Bullish: When Your Male Partner is Not Exactly Helping Your Career

Jennifer Dziura writes Bullish, a career column, for The Grindstone and Bullish Life, a life coaching column, for our sister site TheGloss.

Here is a letter I received shortly after Hurricane Sandy. I had evacuated to my fiancé’s parents’ house and was going a bit stir-crazy (I did discover that you can make a pretty decent fake espresso with half a mug of hot milk and about ten times more instant coffee than the package suggests.)

I had been persuaded not to bring any books, because we had to walk down 25 flights of stairs carrying a cat. Once I had done this, I realized I could have carried at least fifteen pounds of books in addition to a backpack and a cat carrier, because I have quads of steel.

So I was trying to get some things done on my laptop, while lamenting my lack of books (and, for the record, buying shovels and breathing masks and baby supplies on Amazon and shipping them to one of the many relief efforts in the Rockaways).

And then, this:

I feel a little dopey writing this while I’m sure you’re mucking out from Sandy, but if you’ve been trapped in an apartment with your fiancé this week, I think you might have an extra dose of insight for me.

In the last two weeks I’ve gone through some pretty momentous changes: my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, so my husband and I picked up and moved halfway across the country, from the city to a farm, to take care of her while she goes through treatment.

Being a Bullish-type gentlewoman, I negotiated to keep my new big-step-up-professionally-and-remuneratively job and am working remotely rather than starting from square one in a town with less than 5,000 people. I’m extremely ambitious and have been making big strides in my career in the last two years. My husband? Not so much.

This generally doesn’t bother me. He always has a job that pays pretty well and reliably pays half our bills. He just doesn’t have much interest in moving up the career ladder. Again, this is totally fine with me – he works shorter hours and makes less than me, yes, but he also takes care of all the household things I can’t or won’t do because of the demands of my work. It works for us and I’m not looking to change him.

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    • Eve

      You said it already, but my first thought was “IS HE ILLITERATE?” He can’t read? He can’t surf the web? Netflix is $8 a month and has more movies and TV than he can possibly watch (as you said– WITH HEADPHONES.) Even better if he does something productive, but I don’t see how he can’t figure out a way to entertain himself quietly.

    • Ame

      Move the TV or the desk to the bedroom?

    • Lastango

      First, I agree with Jen’s advice about finding a workspace. With a job like yours, you have to get out of there; just turning down the sound on the TV isn’t enough. Years ago, I found a great spot in the public library. They had a reading room set aside for their historical collection, and no one else ever came there. It was very nice, with a big table that offered lots of work room, plus access to a photocopier. Another possible site for camping out is the local junior college. You can also run an ad: “Business professional seeks quiet office space.” There might be a law firm or somesuch that has a spot.


      But there’s something else that’s much more important: unless your husband finds something to do that earns money, he will atrophe and you may lose respect for him. Then it’s over. I’m going to throw a couple of links in here that give a sense of just how destructive and debilitating it can be when a man loses his purpose in life:

      This one is a bit long, but worth the read:


      I could go on and on, but that’s enough to show that when a man loses his job the results are disastrous. Here’s a thought: let him read those articles, and any others you find that get the message across, and tell him you want your love to last and you never want the two of you to live like that or end like that. He might agree it’s very important that something needs to change.

      It’s obvious this will be a challenge; I don’t know what his skillset is, but apparently there’s no calling for it locally. It might even be the case that the area is depressed, and jobs are scarce.

      Without knowing his situation, I’ll hazard that the best outcome would be to find something or develop something that, if it works out, can be taken back to where you come from if he prefers it to what he used to do. (I’d love to throw out some possibilities, but can’t unless you provide some information.)

      So, here’s my next-best suggestion: since he can’t come up with anything, see if you can get together with some locals. Contact some leading figures, especially professionals and entrepreneurs, and ask for help. State your problem. Go see them together. What are they aware of that might present opportunities? One way to get ahold of them might be through (for instance) the local Lions Club or other similar organization. Their whole purpose is to be of service. Go meet and talk. Make contacts.

      Good luck to you both… one day the two of you may look back his being driven on this search as the best thing that every happened to your future!

      • The Not So Frustrated Farmwife

        Our situation has improved immensely since Jen gave me the pep talk. I talked it over with Husband, and he was definitely feeling lost without his 9 – 5. It’s difficult right now because of the time he spends with his mother and taking her to appointments (and he has another family member who is ill now – he was in the hospital with them last night) so I understand his desire to put off the job issue while all of that is going on.

