that he is a man who is extremely committed to his faith.

I was impressed. In my experience, a lot of professional people are agnostic or occasional churchgoers, looking down, just a little, at people who rely deeply on their faith. It was inspiring to see an example of someone living according to spiritual principles who still had a very successful professional life.

It was with great interest, then, that I read his latest essay in Harvard Business Review, HOW WILL YOU MEASURE YOUR LIFE? The article addresses the tendency of achievement-oriented people to “underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.”

Christensen writes:

Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my [Harvard Business School] classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy…

When people who have a high need for achievement… have an extra half hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward… In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement… It’s really not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, “I raised a good son or a good daughter.”…

If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most.

From a mental health perspective, this really resonates with me. My husband’s breakdown was precipitated by months of almost total focus on his work. My own eating disorder relapse was likewise preceded by putting my career before my recovery. (I’ll write more about these instances in my next two posts.)

But the mental health and marriages of people who haven’t been diagnosed with serious mental illness can also suffer when one partner puts too much priority on his or her career.

*****

One story that’s captured my attention lately is that of the millionaire entrepreneur who co-founded PayPal. Two years ago, the now 39-year-old businessman divorced the mother of his five young children, and the two are now engaged in a bitter dispute over the distribution of marital assets.

His ex-wife, Justine, is a beautiful and accomplished author. What could possibly, I wondered, have led to their split, particularly when there were five children involved?

In a recent article in Marie Claire, Justine opens up about the divorce, explaining:

The whirlwind of [a privileged and surreal lifestyle] couldn’t disguise a growing void at the core [of the marriage]. Elon was obsessed with his work: When he was home, his mind was elsewhere. I longed for deep and heartfelt conversations, for intimacy and empathy. And while I sacrificed a normal family life for his career, Elon started to say that I “read too much,” shrugging off my book deadlines. This felt like a dismissal, and a stark reversal from the days when he was so supportive. When we argued — over the house or the kids’ sleeping schedule — my faults and flaws came under the microscope. I felt insignificant in his eyes, and I began thinking about what effect our dynamic would have on our five young sons…

Elon agreed to enter counseling, but he was running two companies and carrying a planet of stress. One month and three sessions later, he gave me an ultimatum: Either we fix this marriage today or I will divorce you tomorrow, by which I understood he meant, Our status quo works for me, so it should work for you. He filed for divorce the next morning. I felt numb, but strangely relieved.

Now, not knowing either of these individuals personally, it’s possible that they just weren’t well-suited to one another. But from Justine’s description, it certainly seems that they had an emotional connection at one point, and that Elon was able to be a supportive husband. The most likely scenario, then, is that Elon, who is known to work 100+ hour weeks, underinvested in his family and overinvested in his career.

And yes, his strategy has netted him millions of dollars, but a recent study conducted by Princeton University researchers pegged the price of happiness at a mere (and I only say “mere” as compared to millions) $75,000/year.

As one of the researchers explains, “We suspect that this means, in part, that when people have a lot more money, they can buy a lot more pleasures, but there are some indications that when you have a lot of money, you will savor each pleasure less. Perhaps $75,000 is a threshold beyond which further increases in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure.

*****

Put in its proper place, work plays an important role in our lives. It allows us to support ourselves and our families, it gives us a way to contribute to society, and it serves a vital role in building our self-esteem.

But work can’t fulfill all of our emotional needs, and when a person’s emotional needs are consistently ignored, it can lead to depression, eating disorders, and addiction.

So if you’re making a comfortable living but you’re not willing to sacrifice even a little bit of your ambition/potential earnings to ensure that your spouse’s emotional needs—along with your own—are being met, it’s probably a good idea to ask yourself why not.

Because it’s likely that, as Christensen proposes, without realizing it, you’re focusing on short-term career gains at the expense of your long-term happiness in your marriage and your life.

Perhaps the millionaire entrepreneur will prove me wrong, but if he continues to run two companies and work more than 100 hours a week, I seriously doubt that his recent marriage to a Hollywood actress will be any more successful, in the long run, than his marriage to Justine.

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