Ed Herbst: Love and the corporate battleground

By Ed Herbst*

“What poured out of me was a set of very frank reflections on how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my children (even though my husband, an academic, was willing to take on the lion’s share of parenting for the two years I was in Washington).” – Anne-Marie Slaughter Why Women Still Can’t Have It All The Atlantic 2012

Everyone will tell you that divorce is ruinous to a career. It makes you so unhinged that you can’t think straight. A couple of years ago, hedge fund boss Paul Tudor Jones told a conference that as soon as he hears that any of his managers is going through a divorce, he stops them trading. The emotional turmoil renders them too unpredictable to be trusted with anyone else’s money. – Lucy Kellaway, Business Day, 26/10/2015

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst
Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

I read Ronnie Apteker’s whimsical Lessons from King Arthur – what do men, women really want? with some interest because the news had just broken that Angelina Jolie had hired Laura Wasser, Hollywood’s top divorce lawyer, as the opening salvo in what, sadly, looks like becoming a bitter war of attrition.

In 2013 I read Wasser’s book, It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way: How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family or Bankrupting Yourself, not because I was contemplating divorce – I have never married because nobody ever asked me – but because I have always been interested in why some relationships last and others don’t.

The Biznews page that carried Apteker’s tongue-in-cheek article also carried an article on how more women are breaking through the glass ceiling. When both parents are working 12-hour days in hugely demanding jobs, the marital dynamic must change.

Adding to those tensions are the fact that while you can physically remove yourself from the workplace at the end of the day or at weekends, cellphone and email contact means that the linkage is always there. The French are contemplating legislation that would enhance the right of employees to disconnect at such times.

Anne-Marie Slaughter was the first-ever woman director of policy planning at the US State Department but, as the anchor quote on this article indicates, she was unable to reconcile the needs of that pressure-cooker job with her role as a mother to teenage sons and, in this regard, the YouTube interview clip in the article is sobering.



A decade earlier, Karen P. Hughes, a top adviser on foreign policy to President George W Bush, took the same decision to leave the White House.

In most middle class homes, both parents have to work and the question then is: What is the glue that holds long-term, successful relationships together? If that question can be answered, will we not also have the answer to the headline question in Apteker’s article: What do men, women really want?

What makes the question interesting is that 60 – 70% of divorces are initiated by women and this has been common cause for decades. While divorce rates are increasing all over the world, South African statistics match the international average with divorce occurring after 11 years.

A recent study indicates that marriages flounder precisely because men don’t share equally in household duties where both parents work.

But pensioners are also divorcing in increasing numbers, the “Silver Splitter” syndrome.

My understanding is that it takes at least two years to recover emotional equilibrium after a divorce and the pain never entirely recedes.

laura_wasser_bookThe essence of Wasser’s book is that everyone is entitled to – and should – leave a relationship which is no longer fulfilling, but do it without cruelty.

She says there are three main reasons why people divorce:

People get married because they fall in love. They get divorced, however, for one of three reasons.    

One reason – and it is perhaps the most compelling driver of divorce – is unacceptable behaviour on the part of one or the other partner. Abuse – physical or psychological – tops the list, but excessive or out-of-control drinking, drugs, gambling, serial or random adultery, or resorting to prostitutes all qualify.

One caveat here: People can and do change their behaviour. As the affected but powerless spouse, you may be able to spur your badly behaving spouse to do just that. I know of a number of instances where ultimatums have been issued – e.g., “Either you go to rehab or I am out” – and the situations have been resolved and the marriages saved. The key is to be particularly clear-eyed in facing the reality of your partner’s behaviour. How many chances has he or she squandered? What is the real likelihood of a change this time? How far are you willing to go to help? What line can’t you cross? But once you’re sure in your mind about the answers to these questions, it can be well worth it to try again to save the relationship.

The second major reason for divorce is the proverbial inability to communicate; you just don’t get each other anymore. Except for exchanging logistical details about who has to pick up whom from soccer practice and when the dry cleaning is supposed to be ready, you no longer even have much to say to each other. There are no more of those deep, endless conversations that used to keep you up till two in the morning; now when you converse, you find you are talking past each other.

The third reason people split up is that they grow apart. It happens – period. You get older, and your interests and goals change. Or one of you falls in love with someone else. Or you both do. Or you simply fall out of love with each other and do not want to be together as a couple anymore.

She is equally forthright on the timing of divorce:

How do you know it’s time to end your marriage?

There’s a simple answer to that question. It’s time to dissolve a relationship when the pain of oppression of being in it exceeds the fear or anxiety of being on your own.


What, then, characterises successful relationships?

My catalyst in finding an answer was the now-notorious 2013 photographs of one of the world’s most successful businessmen, Charles Saatchi, grabbing his now former wife Nigella Lawson by the throat.

A few months later an article on this assault appeared in our Sunday Times which had previously been published in a New Zealand newspaper.

