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  Married to the Job
 
 
The Boston Globe Magazine, December 30, 2007
   
A friend confessed that there's been a third party in bed with her and her new boyfriend for most of their relationship. The interloper is cute and petite and drives Cathy mad with jealousy, but none of the usual remedies for a love triangle - breaking up, writing angst-filled poetry - seems appropriate. See, Cathy's competition isn't another woman. It's her boyfriend's BlackBerry.

He brings it to bed on weeknights. He brings it to bed on weekends. During the very first night they spent together, he interrupted post-coital cuddling to check e-mail from a client. So now Cathy's wondering whether her beau's a workaholic, a techo-holic, or both - and what to do about it. The BlackBerry-to-bed scenario reflects a widespread difficulty: how to separate oneself from technology. Some of us can't tear ourselves away from the Internet long enough to eat a sandwich or, say, write a 750-word magazine column. But there's a larger phenomenon in Cathy's dilemma, one that predates the dawn of instant messaging: What do you do when your partner seems more in love with his or her career than with you?

I'm not speaking of the time devoted to one's job vs. the rest of one's life; that's a balancing act all couples (and singles) have to perform. What troubles Cathy about her new beau isn't just that he works all the time. It's that he seems happy to work all the time. He would rather be doing work stuff than most anything else.

"It's almost like he's cheating on me," Cathy sighs. "But it's with his job!"

I've dated men who are career-obsessed, and I've gone through stages when I've been the obsessed one. It seems a common problem among 20- and 30-somethings. After all, we get a lot of cultural messages about where we should be putting our passions, and it isn't into our relationships.

Consider: Some 978 of Monster.com's Massachusetts job listings have "passion" as a keyword. Companies want people who are passionate about investigating insurance claims, selling motorcycles, thwarting shoplifters, and replenishing the stock on the shelves of a discount clothing store. My favorite, placed by a restaurant chain, requires that all candidates demonstrate "a passion for casual dining." Do they rent rooms by the hour for that?

All these references to passion got me a little heated up, so I calmed myself down by looking at Match.com. There, hardly anybody talks about love or passion or intense feelings, at least not for other people. They're too busy demonstrating how emotionally fulfilled they already are, often by their work, and how much they don't need a relationship. It's as if being willing to give all your time to someone smacks of desperation in the romantic realm and devotion in the professional one.

It's probably not surprising that we've ended up with this odd reversal of priorities. Many of us learn from nursery school onward that it's our achievements, not our relationships, that will bring us happiness - not to mention a high gross national product. So in our 20s and 30s, we have little experience setting work aside and letting someone else's agenda become as important as ours. That can't be good for our long-term happiness, and it's probably not all that good for our worker selves either - though it may be for our bosses. After all, someone who loves her job shouldn't quibble about little things like benefits, a retirement package, or vacation time. It would be so petty. It would be like demanding a prenuptial agreement on the first date.

The last time I spoke to Cathy, she was heading for a breakup rather than a prenup. She's realized, she said, that she's spent too much time hunting for a contradiction: an incredibly successful man who doesn't spend a lot of time working or thinking about work. So she's vowed to start looking beyond the captains-of-industry types who have appealed to her in the past. I wished her luck. And I reminded her that if all else fails, Boston is full of great places for casual dining.

 
 

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