Sarah is 45, mother of two, a daughter in college and son still in high school. She has been married 22 years to Mark, a highly successful litigation partner. Mark travels a lot, is “in trial” a lot. Although they haven’t spoken of it directly, she knows their marriage is falling apart. They haven’t spoken about this directly because of the tacit agreement that they “don’t have the time’”and that any such conversation has to wait until the trial is over.
“When he’s ‘in trial’,” raising her hands to do air quotes, “it’s like he’s been body snatched, like someone who looks just like him has been hatched out of a pod somewhere and my real husband is gone.”
“Tell me about ‘in trial”, I said, mimicking her gesture.
“In trial means there’s nobody home. The thousand yard stare. You talk to him and you might as well talk into a closet. You put that together with the travel and I might as well be a single parent. When he comes home from a trip, he acts like all I’ve done while he’s gone is lie around watching Netflix and letting the dog pee on the floor. I couldn’t have done anything right to save my life. He’s crabby, critical, seems angry all the time about nothing. My son says he hates him.”
“Ouch,” I said.
“And then,” she said, “when trial is over, depending on outcome, he’s crazy drunk with winning or miserable for losing.”
I think the dynamics I describe here are familiar enough to have a name—it is what I call Work Induced Alienation Syndrome. The demands of litigation are hard enough, but when compounded with regular travel the two frail human beings in that marriage are faced with grave risk to their relationship.
At issue is the matter of attachment/detachment. When we marry, obviously, we attach emotionally to another. We create a life with that person—a home, children, shared hopes and goals, etc. And, when we marry, we also unwittingly create a whole raft of problems to solve, and it is solving those problems together that is one of the great rewards of marriage. But figuring out how to solve them is a weighty matter, and takes years of cooperation, collaboration and frank speech.
In marriages where spouses travel professionally, a cycle is set up in which the couple regularly subject themselves to the emotional labor of detaching and reattaching. The traveling spouse must learn to manage the painful business of leave taking, and those remaining at home must learn to let go. Over time, they learn to numb themselves to the discomfort. But at what cost?
If I know that when you get home Friday afternoon, you’ll be gone Sunday evening, wouldn’t it be better to simply not reattach? If I know, there’s a trial coming up, wouldn’t it be better to just not get too involved in projects that might sidetrack me when trial comes around? Over the course of years, the detach/reattach cycle becomes so odious that we unconsciously allow the other to become simply a two dimensional object of everyday life, devoid of meaning or soul. It is too painful to try and cut through the momentum, and soon enough, the partners are in an alienated, deteriorating marriage, each seeking comfort somehow, in some way, as best they can.
This can be that paralegal travel companion, or it can be that ice cold bottle of vodka in the fridge. Whatever, the slope is steep and slippery.
What the two don’t recognize is that this style of life, practiced by so many in the legal profession, is itself a major cause of their difficulties, and is not at all rooted in personality or character. There is a way to not let this get you down, and it involves mutually created rituals.
- There has to be a recognition on the part of both that unaddressed, detach/reattach will eventually become Work Induced Alienation Syndrome
- Each partner must identify the specific set of feelings experienced in the cycle, for example: “When you leave, I feel X, Y, Z; when you came back, I feel A,B, and C.” The traveling/in-trial spouse does the same, being specific about feelings.
- They then describe what would make things better. The traveling spouse might say, “When I come home, I just need to be left alone for a while, maybe an hour or so, then we can reconnect”
- From this, they create rituals of detachment and reattachment
Lawyers don’t like talking about feelings, many actually find it abhorrent. They prefer “facts,” evidence, provable statements, but what we’re discussing here has everything to do with feelings, and little at all to do with facts, except that feelings as experienced are themselves facts. Work Induced Alienation Syndrome is entirely emotional because it arises from the experience of feeling abandoned or controlled. To create deliberate rituals of attaching and detaching ameliorates this greatly by replacing feeling based assumptions with physical experience to the contrary.
When I speak to couples about the dynamic of attaching/detaching, numbing and Work Induced Alienation Syndrome, they almost always “get it.” When I propose that they create the important rituals that will help them deal with this, they almost always agree to do so.
But, there’s a kicker—they almost never really do it. But that’s human nature for ya.
James Dolan is a professional coach and psychotherapist with 30 years of experience in private practice in the Dallas area. He works with lawyers and physicians in improving their business development communications, internal relations, and leadership and client-patient retention. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org