It was written by Kate Figes, a Briton whose first book was about post-natal depression and her second was about coping with your children’s teenage years. Couples – the Truth – How we make love last was her third. She is married to a journalist who at one stage in his career was retrenched by the BBC – which must have brought huge tensions into her marriage. She spent several years researching this book and she interviewed 120 couples, straight, gay, married or cohabiting.

This article synthesises her findings but, for me, there is one quote which encapsulates and defines the single factor which characterises successful relationships.

Emotional abuse

It is the opposite of the withdrawal of affection which is a very common form of emotional abuse in relationships.

The triumph of love lies in the small daily kindnesses and considerations, which make one feel valued, seen and understood, not in the great romantic, gushing gestures.

Research from John Gottman in the US finds that happier couples are generally nicer to each other, offering on average five times as many positive interactions as negative ones. Hug, smile, send loving text messages and emails, praise and thank wherever possible. Every tiny gesture builds up the pennies in a marital bank account.

gary_chapmanGary Chapman defines this as “Words of affirmation” in his book The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts which has remained an enduring best seller that has sold more than five million copies and been translated into 38 languages.

Chapman’s book built on the success of John Gray’s book – which also sold millions and was translated into dozens of languages – Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Apropos Charles Saatchi’s nauseating display of patriarchy at its worst, I once put the following hypothesis to one of Cape Town’s Viglietti brothers, purveyors of the Prancing Horse to South African gentry: The qualities which create a millionaire business mogul are not necessarily the qualities which create an empathetic humanitarian. He did not disagree with me.

The denouement in long term relationships often comes when the workaholic corporate gladiator, the antithesis of the ‘empathetic humanitarian’ reaches obligatory retirement age.

A quarter of a century ago, when I reached my half century, the SABC offered a course on preparing for retirement and we were told a macabre tale to illustrate the point that we needed to have interests and hobbies which would sustain us emotionally and spiritually when we bade the workplace goodbye.

A young man joined a small company in a lowly clerical capacity but such was his innate business acumen that he quickly rose through the ranks and became MD. He then expanded the company into a countrywide conglomerate.

On the Saturday after his last day at work before obligatory retirement, the company had a big bash to celebrate his achievements and, in addition to much laudatory praise, he received the appropriate artifacts – the silver salver, the filigreed fountain pen and the Swiss masterpiece carved with exquisite skill and precision from an ingot of unobtanium.

When he got to work on the Monday morning he was somewhat peeved to find that his parking spot was taken and, because one of his previous subordinates now occupied his office, he announced that he would hang around “to keep an eye on things”.

On the Wednesday his wife received a message asking her to attend a meeting with an industrial psychologist and her husband in an effort to persuade him that, at the stroke of midnight the previous Friday, he had gone from corporate hero to pensioner zero.

I was told, third hand, another story which emphasises the dangers which long- term relationships face when the corporate warrior is suddenly, and at a stroke, denied the smell of business napalm in the morning.


Heart-felt mea culpa

A conflict mediator who also does relationship counselling was approached by the husband of a couple whose marriage had reached an impasse occasioned by his retirement. In a heart-felt mea culpa the husband acknowledged that he had been enslaved by the elixir of corporate combat, so much so that he had neglected his wife and family. More often than not he had been abroad on their wedding anniversaries, exulting nevertheless in victory which brought to a cathartically joyful conclusion the latest knock-down, drag-out takeover. He was rarely on the touchline to share in his children’s sporting accomplishments nor was he there when they graduated. Business called.

Buying roses had never featured on his to-do list.

Now, he said, he wanted to make amends.

The counsellor said they needed to bring romance back into their lives with candlelit dinners etc.

This was in the Filofax days and the wife was hefting one the size of a small suitcase.

She paged through this voluminous tome and, after what seemed like an interminable time, she announced that she had found a slot about three months hence.

Somewhat nonplussed the conciliator suggested a cup of coffee in the sylvan setting provided by a local boutique hotel.

This time the Filofax perusal took a little less time and a date about three weeks later was suggested by the wife who then, pointing to her invaluable time manager, said:

“Just because your life no longer has a purpose, don’t try to take over mine!”

That sounds like a divorce in the making and a call to Laura Wasser.

Nil desperandum.

Lucy Kellaway

One of my favourite journalists is the lovely, the witty, the erudite, the always-empathetic Lucy Kellaway who’s Financial Times column is syndicated by Business Day. In 2015 she wrote an article announcing that she had become a Silver Splitter. I can’t imagine any man wanting to divorce her so, I suppose, she must have been one of the 70% of women who initiate divorce proceedings – but the column was positive and cheery and indicated that there is a professional life after divorce.

If, as someone recently-separated, you are a glass-half-empty person then you might cleave to the bleakness of Anais Nin:

Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.”

I prefer this lovely line in Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata

“Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.”

… a sentiment echoed in Corinthians 13:4-8

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.
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