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Heavy Meddle: How Do I Change My So-Called Life?

A middle aged woman feels stuck in an unhappy marriage and job, but fears abandoning either. (Mario Azzi/Unsplash)
A middle aged woman feels stuck in an unhappy marriage and job, but fears abandoning either. (Mario Azzi/Unsplash)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

Now that I am in my mid-50s, I feel more stuck than ever before.

I am married to an alcoholic. In the 22 years we’ve been together, D. has had periods of sobriety, but he always manages to find his way back to the bottle. We have college-aged children together, and our financial security is very much intertwined. Further complicating matters is that I love him as a person, and I feel responsible for him. On the one hand, I feel like it’s time to assert myself and put my own happiness first. But on the other, I know leaving him would make me feel like a terrible person.

I am so terrified of making major life changes, but at the same time I feel more unfulfilled than ever before.

And then there’s my job, which I feel completely ambivalent about. My lack of professional passion has been wearing me down emotionally and physically for some five years. I reason that if I can just hold out for ten more years, then I can retire with a good nest egg. But I also can’t imagine sticking it out for another decade!

I am so terrified of making major life changes, but at the same time I feel more unfulfilled than ever before. How do I know when it’s time to let go, and move on?

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

Your question really strikes at the heart of a fundamental human dilemma: how do we make change in our lives? It’s easy enough, after all, for other people to recommend change on our behalf. They can simply quote your words back to you:

I can’t imagine sticking it out for another decade!

I feel more unfulfilled than ever.

But identifying your own discontent is the smallest part of the process. What matters here is your willingness to disrupt your life and to live, for a time, in a state of disequilibrium. Human beings, it turns out, can’t stand disequilibrium. Our basic operating system is designed, therefore, to keep us from making the sort of changes you’re describing. So many of the letters I receive boil down to some version of the same dilemma.

So I’m not going to patronize you with a self-empowerment pep talk. I think the best thing you can do right now — if you aren’t doing this already — is to talk to a good therapist, someone who can gently compel you talk through the risks and rewards of the changes you’re considering.

More fundamentally, a therapist would force you to consider the question lurking beneath your letter, which is why you’ve consented to a marriage, and a job, in which your happiness comes second.

Again, I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this question. The truth is, you love your husband and extricating yourself from your marriage would create a certain measure of hardship. So would leaving your job. The real question is whether you’re willing to leave the security of an unhappy and compromised present for an uncertain future. It matters, as well, that you’ve reached an age at which our cultural prejudices — both explicit and implicit — suggest that you’re done exploring. You should be “settled” by now.

The real change that needs to occur is within you, and it resides in your accepting the very real risk that comes with seeking a new life.

Yeah, right.

Two things that might help in the short term. The first is to confess to your husband. Marriage isn’t social work, after all. It’s unfair to yourself, and even to him, to stick around in a marriage simply out of duty. He should know that his alcoholism — and his backsliding — has eroded your respect for him, and your pleasure in the marriage. You’ve been sitting alone with this truth for a long time. It’s time for him to share that burden.

The second thing is to think about professional opportunities that excite you and to start exploring what paths might lead to those opportunities. Don’t just sit pat. This is one of the ways that people start to create change: they conduct a self-inventory and they start devote their energy to creating a new future, rather than wallowing in a soul-crushing present.

As I say, none of this is easy. Your marriage and your work are core aspects of your identity. But they are also deeply stifling. The real change that needs to occur is within you, and it resides in your accepting the very real risk that comes with seeking a new life.

Onward, together,
Steve

Author's note: I’m so curious to hear from readers who are in Stuck’s proximate age range, and who have chosen to make the kind of radical changes she’s considering. Please send them along in the comments section below. And feel free to send a more detailed letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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