IS SUCCESS SPOILING YOUR MARRIAGE?

If you sacrifice your family for your career, you might lose both.

You know these two. (You may be one of them.) John is the president of a data processing company. Last year, at age 42, after 18 years of marriage, he and Ellen were divorced. There was little emotional stress in their separation – they had never really been together since he got out of the M.B.A. program. By the time he was 35, he was making over $100,000 a year. They had their occasional quarrels, but they’d patch them up by buying presents – he gave her a Mercedes, she bought him a Rolex. They bought a house by the lake but rarely went there together. In fact, they never took a vacation, unless there was a convention in San Francisco or a sales meeting in Miami. The only problem they had when they split up was dividing all the things they had bought to help keep their marriage together.

Warren and Ruth are still together. At 38, Warren is executive vice president of a major insurance company. Ruth has accepted the amount of travel Warren has to do, though secretly, guiltily, she inspects his luggage every time he comes home for signs of the “other woman” she fantasizes. She wishes he would slow down, but Warren only promises her that when he’s made it all the way to the top, there will be time for them to be together. He thinks constantly of his father- it took him 40 years to reach the top-“Forty years, that’s a lifetime,” he thinks. If I don’t make it by 40, he tells himself, I probably never will.

Even though they are outwardly successful, Warren and John obviously don’t feel successful. They are confused about their goals and ambivalent about some of their career decisions. Having devoted most of their energies to getting to the top, they are now beginning to ponder the cost.

Until quite recently few companies paid much attention to the cost. What mattered was efficiency and productivity. How employees felt about themselves or how they behaved towards their families was none of the company’s affair. But today, more and more businesses are realizing that they have a stake in the well-being of their employees, and that if their personal needs are not met, the company, and not just the individual, will be the loser.

It’s become commonplace for corporations to provide jogging tracks and swimming pools for employees, and hardly a day passes that the newspapers don’t report some company giving raises to workers who lose weight or stop smoking. But now more and more corporations are also sending top executives and managers to growth seminars, retreats, and assorted consciousness-raising workshops, not to find the key to tighter inventory control but to learn how to handle stress, family crises, and assorted other subjects previously considered “off limits.” The Men-ninger Foundation of Topeka, Kansas, which specializes in preventing emotional disorders, sponsors a variety of seminars and workshops for top management personnel, including white-water rafting trips designed to teach “fast track” executives the importance of cooperative effort. Bell Telephone and Atlantic Richfield have their own psychiatrists and psychologists. The definition of “management consulting” has been expanded to cover such things as personal and family counseling as well as the traditional market research and manpower surveys.

This new awareness is also showing up in business schools, particularly in MBA programs. At SMU, Professor Deborah Chamberlain has recently completed a study of stress involving 55 top executives of Sun Oil company and 20 of their wives. The subjects were asked to keep a daily log in which they recorded those things which caused stress and how they managed to cope with stress. Probably the most significant result was that most executives found internal pressures (career expectations, self-image) much harder to deal with than pressures arising from their jobs or the environment. Moral? Executives are usually their own worst enemies.

Probably the most innovative course is a seminar at the Harvard business school called “The Executive Family.” Taught by school psychiatrist Barrie Greiff, the seminar concentrates on the various human dilemmas that men and women in business must face. Enrollment is restricted to couples in the second year of the MBA program. “Our focus,” says Greiff, “is the complex relationships between the individual, the family, and the organization, the potential conflicts as well as the trade-offs.” One week the group might discuss the problems of the dual-career couple, the next week travel and relocation, job loss, or whether or not to have children.

And what do such courses tell us about success and its consequences? Not surprisingly, many of the traditional stereotypes about “making it” have been taking a drubbing. One of the most familiar is that to get ahead a person must make sacrifices, meaning that work must come before family, friends, and personal satisfactions. We’ve all met “workaholic” executives who brag about putting in 80 hours a week at the office and not having taken a vacation in 20 years. According to psychiatrist George Vaillant, whose book Adaptation to Life summarizes 35 years of research into the careers of a group of bright, strong, promising Harvard men, this is a description of failure rather than success. “Those who were successful did not achieve success in one area of their lives at the expense of other areas. Contrary to the common mythology, it was the very men who enjoyed the best marriages and the richest friendship patterns who became the company presidents.”

