By Esther Mann, LCSW
My husband (“Max”) and I have been married for 40 years. All in all, it’s been a pretty decent marriage. I don’t see us as the most exciting couple in the world, but I know there are couples who have had it much worse than we do, so I always thought we were doing all right.
Six months ago, Max lost his job. The company he had been working at for over 20 years was restructuring, and many people were let go. There had been rumors flying for quite some time, and other people were let go earlier than he was, so it wasn’t a total surprise. But it was still devastating for him.
Though he was offered a generous package, we are not exactly swimming in dough. We’ll manage, as his Social Security will kick in in a few years, and we are not big spenders. Retirement is something that he thought would come many years down the road, yet he hasn’t said anything about looking for a new job at this stage of his life. He claims he’s over the hill and no one would hire him at his age anyway.
So here’s my question. Like most people, my life has taken on a nice pattern that I’ve come to enjoy. I have a little part-time job that I go to for 10 hours a week. I go to the gym a few times a week, a shiur once a week, and I’ll meet my best friend for breakfast or lunch once a week. I keep up with my children, my errands, and life in general. No exciting fireworks, but it works for me. It’s my life.
Now, all of a sudden, my husband expects me to hang out with him. He’s constantly asking me where I’m going and whether I have to go. He looks all lonely and bored, and I start feeling guilty about having a life. He doesn’t seem to have a life right now. So he’ll ask me if I’ll go with him to pick out a new pair of shoes, or if he can come with me to the grocery store. I’m not into that. I like to do my thing, not answer to anyone, feel independent, and know that I can move at my own speed, on my own terms.
Max has accused me of being unsupportive, selfish, and not a good wife. By the way, when he was working for most of our marriage, apparently I was a good wife. I took care of everything for the home, never asked him for too much help in any area, and wasn’t one of those needy wives who expect their husbands to hold their hand through every doctor’s appointment or show up at every school event for the children when they’re young.
I’m not the one who made any changes to the status quo of our marriage. It’s not my fault that he lost his job. So why should I suddenly drop out of the activities that I love so much in order to hang out with him and be his buddy? It doesn’t feel fair to me.
And by the way, it’s not exactly like he’s this really fun guy to hang out with. He’s been sulking around since he got the boot. He seems to have lost his sense of humor and ability to be happy. Even if I didn’t have such a balanced schedule that I want to maintain, why would I want to hang out with someone who is such a downer?
Do you think he’s right and that at this stage of life I need to completely revamp my schedule to accommodate his schedule (or lack thereof)? Am I being selfish and insensitive toward his needs, as he is accusing?
I’m really not sure how to proceed.
Still Going Strong
Dear Still Going Strong,
As you’ve so well described, in a marriage that is running smoothly, there is a feeling of being in sync, and everyone enjoys a certain amount of predictability regarding the day-to-day flow. If husband and wife are working well together, after a certain amount of time and a bit of pulling and tugging, everyone gets to know their role, and things kind of fall into place. The household responsibilities become known. Perhaps the husband takes out the garbage daily and the wife takes care of the dry-cleaning. Like a well-oiled machine, things runs pretty smoothly.
The same predictability exists with schedules. It becomes known, for instance, that Monday evening the husband goes to the gym, Tuesday evening the wife takes a dancing class, and Thursday evening is reserved for “date night,” when they go out to dinner together. Whatever the specific arrangements, everyone knows what to expect and has long ago figured out how to get their needs met and live in harmony. And this is a big part of what a peaceful, successful marriage looks like from a practical perspective.
And then life happens. There are so many things that can come along to disrupt the balance. Sometimes they are good things. But more often, challenges come knocking at our door, and suddenly the homeostasis in our life and marriage is in jeopardy.
Loss of a job, for a man, particularly at the age that Max finds himself, is a biggie. Especially when he had no intentions of retiring at such an early age–one that is considered young for retirement by many people, but kind of old to start recreating himself and starting all over at a new workplace. Not to say that no one in their sixties has ever found new employment, because certainly many people have, but it can be difficult.
So to begin with, I’m wondering how much compassion you are feeling for Max right now. Not much has come through in your letter, but that could be because you are too busy expressing your own disappointment over the status quo of your own life being turned upside down right now. If you aren’t feeling much sympathy for Max, I’m wondering why not. Are you angry with him for not anticipating the firing and being proactive to find a solution before the ax came down? Are you angry with him for not aggressively looking for a new job now in order to keep himself busy and bring income into the family? Are you angry with him for not having the wherewithal to keep himself busy with hobbies, volunteer work, whatever, so that your schedule doesn’t have to be impinged upon?
I think it’s important that you take some time to examine your own feelings about all of these realities and honestly try to figure out what exactly you are reacting to. And then you need to have a conversation with Max, because even though his being fired wasn’t his fault, there are repercussions for both of you that need to be talked about and validated. It could be a freeing talk both for you and for Max, and reassuring for him to hear from you that you understand what he is going through.
After you and Max hopefully work through the emotional components of your reaction to his firing, I think you need to have a heart-to-heart talk about what your “new normal” life could and should look like. I don’t think you should be expected to give up all the activities of your life that you’ve grown to depend on and enjoy. But there should be some modifications made to show Max that he is also important in your life and that you are happily willing to find time for him in your schedule, so that he isn’t made to feel like a burden, but rather someone you still enjoy spending time with, in a way that satisfies both of you.
Max also has to figure out how to create a satisfying schedule for himself that does not depend solely on being with you. If he doesn’t have hobbies to fall back on, now is the time to find some. Maybe he’ll decide that there are still some career opportunities available to him and, with the help of a career counselor, can consider some new possibilities.
I agree that you are not his caretaker, you are not his mommy, and you are not his buddy. Some couples do successfully hang out together 24/7. But that has never been your style, and clearly it’s not a style you have any desire to adopt right now. However, with some good communication, a lot of compassion, and thinking out of the box, there is no reason why you and Max can’t weather this storm and hopefully find yourselves both enjoying your “new normal.”
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.