Building my husband's confidence.
June 21, 2008 7:51 AM   Subscribe

How do I help my man get some of his confidence back after a career change that everyone's treating like a demotion? It's been two years and I feel like I'm forgetting the caring and capable man I fell in love with.

We've been together for five years, married three. In that time, he's left a very ambitious and high-prestige career, realizing that he cares more about home and family than about 'success' in the working world. I think this is great, as he'd be unsuited to a suit-and-tie career. However, he's having a hard time finding a new career that fits him, and it's taken its toll. He is terrified that his family and friends will be ashamed of him if he doesn't bring in enough money or have a 'good enough' job, but he wants to be a writer or at least in a creative profession.

It's been two years now that we've been dealing with this. I'm glad that I can comfort him and offer support, but it seems like it's only getting worse. My own success as a lawyer isn't helping, neither are our families' 'helpful' suggestions that he get a "good" (high-status) job and just write on the side. He wants a way to make a living without having to become what he thinks of as just a cog in the machine.

For me, I'm starting to feel very drained. We're apart a lot as he travels looking for work, and every time we see each other, he's just asking for more reassurance. It's leaked over from insecurity about work to everything else, and every time he asks me "You still love me, right?" five minutes after I've told him how much I love him, I just want to yell for him to stop ASKING that.

But of course, that reaction would just make him feel worse, and wouldn't fix anything. I can't tell him to "be more confident, all this whimpering is unattractive", because then he'll think I'm not attracted to him and I'll have to reassure him about that. My only thought is that maybe I'm coddling him too much - giving him too much support and help, networking for him rather than forcing him to do it on his own, etc. I don't know how to help him come to terms with this loss of pay and prestige. Please help!

PS, because this is AskMeFi: Suggestions that don't revolve around therapy are especially appreciated. Suggestions of therapy should come with advice on how to suggest therapy without a response of "You think I'm DAMAGED! I'm not good enough for you!"
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Having been through a somewhat similar midlife experience over the last couple of years, I can say that the single most helpful thing for me was to join a support group for other midlifers trying to make significant life or career changes. It's not therapy, per se, but an opportunity to be in the company of people going through very similar experiences. The group I attend has been supportive, has helped me regain my perspective, provided concrete advice and inspiration, and really restored my confidence in my decision to find a different way to make my life work.

My wife is a sympathetic ear, but she got tired of me needing reassurance, and I couldn't unload all of my shit on to her over and over again. Don't make the mistake of thinking you have to do this for him.

If you are in the Boston area, e-mail or MeFiMail me and I can tell you about the group I attend. If not, check places where people post notices for these sorts of things (libraries, Starbucks, college buildings, etc.)
posted by briank at 8:04 AM on June 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do you make enough money to support both of you? If so, would he be amenable to the idea of stopping the job search and just writing? That way, you have something positive to report/answer in response to queries or conversation-- I'm a lawyer and my husband is a writer. If people ask what's he written, tell them. If they ask where he's published, tell them he's looking for a publisher or where they can find him online.

You might also, if your income is good enough, rent a small storefront or office that he can set up as his studio so he doesn't feel like he's just sitting around at home (even though he's writing).

You're a writer (or an artist of any kind) when you pursue the art, not only when you are "successful" at it or when you have salaried position with that title. Both of you need to think of this as a positive thing, and not as an interim where he's looking for work until he can write. If he's a writer, he needs to write. Your success as a lawyer is a boon, not a barrier.
posted by nax at 8:05 AM on June 21, 2008 [7 favorites]

There's always something else-- I also changed jobs late in my career, so I know what this is like. I still do the original soul-sucking job on a consulting basis, but also pursue the one that allows me to get up in the morning. A supportive spouse is absolutely critical to the change, which can as you've seen take years. I know you say don't suggest therapy, but I think some therapy would be a really good idea (and I almost never suggest that, but here I think it could help you break some unhealthy patterns and ways of thinking).
posted by nax at 8:08 AM on June 21, 2008

The first thing I thought of reading this is that your husband got into his previous career based on what he felt other people wanted. He was defined by others and began to resent it (as he should). He's thankfully gotten to the point that he realizes that catering to other's needs will not make him happy, but he hasn't figured out how to define himself outside of other people's expectations. As long as that is the case, he'll struggle painfully.

One way out is to build one's own sense of self and self esteem. This is what he might want therapy for. Not to cure damaged goods, but to figure out how to start thinking of himself in a way that allows a change in innate behaviours that have been reinforce (negatively) his whole life.

