We moved, and now my husband is miserable

My daughter is happy, and I'm doing well, but my husband hates it here, and I don't know what to do.

Published November 27, 2007 10:36AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been married for eight years, both second marriages. When we got married, neither of us was making much money, but we had been dating for three years and had shared interests in outdoor sports, politics and music. We were from the same geographic region, had the same cultural background, got along well, and were good friends. I had gone through severe economic trauma in my first marriage (bankruptcy brought about from the divorce and the disintegration of our shared assets) and had lost my home to foreclosure. I had one daughter from my first marriage, which had lasted 13 years. My current husband had been married two years before his divorce, had no children and no real baggage to speak of.

Neither one of us is materially inclined or a workaholic type. However, after the wedding, I got a job at a new company and began to focus on building myself a career out of sheer necessity -- my first husband provided child support for our daughter, but it would be gone soon. I began to move up at the company and three years ago I was offered a job a few hours north of where we lived, at another office that had just begun to grow. Housing prices were more affordable in this area and there were colleges nearby my daughter could attend. My husband and I discussed it and decided to move. Since I'm the primary wage earner and my husband had been working a series of blue-collar desk jobs in different industries, we both knew my husband would have to find another job, and that it might be tough because the area we were moving to was more rural than where we were currently living (which happened to be the county we were both born and raised in, so we had some friends and family we would be leaving). We moved, my husband found a job that was a step down from what he had been doing before but which was enough to pay the bills, we bought a house, and we settled in the area.

Fast-forward to now, three years after the move. I love my job and have received substantial raises since I started at the new office. I am adjusting to the area, which is beautiful but more rural than what I'm used to. My daughter has friends, loves the local college and is getting ready to transfer to a U.C. up north. We own a modest but charming little house and have many pets and a garden.

The problem is my husband: He hates it here. He got another job last year and has received two promotions and salary increases where he is working, but he still hates it. He complains constantly about our lives, which both depresses and frustrates me because he is constantly focused on the "glass half-empty," for lack of a better metaphor. He complains about the "bubbas," the yokels, the truck- and SUV-driving conservatives; the trails, which aren't as steep or as long and challenging as he likes; but mostly he complains about the lack of jobs and prospects in the area, and about the job he has, which he cannot stand (managing a customer service department).

I vacillate between empathizing and encouraging him, getting depressed, and then just getting angry because I feel that if he just worked a little harder, finished up school (he is desultorily taking night classes here and there) or chose a tech program somewhere, or just decided on a new path of some sort, he could make it work here for us. Not only that, but he has never really liked any of the jobs he's had very much, possibly because he is an underachiever who settles for less than he is able to pull off -- sort of a fear of failure, or of achievement, maybe. Either that, or he is just not particularly ambitious. I don't want to judge him for that because he is a good guy, and not everyone is the gung-ho career type. Even so, no matter how many times I've tried to talk to him, nothing has changed from this situation in the last three years -- really it's gone on in some shape or form since I first knew him. It's just that now, it's worse, I think because he is getting older and is more unhappy about the situation. Being outdoors, riding his bike, fishing, climbing, etc., are not the big focus and distraction they used to be.

It's getting to the point that he is so unhappy, he comes home and hardly speaks to me some days. I am beginning to wonder if I have no choice but to give up my job and sell our house (we'd lose money in the current market) and move back to a region where there is more opportunity for him, more people of his sort, bigger mountains, and whatever else he needs to be happy. I suspect that if I did this we'd be financially screwed, because I make twice what he makes, am the more career-oriented person, and I would probably resent him for forcing me into that decision. Then again, when he is this unhappy, it's hard for me to be happy with my own achievements and with what we have now.

I don't want a divorce, I don't want to suffer emotional and financial chaos, and I really don't want to lose my husband, my house or this job. I don't think he wants me to either. But I really do not know if he can be happy here over the long term. Sometimes I think he's almost willing to walk out on us, just so that he doesn't have to go in every day and answer phones and e-mails from people wanting their "stuff." He has been looking for another job for the last six months, but everything is either far below his skills, current pay and abilities, or very specialized, degree-specific and out of his reach.

