THE SYSTEMS ANALYST from Baltimore bought an Apple personal computer three years ago. At first he spent a few hours a night on the machine, holed up in the family room while his wife and kids watched television. The hobby soon turned to addiction. Weekends, once reserved for raking leaves or taking the family to a movie, were devoted to the computer. So was his paycheck.
"It was like every toy I ever got for Christmas -- only better," he says.
As time on the computer increased, so did the arguments with his wife, who couldn't understand, he says, "that it was something I wanted. I know a lot of other guys who are going through the same thing. They say, 'Let me alone. Slide my food under the door.' "
A year after Apple II arrived, Wife I left.
"I probably spent more time with the computer than I should have," he said, heating up a TV dinner one night recently. "At some point, the computer was more important to me than she was."
Chilling, but true: Personal computers have invaded our homes, threatening to make marriage and family as obsolete as last year's video game. By the end of 1982, 3 million personal computers will have been sold in America, representing $134 billion, according to Creative Strategies International, a California research firm. By 1986, the firm says, that figure will have jumped to more than 34 million personal computers worth more than $425 billion.
"Undoubtedly, they're taking over people's lives," says John Barry, managing editor of InforWorld, a weekly newspaper for "microcomputer" users.
For every home computer sold, columnist Art Buchwald quipped, "there is a computer widow somewhere."
It isn't just the time, say computer widows. It's the money. And the lack of communication. When the wife of a computerholic says she and her husband don't speak the same language anymore, she's right. The addicts, mostly men, talk in terms of bits and baud rates, RAM cards, microprocessors and megabytes. They hold software parties not unlike their mothers' Tupperware parties and soup up their hardware the way they once bolted four-barrel Holleys on their Mustangs.
Says one PC user: "It's a lot more interesting to communicate with the computer than your wife of 10 years."
Carl Savillo is a 32-year-old aerospace engineer for the Naval Air Systems Command. He bought his Texas Instruments 99-4 two years ago. "The thought of having one in my own home intrigued me."
His life has undergone a drastic change.
"I'm addicted to it," he admits. "I don't go to the movies anymore. On nice days I don't feel like going out. It has changed my life style."
Savillo says it's more than a hobby. "It's an obsession."
His wife, Debbie Savillo, says at first she thought it might be nice to have a computer in their Lorton, Va., home. Now she's sorry.
"I didn't know he'd become so addicted to it," she says.
She gave him an empty room in the basement for the computer. Now he almost never comes out, spending six or seven nights a week on the machine, all day on the weekends. When he isn't using the computer, she says, he is thinking about it. Or at the computer store, buying another program (he owns more than 100). Or talking on the phone to computerholics (he just became secretary of his local Texas Instruments users' club). Or subscribing to another computer magazine (he already receives half a dozen). Or running over to the neighbor who just bought an IBM and doesn't know how to use it.
He even took his computer on vacation to New York one weekend.
"It's taken over his life," says Debbie Savillo. "If he has a day off, he's in there. The grass could be four feet high, it doesn't bother him. It just drives you crazy after a while. He tried to get me involved, but I keep telling him I'm not interested."
Aside from a little crazy, Debbie Savillo thinks her husband's addiction is sad. "Sometimes I feel like he's avoiding his kids," she says. "He's missed them growing up."
Carl Savillo says he knows he's hooked. He knows it's taking him away from his family duties. "The house has gone to pot," he admits. "I haven't picked up any leaves. The maintenance on the house has fallen down a bit."
Debbie Savillo is now expecting her third child. She says it was no accident. "In a way, I became pregnant just to aggravate him. He knows how I feel. He knows I hate his machine."
Carl Savillo wants to trade up his Texas Instruments for an IBM. His wife is worried. "I can see him trailing off to IBM shows in other cities," she says. He's already joined the IBM local users' group. And the thought of quitting his job to sell software, he says, "is tempting." He doesn't see any letup in his "addiction.".
His wife is resigned to her computer widowhood. "In a way it's better than him running around. At least he's home every night."
She says there is no chance the computer could break up their marriage. "He says his computer can't cook." The Men's Club
Marriage to a computer freak is not easy, says 31-year-old free-lance writer Susan Lawrence, whose husband heads the systems programming office for Metro. "It is a serious problem. There are a lot of broken marriages."