Without making that initial change, he won't be successful at anything. Even if he stumbles across the "right' creative role for himself, it will always feel like he's letting someone down (himself, parents, society, you, expectations, etc.).

So it should be considered job training to work on changing his fundamental beliefs (that may not even be conscious at this point) about self worth, particularly as it is tied to work. The people that specialize in helping this kind of job training are therapists. He'd probably go back to grad school if he was bent on getting a MBA because that's where the experts are. Same difference. He needs a different type of experience training from a different type of expert.

The biggest issue is that I'm sure he sees therapy as an example of not living up to people's expectations on being competent and capable. That's part of the problem. You can't change until it is harder to not change, and he may be able to keep going like this for a long time. Or he may be sick of it, realize that he can't figure this one out on his own (just like he wouldn't be able to figure out grad school on his own) and take a serious chance on finding someone who can help reset his "worth-o-meter".
posted by qwip at 8:20 AM on June 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think this is one of those paradoxical situations where the two of you need to differentiate in order to become more intimate. By differentiate, I mean you need to stop trying so hard to manage your man's emotional state.

You're trying to reassure, comfort, encourage, and motivate him -- and the strain is starting to tell on you. You are taking on too much responsibility for his feelings.

Focus on feeling and expressing your own feelings for a change. You're drained and nearing your limit, and he needs to know that. He needs to be able to listen to your frustration without diving into a spiral of defensiveness and self-hatred. That means he needs to develop some resources so he can self-soothe and pull his own shit together.

Aside from a good therapist, mostly for him but also to hold space for you to say your piece, I don't have a lot of concrete solutions. You might take a look at Schnarch's Passionate Marriage, which is the book I got the idea of differentation from, as well as information about codependency, which is the name for the kind of general pattern you guys seem to be dancing.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:30 AM on June 21, 2008 [6 favorites]

How brave you both are! Congratulations! So many people think they have to hold down a particular position, forgetting that we will change careers five or more times.

Your husband sounds like a great candidate for building a professional services business -- perhaps in writing, marketing communications, analysis, management consulting, etc. Would his family and peers think that he had a reputable job if he was at the helm of a professional services business start up?

It's all just window dressing. He can still do what he wants on his own time. If he's open to combining his writing work with other creative work, he has lots of opportunities. But he can tell people that he's started a professional services business.

For the sake of his sanity, your husband should look at registering a business name, getting a license, opening a bank account and keeping books. If he's writing, he can start writing off business use of home and other expenses.

That's if he wants to feel like he still has an ambitious career and if he wants to thwart comments from friends and family. Telling people who poke at you that you charge $200 an hour (or $500 or whatever) can help with self esteem.

Personally, I think that writing is a noble and ambitious profession. Nothing feels better than seeing your byline on something you wrote. I've worked as a writer for years. But I also run a professional services business -- a consulting company -- and I have subcontractors, interns and partners. These days, that's where I put more of my focus, but I sometimes concentrate more on writing, depending on my interests. (Plus it's great to have all these higher paying streams of revenue. And nobody scoffs at you when you teach at the university level, bill out other people at 3x cost, or charge high hourly rates.)

That's if he wants to please other people or if he feels the need to have a higher prestige profession. I'm not saying this is what he should do -- and I do *not* mean to imply that there is anything wrong with writing. I'm just suggesting some window dressing that might shut up other people. I'm sure some people will tell you that he should just ignore other people, but sometimes it makes sense to tell people what they want to hear, so that they leave you alone.
posted by acoutu at 8:33 AM on June 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get a copy of Tal Ben Shahar's book Happier. Once you have both read it, talk about what will make you happy. Then Encourage him to strive for what Ben Shahar calls "the ultimate currency."
posted by RussHy at 9:24 AM on June 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can relate to your husband to some extent, as I'm a person who generally feels loved when I'm affirmed by those who love me. It's not an egocentric thing, but words of affirmation is what does it for me emotionally, over gifts, time, and even physical intimacy at times. If I feel verbally appreciated, it settles very deeply for me, and all is right with the world.

It sounds like your husband has a lot going on. I think what he might be asking, though, when he says, "do you still love me?" is whether or not you think he is a good husband and father, and you respect him. For me, this is different than when my wife says, "I love you." Those are words that are easy to say and hear, but feeling honored and respected as a husband and (typically) a provider runs deeper than affection and commitment to a relationship. For some reason, I need to hear that this is how important people in my life feel about me. I find that when I'm "fishing" for affirmation like it sounds like your husband is, it's probably because I'm not feeling it the relationship in a way that may be beneficial for him.

