I have been happily married for almost 25 years. My children are all healthy and succeeding in their various stages of life. They attend the finest yeshivot and participate in the most popular summer programs. My spouse and I live in a nice neighborhood in a nice home, drive good cars and take nice vacations. My children, spouse, and I dress nicely and are not really wanting for anything. Despite all of this, there is a constant undertone in my marriage that makes me feel underappreciated, undervalued, and, at times, simply unloved.
My husband works hard at what is considered a respectable job and makes a very good living. I work two less-lucrative jobs and bring in a nice supplemental income. In addition, I do much in the way of taking care of the home and tending to the children. I am very proud of my husband’s accomplishments and he knows it. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true. Even though there has never been anything realistic that we could not do because of finances, my husband constantly worries about our financial situation and occasionally belittles my professional achievements. Every so often, his anxiety translates into his being passive-aggressive and sometimes verbally abusive to me. He blames me for his anxiety and suggests that I am not doing enough to improve our wealth.
The anxiety and aggressive behavior flare up at times when we are spending large amounts of money, like paying taxes or making a simcha. By most accounts, we have a wonderful marriage and because I generally just take my lumps, most people would be shocked to know that, in this regard, I suffer in silence. I have discussed his unreasonable anxiety with my husband many times, but somehow, he cannot get past it. I would prefer to live elsewhere, enjoy a different lifestyle, see more savings, and have my husband be less anxious. He, however, insists on living where and how we do. Must I suffer in silence because of this?
To clarify, I have always viewed our situation as a partnership. My husband is able to have the job he does, in part, because of all the things that I do to keep the house running and the children cared for. In turn, I appreciate that I can have the satisfying jobs that I have and that our family lives comfortably, because of the job my husband has. It seems that my husband fails to appreciate this and instead chooses to focus on the inequity of what we each earn. When I feel that my worth within our partnership is measured solely based on my salary, it is very hurtful and upsetting.
Suffering In Silence
Dear Suffering in Silence,
Two weeks ago, I answered a letter from “Frustrated,” which talked about her unhappiness over the fact that she and her husband spent very little meaningful time together at their stage of life, where it could and should be very doable. While there was no blatant abuse or other horrible behavior going on, I still felt compassion for her frustration over the feelings she had around a marriage that felt disconnected, unsatisfying, and more or less lacking in any real substance.
Though my first reaction was one of feeling some of my own “frustration,” since I know that it is often virtually impossible to change another person if they have no desire to change, I did offer some practical suggestions for strategies she could try in the hope of perhaps effecting some meaningful change.
The reason I’m telling you this is because I received a number of reactions from readers who felt this woman was basically a “kvetch.” They didn’t understand why she was complaining, considering the fact that few marriages are ideal, few husbands (and wives) are perfect, and there was enough decent stuff going on that she should basically count her blessings. Honestly, I found these reactions puzzling, since I aim to keep the bar high in marriages and hope that we can all enjoy relationships that are filled with kindness, graciousness, and unselfish love. But the number of like-minded responses reminded me that not all marriages reach that standard.
So despite the type of responses I will gear myself up to receive, I will nevertheless answer your letter with compassion and sensitivity. There are several problems that jump out at me, right out of the gate. Firstly, as you’ve pinpointed, your husband sounds as though he struggles with feelings around money and what it represents for him. Many people seem to forget that money isn’t the goal unto itself. We try to work hard in order to provide for ourselves and our families a lifestyle that is solid. If we can afford extra frills, no problem. But once those extra frills take on a life of their own and we find ourselves chasing the number of zeros in our bank account to the point where we lose our integrity and values, it’s time to recalibrate. It’s one thing to feel anxiety over not being able to pay the bills, and quite another thing to feel anxiety when that is far from the case.
I agree that judging you based on your earning power is missing the point of who you are at your essence and why you got married in the first place and is quite belittling. We are all so much more than what we earn, and for you to feel judged and minimized in value because you are not earning up to a level your husband feels satisfied with is understandably hurtful.
Thirdly, the notion of living a simpler lifestyle so that your husband feels less pressure and stress over money is a great idea. However, something tells me that his anxiety may be rooted in other areas, and making lifestyle changes won’t address that real problem that’s going on here and that may be some deep-rooted generalized anxiety.
So as I hear your pain and recognize that the basic premise of all great marriages is missing in yours — that being a shared belief, simply stated, that one’s spouse’s happiness comes before one’s own — I’m not so sure there is anything in your power to do that will change your husband, unless he decides that he wants to change. You’ve communicated to him your dissatisfaction and unhappiness, and he either can’t really “hear” you or chooses not to hear you. Either way, you’ve done all you can do.
Bringing my answer full circle, I feel I should share the reality that many people reading your letter and noting all the parts of your life and marriage that are actually thriving are scratching their heads and wondering why you can’t just focus on all that is successful within your family life and let go of expectations that may not ever be realized and therefore not worth investing in. Many people simply (though it’s never really so simple) eventually let go of the dreams they had that are not being fulfilled, in order to live more peaceful and happier lives. The choice is ours. We can justifiably complain to ourselves or others, but will that do any good? Probably not. There are no magic wands and we are not so powerful as to be able to change people against their will. So at this point, the work is on you. Can you choose happiness? Can you choose acceptance? Can you decide to look away from the aspects of your marriage that you believe are unfair, and maybe even a bit cruel, in order to fully engage in the wonderful parts of your family and lifestyle? You are more powerful than you know.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.