I’m sure I’m not the first person to be writing in about this theme, and no doubt I won’t be the last. But it’s becoming a big issue for me, and my wife and I just don’t know if there is a way out from our feelings.
We go to a shul in which it seems the majority of the people our age — we’re in our thirties — are doing extremely well. I often wonder how they are so flush with money. Maybe a lot of it comes from their parents, or they have investments I don’t know about that keep them in the lifestyle that they seem to enjoy effortlessly. But whatever the case, they seem to be able to do all sorts of things that are out of reach to me.
I know I’m blessed (I think) to be able to afford a house in this neighborhood, though, I might add, just barely. Between schools, camps, etc., my wife and I can barely afford to pay our bills — and we are both professionals earning good salaries. Sometimes we’ll take a family trip in the summer, but not always, because there are times we just can’t pull it off. Neither of our parents have any money to speak of, so we are entirely on our own in that regard. Everything we have, we’ve earned on our own and we are trying to stay out of debt, besides our huge mortgage.
My wife can’t seem to stop looking at what other people have and what they are doing. I have to admit that it’s hard to overlook, and I often find myself marveling at their lifestyles, but then I try to reign in my envy, remember where I come from and how much I’ve already achieved in my life, and I’m able to let it go. My wife, on the other hand, obsesses constantly. She’s always looking at what these people have, where they are going, their constant traveling and dining out, and their designer clothing. This is the real killer — she’ll tell me that, compared to these other husbands, I’m a loser!
It’s so ridiculous I could laugh — if I didn’t feel like crying most of the time. I am considered successful in my field and within the company I work for. People at work respect me and admire my work ethic and achievements. Yet at home, I’m made to feel like a real loser. Intellectually I know that I am not, but when you hear something enough times from your wife, eventually you start wondering if maybe you’re not as successful as you thought you were. You start questioning your achievements and wondering why you can’t give your wife and children everything it seems your neighbors are able to provide for their families.
This is creating a tremendous amount of pressure in our marriage. There is an underlying tension between us, which is so sad, because if my wife could only stop looking at others and appreciate what we have achieved together, on our own, I think we could have a great marriage. She sees the world and our situation in relation to others, and has totally forgotten where she comes from and how much she has in comparison to her family and what she grew up with.
I tell her again and again that she has to learn new behaviors and that maybe therapy is the key. She disagrees and tells me that therapy won’t help fix our bank balance — if anything, it will bring it down even lower. How do I answer that? It’s true that we aren’t keeping up the extreme lifestyle we see around us, but so what? She can’t seem to be happy with what she has. Is there any help for her? For me?
You’re correct: you are not the first person writing in describing a similar theme taking place within their own hearts and minds, or within the heart and mind of the person they are married to. Sometimes, it can even become a problem that emanates from one’s children, who look around and see outrageous lifestyles all around them and wonder why they, too, aren’t enjoying the same over-the-top, extravagant perks. Often these children pressure their parents and make them doubt themselves, causing them to feel less-than.
I’ve heard our community referred to as a “gilded ghetto.” Before I tackle your specific issue, it’s important to remind readers that we live in a special community. Let’s not forget the tremendous tzedakah and chesed that our community is responsible for, and all the shiurim, acts of kindness, etc., as well as the altruistic organizations, such as Hatzalah, that are only a phone call away.
Having said that, yes, there are definitely pockets all around us that can appear quite lavish and maybe even ludicrous to some. We all know people who don’t hesitate to spend more for a meal at an upscale restaurant than some people spend on their weekly grocery shopping, without batting an eye. It’s possible that these same people are also supporting others we have no knowledge of. And maybe not. The point is that there will always be people doing better than you, no matter where you fall on the food chain. But — and this is the flip-side your wife seems to be ignoring — there are absolutely a lot more people who are worse off than you — in the extreme sense!
For some reason, your wife doesn’t want to focus on those individuals, which is hard to understand, considering that she was once one of “them” not all that long ago. This is where the key lies, for her and for everyone else who can’t stop taking their eyes off those individuals who seem to have it all. The best way to redirect one’s thoughts and emotions is to focus on those individuals who are truly struggling and to go out and do something about it. Look around and discover who among us can use a helping hand, in any way, on any level. Most people would be surprised to learn that there are many “walking wounded” among us who are quietly suffering and in need of help. Figure out how to send some help their way, whether it’s concretely, emotionally, or just an act of kindness.
If you could model such behavior for your wife, and enable her to see that there is another world out there that could and should matter so much more to her, you will be giving her the greatest gift possible. Those who regularly engage in acts of generosity and kindness know that no new car, fur coat, or trip to Europe could possibly feel as good and satisfying as giving to their fellow man. The people who have discovered this reality are the true winners among us.
Try your hardest to create a reality shift within your wife. Don’t allow her insecure rants to destabilize your thoughts that you know in your heart to be true. People may have more, but that doesn’t mean that they are more! Stay true to your beliefs, and if your wife truly is not capable of growing up and growing wise, maybe it’s time to think about changing your zip code.
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