Should I keep trying to motivate my partner, career-wise?
September 4, 2008 7:58 PM   Subscribe

Should I continue trying to motivate my partner, ambition-wise? Should I try harder to encourage him / accept him for who he is, or is this a sign our values are just too different?

My SO seems to lack ambition, initiative and / or specific life goals. He definitely has passion, talent & a range of creative interests, but works an unchallenging job that he doesn’t enjoy. Occasionally he gets sad and emotional about “not going anywhere with his life, not knowing what he’s doing” (his words, not mine)… at these times I suggest to him that everyone has these thoughts at one time or another, it’s totally normal but also maybe it’s an opportunity to try changing it up, e.g. in a job that interests and excites him, or developing his hobbies & talents into some kind of project or career. But he never pursues this, just says "hmm", changes the subject and seems uncomfortable or just stays silent if I mention the topic later on or ask if he wants to talk.

I feel like I have a lot of support to offer in this area, because I’ve been through a bit of a 'direction crisis' myself recently. But when I try occasionally to bring up (in a kind way) the topic of his future - e.g. what he dreamed he would do when he was a kid, or if he would like me to make a free appointment with this great careers counsellor I know, or maybe think about the both of us working overseas in a year or two, he is evasive and non-committal. I don't want to nag him, but I also want to encourage him in a practical sort of way.

He is 33, and I'm 25 & we've been together around a year. I'd say we've both had enough life experience on various fronts to be able to make informed choices about where we're heading. I'm now quite driven to finish my Phd, work overseas, learn a new language and other things. Obviously I still feel sad and clueless sometimes, as does everyone (right?), but I have at least a few long-term goals that keep me getting up in the morning & give me a sense of purpose most days. I also (eventually) would like to bring any potential children up to try and work towards their dreams etc, as idealistic / old-fashioned as that might sound.

As much as I was attracted to his casual, laid-back lifestyle to begin with, it's starting to seem slightly immature and uninspiring. I wouldn't mind at ALL if he was contented with just doing his thing, but he does seem sad and unfulfilled by it. So why won't he DO something about this? Am I being pushy by discussing it with him?

Do you think it harsh that I'm beginning to find his apparent lack of motivation or ambition a turn-off? I love many things about him, should I just also accept that he doesn't appear to value achievement in the same way I do?

[Just to clarify, this is NOT to do with having money, status, or being considered a 'success'. I wouldn't care WHAT he did - work, study, meditating all day long! - if he was being proactive about finding something he considers to be worthy of his time, energy and intellect! Do I sound like his mother here?]

Has anyone been in a similar situation? How did you accept / work beyond these differences?
posted by Weng to Human Relations (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I was that guy, and honestly my wife's belittling and constant reminders of all the people we know that made more money than me and had better titles than me and all that definitely played a part in me starting to actually direct my career and life.

Now, I'm not recommending that particular approach, but I do think that a partner can play an important part in not letting someone ignore the rut they're in. Persistence is key.

As far as your reaction to his lack of ambition... regardless of what any of us say or what you *think* you should feel, you're likely going to be turned off eventually anyway.
posted by TheManChild2000 at 8:09 PM on September 4, 2008

He works an unchallenging job he doesn't enjoy, is moody and down about it, but does nothing to change his own situation.

It'd be one thing if he were working something unchallenging but he was happy and fulfilled, but he's not. He's too passive or afraid to take the risks to get what he wants, so he just floats along. That's what's really bothering you - that he's not an active participant in his own life. He just lets it happen - even when he's not happy about it.

Discussing it with him is fine, and making suggestions is helpful - but once it's clear he's not receiving, step back, because you've gotten your answer. To continue to press risks pushing you into ugly dynamics - you're right, you will start to sound like his mom.

It's clear you're a much more motivated person and you've taken steps to find way past your own roadblocks.

The question is whether you can truly be happy with someone who isn't willing to go after their own happiness, whatever it is.

I've been there, and ultimately, I couldn't stay. My girlfriend at the time seemed increasingly like a semi-functional adult, really bright but hanging on in jobs she could do in her sleep, bitterly unhappy with herself, and eventually taking it out on me.

I won't claim I'm perfect - I've got my own mountains to climb, but being with someone who won't (or can't) find a way to reach for something better is a harsh lesson that many compassionate people have to learn again and again:

You can support people through hard times, but you can only help people who are trying to help themselves.

Or, more bluntly: You can only save yourself.
posted by canine epigram at 8:14 PM on September 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm with ManChild on feeling how you feel. Part of your question is asking whether you should feel the way you do. But you do feel that way regardless of how you think or wonder/suspect you should feel. If that's an anchor that's pulling down your attraction to him, it'll keep sinking. It sounds like the beginnings of that "growing in different directions" thing you always hear in breakup speeches. Sounds like he's got to change for you to be in the kind of relationship you want or else you've got to unhook and restart elsewhere.