        After I talked to him, he’s taken some really positive steps, though. He’s picked up odd jobs around the farm (and it is seriously, incredibly hot how handy he is, like being married to a taller, not-so-Boston-y, incredibly attractive Norm Abram) and has spent the last couple of weeks learning JavaScript. I don’t know if that will translate to a different line of work for him in the future, but it’s something to keep his mind sharp and give him satisfaction in the meanwhile.

        Hopefully things get settled down soon and we can decide where to go from here. Working out in the country has actually been incredibly productive for me (once I got him out of my hair). Going back into the office was a bit of a nightmare – all the politics and distractions were right there waiting for me, and I found myself longing for my little desk in the living room looking out over the stock pond. I could see making this a permanent move, if we can just keep him satisfied and engaged!

    • Whitney

      I dunno, for as annoying as her husband may sometimes be, what with the excessive TV watching and all, this guy sounds like a bit of a gemstone. This man may not currently be making an income but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel as if he serves a purpose (and he does.) He quit his job so that he could move across the country to help his mother during a challenging time. He manages the household duties so that his more ambitious partner doesn’t have to. Let’s not forget that she enjoys working, so it’s not like she’s envying his position. And let’s not also forget that he has never been an ambitious person, so it certainly isn’t fair to hold this character trait against him now. I absolutely agree that her ability to work should be prioritized, but with the help of some headphones and a laundry-doing lunch-making husband, this stint in the countryside could be her most professionally productive time yet.

      • The Not So Frustrated Farmwife

        So true. I definitely have no intentions of changing the man – and I keep trying to remember that no matter how stressful this is for me, it’s infinitely worse for him. After all, he’s not just given up his livelihood, he’s having to deal with the stress and anguish of his mother being ill as an only child; basically, all on his own. He really is a gem, and I couldn’t be where I am in my career without all of his help.

    • The Not So Frustrated Farmwife

      First of all – this is me! A dear friend sent me the link saying “I think this is you – IT’S LIKE KNOWING A MOVIE STAR” and I have to say, I’ve never been so pleased to be made an example of!

      Jen’s advice was fantastic. I’ve been out of town on business for several weeks, so it may be that things are difficult again once I get home, but before I had left, we had a talk and things improved greatly.

      My husband has a ridiculously narrow skill set – it’s one that has served him well, but when we moved to a tiny little town, it became one that was useless. And I think that really took a toll on him when we first got out there. He felt like he was all at sea. He may not be ambitious, but his work is very important to him. So we went out to a nice whiskey bar in the next town over one night, had a few drinks, and I laid it out for him. The details are probably only interesting to me, but when I expressed concern not just for my work, but for him, he said he was worried about all the same things.

      After that, things were a bit different. He started helping around the farm to keep occupied during the day, to give me a bit of peace and quiet. And I’m impressed! I knew he was handy, but there he was, fixing ATVs, replacing his mother’s water heater, laying new flooring for her, taking care of the cattle, fixing fence lines… and it was good for him.

      I’ve been out of town for a while now (going back on Thanksgiving, thank heavens), and of course we’ve been talking all the time. He’s started teaching himself JavaScript. While that may not directly translate to him broadening his career opportunities, it’s a new skill, something to learn, and something to give him satisfaction.

      So, hooray, Jen! Your advice was fantastic, helped me put into perspective what I wanted to say, and even better than dealing with it without starting an argument, spurred me to deal with it, period. I’ll be tipping one back for you and all the gentlewomen out there tonight.

    • Sick of supporting my husband

      You are young and think this is going to be ok. It will not be in the long run. Sorry but you guys are doomed.

      • Lastango

        You are very right about the risks. There are lots of ways for this to go bad, and to clarify some of the perils I put two links in my comment (above). Here is another, and it hits hard:


        These stories are painful. Anybody who thinks it’s all some sort of empowering, postmodern “alternative lifestyle” when the husband loses his livelihood and his wife is the breadwinner is whistling past a very haunted graveyard of failed relationships.

    • http://twitter.com/RFIndependence Pauline

      I wouldn’t mind being the bread earner if my partner did most of the things at home, with the kids… so I could focus on being awesome at my job. Otherwise it would probably be a deal breaker.

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