We moved into the Five Towns about three years ago. We always perceived ourselves to be very blessed regarding the lifestyle we were able to live. We never felt “less than” in any way, and held our heads high. I still feel that way, but my husband is having a very hard time feeling good about himself ever since we moved here.
I would say we are an upper middle-class family. Both my husband and I work hard and we’ve always done everything on our own, with no help from our parents. Thank G-d, we have been able to live in our own house for many years already, put our children through yeshiva and camps, and stay out of debt. We even manage to take a nice vacation once a year. How lucky can you get?
People have been nice and we get invited out to Shabbos meals and other social get-togethers, which have become eye-openers for us. We sit around listening to conversations that absolutely astound us. People are talking about their latest construction, the cruise they are planning, the homes they are buying for their children, etc. They don’t ask if we are going away for Pesach, but where we are going for Pesach. (We’ve never gone away for Pesach!) I’m pretty amazed at the seemingly limitless wealth that pervades our community. Frankly and thankfully, I’m the type of person who doesn’t compare and can be happy for them and happy for myself in terms of the life we’ve built and our lifestyle.
My husband, Jay, on the other hand, has changed dramatically from the person he was before we moved. Suddenly, he is feeling very down on himself. He doesn’t enjoy socializing because he feels he can’t contribute to much of the conversation that centers around money and spending. Whereas he used to feel pretty good about himself, he seems embarrassed that he can’t live the lifestyle that these people are living. He sits there quietly, with his shoulders drooped, probably hoping that he’ll fade into the woodwork so that no one will ask him whether he’s been on a safari or a river cruise lately.
I don’t know why he feels he has to compete with these high-rollers! I never complain or expect him to buy me fancy jewelry or fabulous fur coats. I grew up with so little that I am absolutely thrilled with what we’ve achieved through hard, honest work and self-reliance. Our children are not spoiled the way it seems many of these people’s children are. They don’t expect us to buy them houses or pay for their vacations. They, like us, are hard-working and hope to achieve success on their own, which I’m very proud of.
I just don’t know what to do for Jay to help him feel better about himself. I don’t want him to be unhappy living here. I love the community in many ways and want it to work. But when I see how it seems to be diminishing him, that he is no longer the outgoing, confident man he was most of our marriage, it breaks my heart. And aside from feeling badly for him, my fear is that he’ll tell me one day that he wants to go back to our old neighborhood, which, frankly, is not something I want to do. I find our community beautiful, filled with lots of great people. I love the abundance of shiurim and the chesed that goes on (and I can even find parking spots most of the time).
What should my approach be with Jay? How do I get him to see things the way that I’m able to, without jealousy or self-consciousness?
Kudos to you for being able to keep your head about yourself, and not feel intimidated or swayed by conversations that take place around you that you totally can’t relate to. It’s takes a grounded, grateful individual to be able to remain content with his or her blessings, without the need to compare or contrast. Unfortunately, too many people tend to go there, and it usually doesn’t bode well for any of them.
Though Jay is very fortunate to have a wife like you, who doesn’t behave in a particularly needy way, it doesn’t seem to compensate for his feelings of inadequacy that your social circle is creating inside of him. For many men, their sense of self is often tied in to their financial success. Though women certainly like nice stuff, we tend to value ourselves in so many different ways. Are we good daughters, mothers, friends, cooks, hostesses, community participants? Are we able to pull off a career in addition to everything else going on? Because our self-worth is spread across so many different arenas, we have many opportunities to feel of value. Too many men, unfortunately, are solely focused on their financial success, often measured in how much they have. Being around people who have the need to discuss their accomplishments and purchases might be hard when a man feels that he is way out of his league.
I’m guessing that you are already sensitive enough to tell Jay how much you value him and are totally satisfied with everything he has done for his family. The problem is that he isn’t able to really hear you and doesn’t feel the same way about himself. Therefore, the first obvious question is whether you are hanging out with the wrong people.
Though from the outside, looking in, this neighborhood appears to be a gilded ghetto, the fact of the matter is that there are many hard-working people like yourselves who live unassuming lives, providing perfectly well for their families without the frills you mention, and are totally OK not having them. In fact, there are many people who wouldn’t want to live that upgraded lifestyle even if they could easily afford it. To them it would feel wasteful and distasteful.
These are the people you and Jay need to be seeking out, like-minded individuals he can feel comfortable around. Perhaps you haven’t yet found the right shul that attracts people like yourselves — people who don’t want or need these extra perks, and, even if they enjoy them, are quiet about their extravagances because they are sensitive enough to understand that many people aren’t in their league and they don’t want to make anyone feel jealous or uncomfortable.
Finding the right fit among friends can often feel like a lifelong effort. It can take a very long time for men to find their “happy place,” beginning with the right choice of a shul. There’s nothing wrong with roaming around, trying out different places, seeing how it feels and whether it complements one’s own lifestyle and needs. Encourage Jay to be open-minded and a bit of an adventurer. Some men have told me it’s taken them 10 years, 20 years, and sometimes even longer to find the right shul and subsequently the right “chevra” to feel comfortable with. Hopefully, it will happen to you much sooner than that.
Finally, continue to let Jay know how proud you are of him, how much you support everything he has done, and remind him that he has a choice in the way in which he values himself. If you can encourage him to think about himself in Technicolor, rather than in his former black-and-white stereotypical way, he will eventually be able to associate with anyone and still maintain a positive self-image.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.