Will you be spending Valentine’s Day with your spouse or your colleagues? Ellen Bennett reports
It’s six o’clock on Thursday evening, and the City’s workers are spilling out of their offices and into the bars of Leadenhall Street. Here in champagne and wine bar Dion underwriters gossip with brokers, brokers schmooze clients, and tired workers gather together to let down their hair and chew over the events of the day. Though there are wedding rings glinting on nearly every left hand, there’s scarcely a spouse in sight.
This is the social scene that London’s incestuous insurance market is built upon. Little wonder then that the industry is believed to have one of the highest divorce rates in the country, and that the third or fourth wife is not only commonplace, but often a badge of honour.
This Valentine’s Day, will you be out with your wife – or out with your colleagues?
Take the example of a leading Lloyd’s broker. We’ll call him John. Now in his 50s, John is happily married to his third wife and looking forward to a comfortable retirement abroad. Life hasn’t always been so simple. When he entered the insurance market some 30 years ago, John was married to his childhood sweetheart, with one young child and another on the way.
But the social pressure of the job took its toll. He was out wining and dining with clients and colleagues many days of the week, enjoying the high life on company expense accounts.
The wife and kids became distant and a bit mundane. Often, he would creep into bed late at night without waking his wife, and be off on his commute in the morning before she and the kids were up. Within a few years, when John had been promoted several times and had some money in bank to fund a bachelor lifestyle alongside maintenance payments, the marriage broke down.
A few years later, as the kids reached their late teens, John married again. She was a driven career woman, a younger colleague in his company, who understood and shared John’s world in a way his first wife never had. She was attracted by his experience and seniority, and he by her youth and ambition. The marriage was happy for a while, but eventually the pressure of their jobs, and of seeing each other all day at work and having no outside interests or friends, took its toll.
John’s life is quieter now and his third wife is also looking towards retirement. An intelligent women with a successful career behind her, she can share his final years and together they can enjoy the peace their busy lives.
John’s story is by no means unique. According to the chief executive of a leading City broker, the social side of insurance remains as stubbornly resistant to modernisation as its working processes, and there persists a macho culture where a string of failed marriages is seen as an honour, not a shame. “City life is a heady mix of alcohol and stress, and it has an impact,” he says. “There’s a Captain Caveman mentality, where the more you drink and the more wives you have had, the better man you are.
“It’s an old fashioned industry, and the bravado and testosterone manifest themselves in that way.”
The London insurance market has a heavy drinking culture. It is a social industry, where outgoing personalities are the secret of success and many deals must be done face to face. In any City bar, at any time from noon onwards, there will be brokers and underwriters sharing a good bottle of red.
“There is a Captain Caveman mentality, where the more you drink and the
more wives you have had, the better man you are
Contacts and clients expect to be wined and dined, and the partying is as hard as the work. “It always makes me laugh whenever I get a late train out to the suburbs,” says one market insider. “There are always people from the industry on their way home. Thursday’s the biggest night of the week and, early on a Friday morning, you see them all queuing for some comfort food from Fuzzy’s Grub.”
The boozy nights out may distract from a marriage, but they do have their place. One chief executive says: “We work in such a small industry, nights out and even the occasional drink at lunchtime can be a good thing. You get to know your competitors, whom you might not otherwise come into contact with, and you build stronger relationships with clients and colleagues.”
But the booze takes its toll, as does the stress of work, the long hours and, often, the commute, which mean that marriages can falter simply because the partners do not spend enough time together.
Mo Kurimbokus, a Relate counsellor, has seen it happen many times. “In the insurance industry, you are talking about people who need to be sociable and are spending an awful lot of their time being sociable with people other than their partners,” he says.
“Often, their partners are at home with the children, they are working long hours and don’t get to see them, and the couple just grows apart. They can become little more than flatmates in that kind of relationship. At the same time, they are socialising with people from work, who they form closer bonds with – not necessarily sexual.”
For one stalwart of the industry, recent years have seen this pressure get even worse, with new technology meaning the office can always get in touch.
“Globalisation has taken its toll,” he says. “The majority of insurers or big brokers have offices in Asia and America, so there’s always someone working somewhere in the world, which means the industry now operates 24 hours a day.
“With a Blackberry and so on, you can never really switch off.”
The good news is that, for the committed, there are simple ways to help marriages survive the pressure of a busy, social work life.
Communication is key, says Relate’s Kurimbokus: “If your partner is not happy, they will be sending out some kind of message. Look out for one of the tell tale signs – poor communication – that’s at the root of many problems. Ask yourself if you are happy, because if you are not, the chances are, your partner won’t be either. Look at your lifestyle, see what you can do to find more time to spend together, and to make that time better.”
And, perhaps, this Valentine’s night, put down your drink, turn off your Blackberry and get the early train home.