What has helped her marriage is the fact that her husband bought a second home computer -- for her. "It makes a big difference," she says. "If he comes home at the end of the day and says, 'One of the discs crashed,' then I know how upsetting that is."
But living with a computerholic can be frustrating.
"You sit in the living room trying to read and all you hear is this beep-beep-beep from the computer," says one computer widow, feeling as attractive as a floppy disc. "And wait till they get the program that plays the 'Mexican Hat Dance.' "
"I can see where it absolutely could cause a divorce," says Harriet Silverberg, a self-described computer widow whose husband--chief of medicine at Sibley Hospital--bought his machine a year ago. "It was just one more thing in his life that he didn't have time for. I got very angry. In the beginning, because I resented it, we fought about it."
The Silverbergs have been married for 27 years. "I couldn't believe this stupid machine was drawing us apart. It wasn't a child. Or money. But a machine."
Her husband encouraged her to get involved and Harriet Silverberg says she may have saved her marriage by taking a computer course. She comes from a business background -- there are bankers and accountants in her family, she says -- so the computer was not as much of a challenge for her as it was for her husband. She uses the computer now, she says, but she's not hooked. "It's boring to me," she says.
But many women are reluctant to get involved in the home computer boom.
"Some women come in and yell at me," says Karen Banta, sales representative at the Tysons Corner Computerland. "I've had them call me on the phone. They say their husband is up there at 2 in the morning. That he spends more time with the %*!* computer than he ever did with the family."
Of the customers at the store, she says, 90 percent are men. "If a woman comes in, it's likely to be with her husband or boss."
"It's definitely a male arena," says Linda Morgenstein, whose husband, David, is president of one of the Washington area's Apple home computer users' groups, Apple Pi. "I think it may have something to do with women being afraid of technology, or the old 'math anxiety.' In any case, it's a world where women are afraid to tread," she says. Of the 2,200 members of Apple Pi, she adds, 90 percent are men. Personal computers, she says, are "to intellectual men what football is to macho men."
If the women do get involved, most of them are single. "There are a lot of women who do enjoy computers," says Gene Harter, whose suburban Virginia company, Polyoptics, sells software for Texas Instruments. "Funnily enough, they don't seem to be the married ones."
Peter McWilliams, author of "The Personal Computer Book", says, "I don't think it's a gender-specific addiction. Like every technological advance in this country, men seem to take over because of their predatory nature. But I think a lot of women are involved as well, especially in the field of word processing."
Sarah Ellerson was a computer widow before she joined The Wyatt Co., a Washington consulting firm, as a production analyst five months ago. Her lawyer husband had often abandoned her for his office computer on weekends. Now she spends her time on the computer at her office. "I was frightened at first," she says. "I thought if I touched the wrong button it would wipe the program out." But gradually her ability increased. So did her confidence. "Once you master the machine, you get the bug," she says, eyes lighting up. Yes, she says, she is interested in buying a home computer. "I've definitely been bitten."
McWilliams says men seem to be addicted to computer game-playing more than women. "On the other side, there are women writers who begin using a computer and disappear."
Some say the computer itself may not be the problem in failing marriages.
"It's not the computer, it's the lack of attention," says computer owner Robin Oegerle, president of Financial Strategies Inc., which specializes is personal financial planning. "It could be the ball games, the boys having a beer. It's just general neglect. Whether it's golf or something else, it's just escaping. It's a sign of other problems."
Dr. Kenneth Herman, a clinical psychologist who has worked in the computer field, agrees. "The computer per se is not going to cause the divorce. That's a symptom of problems in the marriage. If one person is escaping or avoiding, it's usually a symptom of fear of intimacy, fear of sex, fear of being rejected. They get occupied," Herman says, "as a means of distancing themselves from the relationship."
And often, men don't see the message on the monitor, blaming the woman for the breakup. "My girlfriend left me," says a young salesman at The Math Box in Fairfax. "I worked on the computer 10 hours a day. She couldn't understand." Man and His Machine
The man from Baltimore who preferred his computer to his wife laughs softly. "My brother called me last night. He told me he had just gone out and bought a home computer. In the background I could hear his wife making disparaging remarks."
He's afraid his brother will end up like him -- alone at 46 and wondering why. "A computer is an excellent tool," he says. "Why is it that women can't see it as a household appliance like a microwave oven? Why is it that they view it as a competitor?"