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Heavy Meddle: I Sacrificed For My Spouse's Career — When Do I Get My Turn?

I don't know if I can continue on without being swallowed up by regret and resentment. (Spitefully/flickr)
I don't know if I can continue on without being swallowed up by regret and resentment. (Spitefully/flickr)
This article is more than 6 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

Years ago, I met my spouse when we were youngish, in our mid-20s. He had just started a PhD program and I was considering grad school, but our relationship would not likely have survived with the both of us being students. So I continued on a job that eventually turned into a career, and supported his academic endeavors — with the idea that I would pursue a graduate degree later on.

I continued on the career path, though it was not my ideal path, and made what I could with it. Thirteen years later, I am a very proficient professional in my field, and finally did finish that graduate degree a year ago.

We are married, and living in the city that best suits his career. Even though I have a well paid, highly-skilled position, it is not what I had intended to do with my life and I feel that I have "sacrificed" and taken the path of least resistance since his career was so much more difficult and competitive than mine.

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Had we not met, I would have pursued a different graduate degree and different occupation altogether — with more international exposure as I had always hoped for. Now a job has presented itself where I can live abroad. It is unlikely that my husband would want to move with me, because it is not the best for his career. I don't know that I can let go of this opportunity and not feel resentful.

Do I pursue my ideal career, or do I continue along this "nice" little life that we have, deferring to someone else and subduing my own passions?

I know this sounds like regret and it's my life and “I made my bed, so now I ought to lie in it” — but I wonder if regret will ruin us in the end?

Signed,
Living in Doubt

Dear LiD,

I have no idea if regret will ruin you in the end. Only you can answer that.

I do know that your situation is far more complicated than “I made my bed, so now I ought to lie in it.” It sounds like you’ve made considerable sacrifices so that your husband could pursue his dreams. You are now hoping that he will do the same for you. On paper, that sounds eminently reasonable. Unfortunately, we don’t live life on paper. The 3-D version is a lot messier.

The truth is there are hundreds of thousands of spouses, most of them female, who find themselves in some version of your dilemma. As a rule, women are expected to accede to the ambitions of men. It is, as you put it, the “path of least resistance.” But putting aside your own needs can often result in the kind of psychic recoil you’re experiencing.

One obvious question: to what extent have you discussed all this with your husband? Did he sign off on the idea that your deferred career ambitions would be given more priority down the line? Is he aware of, and grateful for, the sacrifices you made? Does he agree with the basic idea that it’s “his turn” to sacrifice for your ambitions? Does he at least support your ambitions?

I ask because ultimately you’re going to have to work this out with him.

Does he know about your overseas offer? I have to assume he doesn’t, otherwise you would have mentioned his reaction. How realistic is it that he’s going to be willing to up and move overseas? If he’s not willing to do so, is there some arrangement you can come to, at least in the short-term? Or is this opportunity so important to you that you’re willing to sacrifice the stability of the marriage?

It sounds as if you’re at a real crossroads here.

the only way to rescue yourself from this state of doubt is to take action.

One curious omission in your letter is any indication of how happy you are in your marriage. (I’m assuming there are no children, too.) Well, how happy are you? Can you imagine a life without your husband? Do you feel that he’s capable of recognizing your ambitions and supporting them, even if it means disrupting his own career?

All of these are complicated questions, and they are accompanied by feelings that you’ve been suppressing for years. You’re not going to hash them out in one sitting. In fact, it sounds to me as if you’re mired in enough doubt and anguish that it would be wise to seek out a good marriage counselor.

I recommend this specifically because one of the unspoken undercurrents of your letter is that you and your husband don’t always communicate about feelings that are complex and troubled. (Join the club!) A good counselor is someone who will impel both of you to say what you need to say — to express your desires and disappointments — in a more controlled setting.

It’s not essential, of course. But it’s what I would do if I were in a situation as precarious as yours.

Look, LiD, you’ve put many years into building this relationship with your husband. You now find yourself feeling the need to pursue your own goals. These two desires are inevitably going to lead to conflicts — both internal and external. But the only way to rescue yourself from this state of doubt is to take action. You have to speak about the feelings you’ve been bottling up, and begin the hard work of figuring out what will make you happiest. And you need your husband to be a part of that process.

I realize I’m not setting out the easiest path. But it’s the only one that will allow you to move forward into your future, rather than remaining mired in the terrible confusions of your present.

Onward, together,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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