Dr. Jerry Lewis of Dallas’ Timberlawn Hospital made similar discoveries in his study of the healthy family. “The husbands in our study who were healthy and successful also seemed to have a great deal left over for their families. They talked frequently about the satisfactions they got from working with people, helping others along in the company or the job. The less healthy men tended to be more task-oriented and to derive most of their satisfaction from solving problems, completing a certain amount of work. They would say things like ’My job would be terrific if it weren’t for the other people involved.’ “

The number one complaint of top business executives is loneliness. They feel detached and isolated, unable to express or to respond to feelings. To a large extent this is a reflection of the macho work ethic that dominates so many corporations. A real executive, a winner, is by definition tough, independent, analytical, unemotional. Feelings are a sign of weakness and if expressed too openly can ruin a career. People don’t respect someone who reveals his emotions. Consequently many executives find themselves operating on the assumption that all goals and objectives are neatly separable from human beings. Everything is rational and quantifiable. If there’s a foul-up, it’s because the system has broken down, not because human beings are involved.

“In the vast majority of cases this simply isn’t so,” says John Batrus, a psychological consultant who works frequently with top-level executives. “Most business ’problems’ are more subjective than objective. They have to do with relationships among people rather than hard facts. Many executives are unable to handle work problems because there is no place for people in his scheme of things.” Batrus describes his function as two-fold: to help an individual become more comfortable about expressing his feelings, to make him understand that there’s nothing wrong about feeling anxious or dependent: and to counsel the company, as it were, in order to develop an atmosphere in which the open expression of feeling is accepted rather than attacked.

The family should provide opportunities for exploring feelings that the company does not. But it doesn’t. Research has shown that the executive who is tough and independent on the job tends to be the same way at home. Children are frequently treated like employees, given tasks and assignments but little affection.

“It was getting so bad,” confessed one bank president, “that my wife and kids started leaving me notes on the refrigerator just to let me know they were alive. I just couldn’t seem to relax at home, and I think part of the problem is that when I’m at work I make all the decisions. What to do, whom to see and so on. At home I’m expected to take everyone’s feelings into consideration. The environment is more democratic, you could say, and I have great difficulty adjusting to it.”

One wife put the matter more graphically. “At the office my husband is looked after the entire day. The whole operation revolves around him, so that when he comes home in the evening it’s rather difficult to get him to take out the garbage.”

Executives frequently complain about having to wear too many hats – father, husband, boss, concerned citizen. They talk about feeling guilty at not being able to coach their son’s Little League team, though when pushed they’re usually adept at rationalizing the decision as being in the best interests of the entire family. “Many times the issue isn’t really the competing demands,” says Deborah Chamberlain, “as much as it is the executive’s compulsion to do everything well. As a group, they have extremely high expectations of themselves and therefore tend to avoid things they might not be good at. Failure in anything, even something as trivial as touch football, can be seen as a threat to their self-image.”

One recommendation of Greiff and other counsellors is that executives engage in some frivolous activity just for the fun of it. Plan some nonsense. Another familiar strategy is to ask executives to draw up a list of personal goals and priorities as well as an evaluation of their relationships. How much pleasure do I get from my family? From friends? How well do I listen to other people? To whom do I give emotional support? The idea, of course, is to identify those areas of greatest pleasure and satisfaction and to concentrate on them. Easier said than done. Although the healthiest men in Vaillant’s study had little trouble pinpointing their priorities, those who were less well-adjusted admitted that they found it very difficult to think in these terms. Many indicated that they had been moving up so rapidly that they had paid little attention to such basic matters as their concern for other people and their need for trust and intimacy. Like John, many used material things, the perquisites of success, as a way of avoiding genuine intimacy. It’s usually easier to give your wife a trip to Europe than to spend two weeks talking with her.

Next to loneliness and the inability to express feelings, the most difficult problems for executives and their families are clearly travel and the trauma of constant relocation. It is almost axiomatic these days that the successful executive must travel, to the point that many executive placement agencies don’t even consider it a major issue unless it is expected to occupy more than 40 percent of a candidate’s time. Yet it is clearly one of the major, and least understood, trade-offs in business life. Although a husband may feel guilty about spending so much time away from home, he argues that his career will suffer if he doesn’t travel. The family won’t be able to have the things it wants. Wives may resent seeing their husbands only on weekends, and fear the opportunities for extramarital affairs that travel provides, yet many are unwilling to trade a higher standard of living for a less taxing relationship. The whole issue of the effect of travel on family life is relatively unexamined. Some psychologists see it as the principal cause of divorce and marital strife, while others insist that it contributes to marital stability. Most people can stand only so much intimacy, the argument runs. Travel becomes a way of escaping from stress, a safety valve.

