Alan Meltzer told a client seven years ago that if it ever took him longer than two hours to respond to an e-mail between 5:30 in the morning and 10 at night, he'd give $5,000 to the charity of the client's choice. Meltzer, the chief executive of The Meltzer Group, a Bethesda, Md.-based insurance brokerage firm, still has the account and never had to pay off the bet.
Great for his client. Not so hot for his wife. "I was lonely a lot," says Amy Meltzer, who says she's basically raised their four kids. "I forged such a deep bond with my children that sometime when he was home it was weird. He almost wasn't part of our unit."
Despite this, Meltzer and his wife beat the odds, staying married 29 years. On average, couples in which one partner is a workaholic divorce at twice the average rate, according to a 1999 study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte's Bryan Robinson.
"In workaholic marriages, there's more marital estrangement; couples are emotionally distant from each other; and there are often thoughts of separation and divorce," says Robinson, author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them.
Robinson developed a 25-question test to distinguish workaholics from hard workers. Among his findings: While workaholics on average spend 10 hours more than non-workaholics on the job, time isn't the appropriate barometer. Mindset is. "The workaholic is on the ski slopes dreaming about getting back to work," says Robinson. "The hard worker is in the office dreaming about being on the ski slopes."
Spouses can help. To heal family and relationship angst caused by your mate's unhealthy addiction to work, Robinson says you've got to send a much-needed wakeup call. Some tricks: Go to the party alone rather than waiting. Take the children to the zoo at the time you planned.
Also helpful: Make sure time away from work is time away from work, says Jess Alberts, a professor of human communication at Arizona State University. "People who live highly structured lives need to make appointments for time off," she says. However little time it is, it's important to plan for it. "There's a huge danger that, if you don't spend downtime with partners and children, relationships will fade." Rituals like a Friday night date also help.
Finding a hobby, or any activity to engage in together, is another strategy. "Workaholics have trouble being still and connecting, so [a hobby] helps them do something and connect with you." says Robinson. Any activity will do. You can take up golf, tennis or rock climbing, or simply a bike ride or take a regular evening stroll around the neighborhood.
Workaholics should force their spouses to sit down and work through a plan for who will be responsible for all areas of domestic life and how the couple will earn enough money to support the family in both the short term and long term, says Cali Williams Yost, the author of Work+Life: Finding the Fit That's Right for You. "You almost need to sit with a pad and paper and work through everything," says Yost. It can help both spouses to understand why 70-hour weeks might make sense for several years, but they can arrange a scaling back down the road.
"You don't want one person to bear an inordinate part of the more stressful household tasks, because that's going to come back and bite you," says Rosalind Barnett, executive director of the Communities, Families and Work Program at Brandeis University. It's important to reassess your happiness and satisfaction with the level of housework, time spent together and what amount of time you each spend at work and home. At one time in life, it might work for the spouse of a workaholic, but if that changes, it's important to talk about it.
In the end, though, "There's often only so much the spouse can do, and there comes a point at which it's up to the workaholic to make the change," says Robinson. "For people who are true workaholics, there are [psychological] roots that were there long before the spouse came along."