My wife and I recently had a discussion about this, actually. I've been going through some crap at work that has been leaving me emotionally drained. The very best thing that my wife can do for me in this situation is to let me know (daily isn't too much) that she appreciates my commitment to our family, and that she thinks I'm a quality father and husband. Seriously, that gets me through anything.

Your husband may be similar. His primary way of receiving love may be through verbal affirmation, and if he feels that he's not getting it very often (the way the words are expressed are important here, and it's not necessarily the fault of the spouse, it's just a learning-to-communicate-how-the-other-needs thing), he may be feeling overwhelmed with words from his family, etc., that suggest he isn't living up to his potential. There's always constructive criticism that is necessary to process in life. But sometimes, without a counterbalance, it can make life feel like more of a failure than a success.

It might be worth talking to your husband to see what kinds of things primarily encourage him during times like this. Is it time together away from the stress, with people he loves? Is it receiving gifts? Is it physical contact? (like hugs, not sex necessarily). Is it having nice things done for him at times? Or is it words of affirmation?

He can do the same for you, by the way. When I figured out that my wife primarily is a "time" person above all other expressions of love and affection, I was able to focus on that, and it's done great things for our relationship.

Just a few thoughts. When my wife is able to encourage me during tough times in ways that resonate with me, it far outweighs any benefits I could receive from counseling.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:04 AM on June 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

I liked nax's answer, but would suggest you put a timeline on it. "Why don't you take a year to write, see if we can make a go of it." This way, after the year, if he becomes one of the many failed writers out there, he can mourn the loss of the dream, move on and become a success as something else. Or he succeeds as a writer and it's all win win.

This, in my mind, beats mooning about it indefinitely.

Seems like the man needs a goal as well. A "writer or some creative profession" is a pretty wide swath. Pick a profession, get some training, meet some people in the field, and make a go of it.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:11 AM on June 21, 2008

Something about your question unsettles me. You more or less equate status, high pay, prestige, and ambition in your question; then in the very next breath you say you are delighted that your husband gave those up because in your view he isn't suited for them.

Possibly without your realizing it, your expression of those attitudes could be construed as very negative. The fact that your own career is high-status and high-paying compounds this. In other words, when you get home from work every night, the message your daily absence communicates to him may have been along the lines of "I'm high-status and high-prestige, you're not, because you're not suitable for it."

If neither of you equated success in life with high pay and high status professions, this probably wouldn't matter. But clearly you both do and it does matter. That being the case, the way he responds to the current situation is ultimately his issue, not yours. You can't change him; you can only encourage him to change. One way of doing that is to change your attitudes about what really matters in life, but from the way you write about the situation I think that's unlikely to the point of impossibility; after all, the attitudes you espouse are some of the most deeply entrenched social norms.

He wants a way to make a living without having to become what he thinks of as just a cog in the machine.

Tell him to take a number. Most people have a hard enough time making a living at all without putting some kind of crazy restriction on the way they're going to do it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:18 AM on June 21, 2008 [6 favorites]

It's understandable you feel aggravated over this--I would be too!

Even professional, paid writers struggle with this very same issue your husband has. He needs to know that he's not alone. Being a writer myself, I definitely understand Stephen King's comment that writers are a needy group of people. There's something "not right" about people who want to write and get paid to write, and I say this with affection and also some embarrassment.

One thing that helped me was lurking around on various writers' forums, and seeing that all of my own anxieties/fears/what-have-you about writing was in fact pretty common. I think it would help immensely for your husband to find a supportive writer's group. Basically people who understand what he is going through, and even offer specific solutions to his concerns. If you're in a big city, he can even find a face-to-face writer's group suited to his genre. I'm assuming he hasn't taken this route, and am hoping you can gently encourage him to do so.

On the behalf of writers everywhere, we thank you for your patience and support.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:52 AM on June 21, 2008

Oh yeah, and agreeing over ikkyu2's insight that there's some conflict right now between his own belief in power and status vs. not wanting to not be "a cog in the machine."