The most severe problems usually occur when the husband is forced to relocate. Anxiety and jealousy give way to feelings of dis-orientation. Although the move usually means more money and status for the husband, the wife is left with the job of keeping the family intact. Moving means hardship, not prestige. “We moved twelve times in fifteen years,” says one woman, “and the procedure was always the same. My husband would go ahead to find a place for us to live while I stayed behind to deal with the real estate agents and the movers and the school officials, who always have some reason why the kids shouldn’t be allowed to leave in the middle of the year. Then we’d all pack up and follow along like a band of gypsies. Every time you do that you leave something behind, you bury something. By the time you’ve moved half a dozen times you feel displaced, rootless. Only a very strong family can withstand that kind of strain.”

In his “Executive Family” seminar, Dr. Greiff devotes one session to teaching executives how to be more aggressive in designing their individual and corporate fates. Too many, he feels, believe that they must capitulate to external events instead of exploring some alternatives. They assume that unless they move their careers are over, when frequently companies look at relocation as an opportunity rather than an ultimatum. It is difficult, of course, for the man who likes his work, who gets a great deal of personal satisfaction from it, to say no to the company. The possibility of dropping his career and running off to Colorado to open a ski lodge isn’t really open to him. Yet according to Dallas management consultant Calvin Lifson, many executives, particularly those in their forties, are beginning to strike more acceptable compromises between their wishes and those of the company. “You’d be surprised at the number of younger executives, those in their late thirties and early forties, who have decided that being a regional manager in Lub-bock or Little Rock is just fine. They ask to be taken out of the promotion track. Quality of life is becoming a much larger concern for this generation of executives than for the preceding one. Up is no longer the only way to go.”

As corporations have become more concerned about the general health of executives and their families, they have begun to give attention to the role of the wife in the success of the company. A major complaint of executive wives has always been that they don’t really know what their husbands do. They’re allowed to go to the country club for social functions, and occasionally they drop by the office, but rarely do they have a chance to see their husbands in work situations. As a result, they feel left out, uncertain, and inept. They’re afraid of embarrassing their husbands, yet at the same time resent the fact that so much of their spouse’s life is devoted to something they don’t understand, and aren’t allowed to share. To ease the tension, many companies now offer mini-courses and workshops to acquaint wives with how the organization works and what the new developments are. Wives are encouraged to attend seminars with their husbands, and in fact one of the major attractions of Dr. Greiff’s “Executive Family” seminar was that it allowed husbands and wives to explore problems together. “Many wives assume that they can’t understand their husband’s work,” says Deborah Chamberlain, “when what’s really going on is sex-role stereotyping. A man goes to the office, a woman stays home and takes care of the kids. Their interests shouldn’t cross. What wives need to do is find ways of sharing their.husband’s work. They don’t have, to become instant experts, merely concerned listeners.”

Another means of avoiding tensions, psychologists argue, is for a couple to develop friendships outside the company. It is a common practice in many corporations to discourage “fast track” executives from making friends with persons in lower management. As you move up, the argument goes, you will be expected to mingle with a different crowd.. Having friends lower down the ladder will only make your job more difficult. You will always be concealing things from your friends, constantly on your guard. What generally happens, however, is that as the husband advances the new friends turn out to be his rather than his wife’s. The situation only intensifies the wife’s feeling of alienation, of being little more than window dressing for the company. “I am supposed to serve dinner to 40 people while at the same time protecting my husband from all sorts of distractions,” says one wife. “One day it occurred to me that it was always his friends who were coming by to eat the prime rib. They can’t be all that important, I thought. Hell, they’re not that important. We were just doing it out of habit.”

But perhaps the key to coping with success, psychiatrists and psychologists say, is not to expect too much from it. Our culture reinforces the idea that success is an end in itself,that one can truly measure self worth in termsof business accomplishments, that with success comes happiness, self-esteem, peace ofmind. Hospitals are full of people who demonstrate that this isn’t so. In fact, a high percentage of depressions and suicides amongexecutives occur when the person is on thebrink of what seems to be great success. AsGeorge Vaillant and others have pointed out,work is only one part of the picture. “Contrary to the popular notion, lucky at workmeans lucky at love … Inner happiness, external play, objective vocational success, mature inner defenses, good outward marriage,all correlate highly – not perfectly, but atleast as powerfully as height correlates withweight.”

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