Computers: The Real Apple of His Eye

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How families come apart in the face of the micro invasion

When Advertising Executive Todd Lief, 47, gave up his four-pack-a-day cigarette habit a few years ago, he put aside his tobacco money to buy an Apple computer. His wife Jo, 44, a Chicago family therapist, supported the idea. At least at first. Then she discovered that computers, like cigarettes, can be habit forming. "He really got into it," she says. "After a while, I felt angry—abandoned. On a sunny, beautiful day he would sit at the computer for eight hours straight."

Fortunately, Jo has been able to adjust to her husband's obsession. While Todd fiddles with the keyboard, she goes out with friends, gabs on the phone or just immerses herself in a bubble bath. Says she: "It gives me more time to do what I want to do. I'm glad to have the independence." But their case may be a happy exception. Throughout the nation, thousands of couples who have survived Monday Night Football, jogging and the ERA debate are facing a trickier challenge. The computer that they were told would bring the family closer together may now be driving them apart. Says San Diego Psychologist Thomas McDonald: "They're beginning to realize they're losing their spouses to a machine."

McDonald has seen enough computer-related distress in the past two years to design psychological tests to sell to companies that want to spot victims of the new ailment. According to McDonald, the sufferers are trying to keep up with machines that never sleep and never deviate from perfect linear logic. "Since human relations are neither linear nor logical," he says, "they grow increasingly isolated from their families and the whole feeling world."

The complaint strikes hardest among top programmers and systems managers. Among the first signs: a cavalier attitude toward eating schedules and a leaning toward late-night emergencies at the office. "Often I'd tell my wife I'd be home for dinner at 5 o'clock, but the next thing I knew, it was 8," recalls Bob Fagan, a San Diego data-processing professional. "I was so locked into the technology, so out of touch with the emotional part of marriage, that when we finally separated, it was like a freight train coming through our living room. I was not prepared."

At times, Connie Washam, 32, has nearly given up on her husband Gary, marketing director for a San Diego com puter graphics firm. "We don't plan on him for dinner," she says. "We don't plan on him for anything. He's kind of a drop-in guest." Says Gary in his defense: "I'm in a double bind. The computer gives me immediate rewards. I get positive strokes every time I solve a problem. On the other hand, I enjoy being with my family. But if you spend too much time with them, you lose your edge in the computer industry."

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