I'm the academic wife, jealous and insecure

I'm regarded as inferior by my husband's admirers. I'm afraid I'll lose him to a brilliant and beautiful student.

Published January 18, 2006 11:26AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I recently married a man I love more than anything. We are on the whole very happy together, but lately I've become incredibly jealous and unhappy. The problem is twofold really. Five years ago I moved abroad to be with this man, quitting my job, leaving my friends and family to follow someone I was convinced would someday be my husband. However, throughout our relationship I've periodically felt that I've been the one to make sacrifices from which he has benefited completely and I have benefited by keeping him. Recently I've felt this acutely. He is a successful, gregarious, charming and highly intelligent academic and just got a very prestigious job at a top university. He has fulfilled his ultimate ambition.

I also wanted to be an academic but my work was not good enough to allow me to carry on to do a Ph.D., and although I was very successful academically at university in the U.S., I had a nightmarish time finishing my master's degree in Europe because I wasn't used to the independence of the European system. To some degree I resent my husband for choosing to come to Europe to finish his graduate work (we had planned to stay in the U.S. but he changed his mind at the last minute), because part of me thinks that I could have been much more successful in the American system where you are taught for the first two years. Perhaps I needed more training and would have succeeded.

Another strain is that his college life has now become our social milieu and we usually spend most of our social time with other academics. He is constantly praised for his intelligence and charm, and in all honesty it makes me jealous and makes me feel that I am unworthy of him. For example, one of his supervisors said, "I don't want to meet your wife because she won't be worthy of you." And another said to me, "With your husband's intelligence and charm he's going to be a magnet for the undergraduate women."

I am a publisher now, and I feel that the academics we spend time with admire my husband and engage with his work, and see me as just the wife. I feel resentful and very nostalgic for the time I spent with my non-academic girlfriends who thought I was great and loved talking and spending time with me. I am beginning to hate going out to these academic engagements. It is distancing me from my husband, who generally loves these kinds of things; spending time with academics is one of his greatest joys. He's beginning to see me as someone who prevents him from making friends and exploring university life.

Furthermore in this climate, I am also terrified that my husband will leave me for either one of his students or one of his colleagues who better shares his interests. My husband places the highest premium on intelligence, and I just feel that there are so many other women he knows who are more worthy of his attention. I write today because I just read a terrifying report : Men working as university lecturers are 80 percent more likely to divorce their wives because of their daily interaction with young, beautiful and intelligent women students. Have I made a horrendous mistake, moving to another country, sacrificing my friends and family, my ambitions and hoped-for career, all to be with this man who, statistically, will most likely leave me?

I want to emphasize how much I love this man. He is extraordinarily understanding and loving toward me. I feel that I will die if he leaves me, and every day I feel that he will. How can I stop introducing fear and suspicion into our relationship, potentially sabotaging it?

Please, please help. I can't talk to anyone about this.

The Academic's Wife

Dear Academic's Wife,

I think you have placed yourself too much in your husband's power. You need to begin now a long-term project of reestablishing yourself as an individual independent of him. In order to do this, you must identify what you love -- the tangible activities, the situations, the images, the places, the sounds, the animals and plants.

Go back over your last 10 years and try to find those times when you were happy, the flashes of joy, the moments of contentment, the periods of life ranging from a week to several months or a year, where you felt most fulfilled and alive. What were you doing then? Were you doing academic work? Were you with your women friends? Were you helping someone else do something? Were you standing in the reflected light of your husband? Was it a family gathering? Were you delivering a paper or working alone in a room?

Concentrate on yourself, not your husband; concentrate on those things that have pleased you in the past, not those things that you think might please you, or that you think ought to please you if only you were the virtuous and splendid person you think you ought to be.

Write these things down. Make these things concrete. Allow yourself to long for these things. Remember the feelings. Let these feelings take residence. Encourage them; make room for them; cultivate them. Do this over a period of several weeks.

Meanwhile, as you go about your daily life, find some still point within yourself from which you radiate outward. When you go to a party with your husband, wish for nothing and ask for nothing. Be kind but secretly assess your feelings; ask yourself about these people -- who they are, what they want of you, what you want of them; are there certain ones that you like and would like to talk to, and others whom you despise, or in whom you have no interest? Talk to the ones who interest you and ignore the rest. Watch what goes on around you. Take note of who is kind to you and who looks right through you on their way to someone swankier and richer and higher on the org chart.

Learn this. This is the way the world is. Come to know this. This is the system of which you have allowed yourself to become a victim. This is the vicious system of status and appearances, of high school for grown-ups, of ever-shifting cliques and roving packs. This is the system of social hunger that rules the planet. Keep looking at this until everything has parted like a curtain and you bump into the emptiness at the bottom, until the laughter and smiles have evaporated and the frisson of excitement has left you and only the faintest whiff of champagne and cigars still hangs in the air and finally there is nothing there, nothing. At the bottom is simply emptiness.

Keep holding yourself apart until the emptiness becomes like a giant room of silence. When you are comfortable in that giant room of silence tap yourself on the chest and ask what is left.

All that's left is you. What you've got then is all you have to go on, but it is enough. Walk out of the room and regard your husband in this cold new light. Does he love you really? Does he worship you? Would he leave all this for you if you asked him, or is he entranced by it all? Are you his companion on the journey or the vehicle he has chosen to ride? Are you the center of his life or just a decoration, the centerpiece for his table?

Nevermind what happens if you lose him. You seem to intuit that you are going to lose him anyway. What's worse is if you lose yourself. You have almost lost yourself already.

So start by regaining who you are, and move on from there.

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