It would be difficult to present this to him as an ultimatum, though - "Find ambition or I'm leaving you." That's a suckass place to be in life and if he knew how to get out of it, he would. My heart goes out to him because I truly understand. People get stuck and it's not a matter of just seeing a career counselor (not that that would hurt). Whatever you think the problem is isn't the problem. He hears your various suggestions but they don't sound to him like they will address whatever is wrong/missing. It's something that will right itself eventually, but who knows when. Various life pressures, perspectives, thresholds, events, and consequences will eventually give him the motivation to move forward. Maybe getting left will be one of them.

I'm sending him good vibes.
posted by kookoobirdz at 8:26 PM on September 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

The guy has low self-esteem.

I've been this guy, and I remember that one annoyance was people who only noticed what I hadn't yet done and who weren't interested enough to acknowledge things that had been done and steps taken. Like I was supposed to supply this grand gesture. Maybe a little attention-whorey, but nobody's perfect.
posted by rhizome at 9:06 PM on September 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's okay for you to be turned off by his gripes, moping, and failure to thrive. But do be patient and helpful as you can be. I've been in the position of saying to a partner "look, you complain and complain but you don't act. I have listened to this song and dance for years. I love you and I want you to be happy, and I will do anything to help you act but I will no longer listen to you complain about things you could change."

Another thing to ask yourself, or him, is whether his professional/intellectual doldrums are leading him to disproportionately rely on another sector of his life, namely your relationship, for ife satisfaction, and adequacy. That amount of investment and self-worth should be on par with yours, or when the relation"ship" takes on water, his end will sink before yours.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:10 PM on September 4, 2008

I had a partner like that. We were on two very different paths after some serious stuff went down in his life (as in I finished school, and he didn't). What frustrated me was that he complained, but never really did anything. I was getting angrier and more turned off by him by the day.

Then after a lot of talking with friends and searching the internet, I found out I was mad because the actual person wasn't matching up to the one in my head. I was in love with potential and not the reality.

It's normal to feel that way. Its normal to let him know where YOU see yourself in the future. But not everyone has the same values of 'achievement.' A truer test would be if you and him support each other without much drama in whatever you do with your time, as long as you maintain the relationship. You should be as fine with him staying in, as you would hope he would be if you had to study/work overseas for a while.

You can't guide someone's hobbies/job search. They'll find something if they really want to. If he really wanted your advice, he would ask...sounds like he was just venting.

Even though my ex ended up taking actions to solve his duldrums, I left because I couldn't respect his life choices, and he didn't respect mine [I moved to another city for an internship, he freaked, that was my sign it wasn't gonna hold up]
posted by shinyshiny at 10:09 PM on September 4, 2008

My husband is that guy right now. He's feeling quite down about it and is worried that life is passing him by and he will have to start all over again if he changes career direction (he's 38). He knows what he wants to do, but it's the path getting there that he's a little stuck on. He is not feeling particularly ambitious right now (or for the past couple of years) while he's still in his current bad job. Be gentle, but encouraging. I can't get my husband to see a career counsellor yet, though I do want him to go. It really has knocked his self esteem.

In the meantime, continue to do your own thing. I've had some great opportunities and a lot of luck and been successful. I haven't not done things just because of his situation, though I don't flaunt opportunities in his face.

It does put a lot of pressure on us, but I know we'll find a way through it eventually. Your guy will too. He's at an age where his peers are making the same decision about whether to coast through or actively work their way up in a profession.
posted by wingless_angel at 11:08 PM on September 4, 2008

He is afraid of failure. I know someone like this. He's a young guy, about 26 or so, a chronic underachiever with excellent writing and artistic skills. He's scary smart, too. But he doesn't want to do antyhing that he can't do perfectly, out of the gate. His mother tells me he has always been like this. Currently he is working as a house painter, primarily because he likes to be by himself and think his thoughts.

He doesn't want to compete in the marketplace because he doesn't want to deal with rejection (my analysis). So, arther than let his enthusiasms carry himthrough a time of learning his craft (whatever it might be), he prefers to piss away his time writing an epic graphic novel / web comic that has not had so much as one page published in more than a year's work.

And yes, his lifestyle is casual and laid back. I can see that if you are excited and engaged with your work while he is schlumping around feeling sorry for himself but not doing anything about it, that would be a turn off. It would turn me off. You are perfectly justified to feel as you do.

I can't say what will help him, but at some point he will have to decide that he has to man up and take his lumps along with the rest of us.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:52 AM on September 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Has he been screened or previously treated for depression? I know it comes up a lot here on AskMe, and it's not always the right answer when it does. But if it were him asking ("I'm 33 and stuck in an unfulfilling job but not motivated to do anything else. My girlfriend thinks I should try harder and keeps pushing me, but I don't like to talk about it and sometimes I get sad and emotional about where I'm at in my life.") then depression would have come up in the first few responses.

