Emotional Health

What Happens When a Man Loses His Sense of Self Along With His Job

Dear Shirley,

I’m sorry you are in such a painful situation. Many women of our generation are finding themselves to be breadwinners without planning this. Others, who may have chosen to be employed, are staying in their jobs longer than they would have liked, delaying retirement for financial reasons. And many, like you, “accidentally” become the primary or sole earner in the family, which is a very stressful role.

It is even more stressful when you are also saddled with all the household duties. Given that your husband is “able-bodied,” it is easy to imagine how angry this must make you. If your roles were reversed and you were the at-home spouse, there’s little doubt that you would be expected to do the household chores. Adding to your distress is the fact that you are not even being acknowledged for your contribution. In fact, you say that your husband and his mother are actually critical!

At what point does a situation like this become intolerable? Some women struggle for years trying to come to terms with what to do. On the one hand, you understand and are sympathetic to his dilemma; on the other, you see your life as an endless drudge with no thanks, recognition or gratitude. While you are “putting up with it,” it is at a cost to your mental and even physical health. While many women are overburdened, it is often because they are single or their husbands are ill. Your position is particularly painful because it seems your husband could choose to act differently, and so you are saddled with anger on top of your other burdens.

One approach you might take is to ask yourself if your husband really can choose to act differently. Is he so ashamed or perhaps depressed that he is stuck or stymied? If so, that still would not explain why he doesn’t contribute his extra dollars from odd jobs to the family. You need to make him understand that this is unacceptable, asking him how he justifies this. Has he abandoned all sense of responsibility to the family, or does he see himself as entirely “ineffective”? It would benefit both of you to get him out of this rut. Adults need to feel they are making a positive contribution to the family to feel good about themselves. A person who is idle or overly selfish runs the risk of losing his self-respect, which for the chronically unemployed or under-employed, creates a negative cycle.

If you show him that you are trying to understand the issue empathetically, from his point of view, it may help you open up a dialogue that can be constructive. Obviously, you have some insight into what it means to him to have lost his job, and while he may not be happy about confronting the issue, you will be doing him a favor: he needs to become a man again, even if it means doing “women’s work” and helping around the house. A man takes care of his family, however he can.

I’m glad to hear he has been a good father and he has no substance abuse problems. While that is a reason to respect him and be grateful, is it enough for you to have a life, going forward? If he does not show a willingness to change, you may have to make some tough choices. While divorce is a drastic step, perhaps you can suggest a separation, at the least. It might be necessary if he does not take steps to improve. Wives of alcoholics, for example, are often advised to seriously consider separation or divorce, not only for their own sakes, but also as a way of motivating their husbands to get the help they need. If they don’t, they are seen as “colluding” in their spouse’s self-destructive behavior. You can view your husband’s actions in a similar way: not only is he letting you down he is letting himself down by behaving like an incompetent child. You need to challenge him to do and be better. Take his problem seriously and insist that he do the same: being unemployed is terrible, but not fatal. Many people deal with it, move on, and do what is necessary to earn a living. It may not be pleasant, but it is the right thing to do. You are doing it. That’s the least you can expect from a true partner.

If he is not up to the challenge of getting help to improve the situation, you may want to consider divorce. Psychologists have found the only reliable predictor of future behavior is past behavior: people tend to be consistent unless they act to change. You are still fairly young and have many years ahead of you. If you do not take steps to make them better ones, they might not be: they could well be the same story, over and over. While your children might be unhappy, they are launched and do not have to live your life. Ultimately, it’s up to you, and you owe it to yourself to act in everyone’s interest and demand more.

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