I'm under the impression you can't have both. And life is a helluva lot easier if you pick one.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:59 AM on June 21, 2008

It's not something you mention in depth, but I'd be curious (suspicious?) about his family's role in all this. It's hard for many men to deal with a more successful wife, especially if the other people in his life don't respect his goals. Even if your income is high enough to support both of you, it can't be easy for him to 'mooch' off you while he's getting started, particularly if his "terror" about family/friend opinions is well-founded. You may need to work out some kind of pleasant fiction that lets him save face, or at least work on getting him some new influences (like a writer's group) to tell him that he's not throwing away all hope of self-respect.
posted by Lady Li at 12:43 PM on June 21, 2008

I don't mean to be disrespectful but it seems a bit of a mad thing to just give up a job (any job, whatever the pay/prestige level) without a clear idea of what you're giving it up for. Maybe he focussed so hard on quitting that he never actually worked out what would happen afterwards. This is really common with people who've high-flown into a corporate-type career. It might have been a huge shock to realise that 'creative-type' jobs have no process comparable to say banker or lawyer or doctor or whatever, you don't start here, progress to there and end up being promoted to 'paid author', you just have to do it. Literally, do it. Paint a picture, write an essay, article, novel whatever and put the thing out there. That can feel terrifying.

So maybe he needs to create a process for himself with which to demonstrate that progress is being made. You don't indicate whether or not he has any formal background in creative pursuits, if not get him signed up for a decent day-time class (creative writing, journalism, art history, whatever), one that will give him a bit of structure and a hook upon which to hang the ambition. No one should be berating anyone for going back to school, and it will help him understand and shape ideas about what kind of direction he wants to take his talents in.

As for support, tell him you love him and you want to support him but you need something to support. Get enthusiastic *with* him, not *for* him. And take care of yourself, you desrve a cheer too for being the supportive spouse.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:16 PM on June 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Focus on feeling and expressing your own feelings for a change. You're drained and nearing your limit, and he needs to know that. He needs to be able to listen to your frustration without diving into a spiral of defensiveness and self-hatred. That means he needs to develop some resources so he can self-soothe and pull his own shit together.

This is really important. My ex also wanted to do something creative but he never actually did. Instead he worked crappy jobs he hated while demanding total emotional support from me. I started to resent it but every time I tried to talk to him about it he'd accuse me of picking on him and fall apart. I eventually drew a mental picture of him as using the creative thing as an excuse to avoid ever doing anything real and a good way to keep people off his back. I started to see him as weak and selfish and as a leech on other people. When we split up I think I used the exact term "learn to pull your own shit together". I know I was damn tired of him expecting me to do it for him. Your husband may not make as much money as you but he has an equal responsibility to the marriage and to meeting your needs as you do to him.
posted by fshgrl at 1:46 PM on June 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I refer you to my previous answer.
posted by brautigan at 6:52 PM on June 21, 2008

It sounds like your husband is quite adrift, which is how unemployment generally feels. What might help him is structure, something that creates the sensation of progress.

What first comes to mind is how Derrick Jensen believed he wouldn't be a real writer until he had written a million words. He set out to write a thousand a day, so he'd be a "real" writer in just over three years. (I might've garbled the facts here slightly; it's in his book Walking on Water). Keeping track of that could give your husband a sense of accomplishment; you could have little celebrations after every 50,000 or whatever. Other options: go back to grad school, get a professional coach to help create a process for identifying and finding an appropriate job, start a blog and watch the page hits slowly go up.

I also quite agree with fshgrl and ottereroticist.
posted by salvia at 7:13 PM on June 21, 2008

Career coach.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:15 PM on June 21, 2008

My brother is the most sucessful writer I know. He's published close to twenty books, all of which could be found at your local Barnes and Noble at the time they were printed. A number of books he's published have been critical and commercial sucesses. He writes books in a genre (science fiction) where you can actually sell a book and make a profit. His books have been translated in to foreign languages. You know what? He still has a day job running an operating system. Every writer I know has a day job. Most of them are teachers. Only a small percentage of writers are able to support themselves with writing alone.

He needs to realize that he's not a failure if he takes a day job to support himself. You might suggest that he get a job related to writing. Teaching English is usually the default, but working in publishing or in a library or bookstore might be good too. The best thing you can do is assure him that you'll allow him the time to write on the side. Lots of people do this. And maybe just needs to realize he's in good company. You might suggest that he join a local writing group. If he can talk to other writers about what he's going through, that might help.
posted by bananafish at 8:45 AM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

What bananafish said. My mother always differentiated between one's work and one's job. (A job provides enough income to allow one to do one's work.)
posted by small_ruminant at 3:04 PM on June 22, 2008

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