The situation sounds familiar enough to me that I would recommend that he see someone about it if he has not yet. He may or may not need medication, and he may or may not be willing to go that route. But at the very least, a diagnosis and beginning treatment would be a positive step if that is indeed part of the problem.

If you love him and want to see him succeed and overcome whatever personal issues he is facing, continue to be supportive but also continue to push him to do the work he needs to do. If you don't want to wait for him to get over his issues, or can't see yourself playing a helpful role in his recovery, then wish him the best and move on.
posted by kyleg at 12:26 PM on September 5, 2008

I was just recently that guy, and it was only a stroke of luck that saved me.

It is going to get ver ugly around your house if you just say, "Do something." Don't you think he would "do something" if he knew what that thing was? He would more than likely jump at an opportunity if he could see one. He feels trapped and powerless, and nonspecific nagging will not help the situation in the slightest.

However, by no means is it your responsibility to stay with him. You can leave whenever you want, if direction in life is necessary to your ideal relationship. You deserve what you want in a partner!

So, your direction in this is to do a little research and actually help him find his path or leave. Ultimatums are unfair and demeaning.
posted by Willie0248 at 2:00 PM on September 5, 2008

Best answer: You answered your own question: you two have different values. Despite your description, his current job is satisfying certain needs he has. It provides physically (food, rent), mentally (independence, stability), and socially (being a contributor). It may not provides for all of his needs, perhaps not spiritually (passion, creativity, self expression...); but it does provide enough so that he is content at the moment. The fact that he has not change implies either he is not aware of other needs (spiritual need), or he is not at the stage where other needs can overcome his inertia.

Your needs, on the contrary, is more spiritual. You are willing to sacrify your present time, comfort and earning for a more fulfilling career or lifestyle in the future. While I admire your ambition, there is no inherent reason why your need is nobler or more valid than his. Different people just need different things; and thus value things differently. One can make broad generalization about needs based on age, or circumstance, or background; but ultimately, each person has unique, changing need and is responsible for his/her own needs. Except for people in love. For love, people can put others' needs above theirs, sometime. Whether you can make that choice or not is up to you, but it's probably futile to expect the same of others.
posted by curiousZ at 6:16 PM on September 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Man, I so dated that guy. Lived with his grandma, bounced from job to job because each one just "wasn't challenging enough." He could bitch and moan like a champ but couldn't even hold down a decent job long enough to get his own place. I finally figured out he wasn't going to change and he was kind of a leech, though I don't think he truly meant to be. I dumped him and like a month later I saw him with some chick he'd knocked up. Sometimes you dodge the bullets! He's not going to change.
posted by CwgrlUp at 7:19 PM on September 5, 2008

It's part of a partner's responsibility to help their SO be the best they can be, IMO, and sometimes this takes a good kick in the ass. After a year together this is perfectly valid (if you'd only been together a month I'd change my tone).

Being bluntly honest is a start. "It doesn't work for me that you bitch about your job and don't do anything about it. Your lack of motivation is a turn-off. If I can do anything at all to help you, I will (like set up counseling or proofread his resume), but you have to ask for it. Until then, I'm not going to listen to your bitching." Then follow through. I think the "politely encouraging" tactic can quickly turn into mothering or nagging codependency. You know what you want out of life. Maybe he doesn't, or maybe he does and is too lazy/depressed/whatever to go out and get it. It's not your responsibility to get it for him, but it is your responsibility as part of this relationship to point out that he's not holding up his end. Not the money/status/housework end, necessarily, but the being-a-happy-guy-who-contributes-to-the-well-being-of-the-relationship end.
posted by desjardins at 1:59 PM on September 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: No-one else has mentioned it but my first thought is the difference in ages. Not the gap, but the particular stages. A 25 year old can be full of vim seeing all the bright roads ahead, but people in their early thirties can become a bit jaded, hitting a plateau from which there's an unfortunate amount of perspective on all the stuff that was actively pursued in their twenties. I know I hit a point around 32 where I just felt like I'd done, seen and thought a million things, yet still had no clarity. It made me really non-committal for a while.

These times pass, and you find a niche relative to your desire. Fella may have been climbing mountains and overcoming great hurdles before the OP even met him. Maybe he's hit the wall over the past year and needs time and space to work out what to do with himself. Or maybe he's learnt that every situation requires compromise and he's actually ok with where he is now, but feels compelled to appear dissatisfied because he knows that the idea of 'settling' is anathema to a zesty 25-year old with an black and white picture of what they want to accomplish.

Or maybe he is just an inert type after all. Either way they appear to want different things, so maybe it's time to move on. It might give him a wake-up call, it might not, but at least the OP can get on with her own thing.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:58 PM on September 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

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