I'm at the point in my life where I would like to settle down and establish new roots. I am happy here and he is miserable about 80 percent of the time. I honestly don't know if he and I can pull this off. Please tell me what to do.

Wife of Unhappy Husband

Dear Wife of Unhappy Husband,

I can't really tell you what to do. But perhaps I can help you understand what your husband is experiencing.

I have been through something very similar. Let me see if I can tell it in a nutshell.

My wife and I, although we are creative types and like a sort of bohemian, low-key lifestyle, found, in the mid-1990s, that we needed a basic level of safety and security that was not obtainable living as tenants in our bohemian San Francisco neighborhood, full of gunfire and violence, poverty and despair, gang activity, and racial and ethnic hatred.

So we made a series of decisions aimed at gaining more safety and security in our daily lives. These decisions took us out of our neighborhood of affinity and out of our natural working milieu. As a consequence, trying to do the middle-class thing, we went through some pretty miserable years. True, we were safe. We could walk down the streets without dodging bullets. We had a place of our own. We were still in San Francisco. But we had jobs that drained us and we were socially isolated. We were exhausted by our work and I personally felt spiritually empty and aesthetically deprived.

I do not believe that such conditions are entirely an accident. It's the kind of country we live in. If you are a little marginal, if you are alternative, if you are not a business go-getter, you are in peril. There's no safety net. There's no guaranteed income, no national healthcare. You either play the game, and play hard, or you face true economic chaos and uncertainty.

We may be creative but we are also rational. We realized we had to make some hard, practical decisions, and, being reasonable people, we did so. But such practical, reasonable decisions can lead to a desolate frustration of seemingly insoluble dimensions. We wake up and see, well, yes, we made some practical decisions, but now look! Where are we? What kind of life is this?

I identify with your husband, who wants better than he has, who wants the world to be a certain way, who has made some changes out of love for you but did not recognize how hard it would be to adjust.

I know also that to some I will sound spoiled. As it ended up, I put in some really desolate years at a corporation, and then landed at Salon, survived the dot.com crash, and here I am, out in the house all by myself, writing my column every day, la-di-da.

Still I'm discontented! Big surprise? Well, lucky as I am to be doing this work, and grateful as I am, I am still a hungry, restless person. So, needing new challenges, needing drama, needing to act, to transform, to create, I decided to borrow on the equity in the house and remodel the place! Yay!

That's a whole long story in itself.

Let it suffice to say, for our purposes, that when the dust cleared and we saw how much we owed, I realized once again, Wow, I'm really in trouble now! I promised to protect my wife and bring her safety and stability! And what have I done! I've put our future in peril! I'm in big trouble!

As a result, well, I got creative again. Now we have two businesses running in the house, a publishing business and a writing workshop business. The businesses were created in response to the economic situation. But they also grew organically out of what we had created. That is, I was vaguely aware what you're supposed to do with capital is create value. So I thought, OK, if I take equity capital to create value, there should be some reward down the line somewhere.

Indeed, we created higher market value. But by then the market had cooled. It was not a good time to sell. But we also created greater utility. The house was a far more useful place. So I thought, Wow, our living room sure is beautiful now, I'll bet it would be a great place to host a writing workshop! And we've created all this space downstairs now, I'll bet we could operate a mail order book business down there! And in turn -- and this is the unexpected spiritual gift from all this -- the business has rooted us in our house and our neighborhood; it has given the house a creative center of gravity.

Like me, in his isolation and restless unhappiness, your husband may do some crazy things in the months to come. He may start drilling for oil in the yard. He may decide to build a windmill. He may find some strange pals who remind him of his strange pals back home. I hope he does.

What he needs to survive this period, well, he's going to have to look around at his available materials and fashion some kind of life that's maybe not as good and true as the one he had, or as perfect as the one he dreams of, but one that will fulfill some of his needs, siphon off some of his restless energy and keep him from going crazy and wrecking everything.

He may well benefit from talking to a therapist, who could help him fashion some interim solutions to help get through this. But he didn't ask for my advice, you did. I can't be advising you to advise him of anything. I'm just trying to give you an idea of what he's going through.

So good luck to you. I hope your husband is able to get through this -- for your sake, for your daughter's sake, and for the sake of the neighbors!

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