My husband supported me in my art -- should I now support him?

I'm not the only creative one in the marriage; I feel bad that he works a day job.

Published January 5, 2009 11:10AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Several years ago, I did what a lot of people just dream about: I got to begin, and sustain, a career as a writer. I worked hard; I'd climbed out of a stifling marriage with a young child in tow and recognized that my midlife crisis wasn't going to be about a convertible or an ashram. It was never about the money (anyone who writes knows that already; note to everyone else: It can't be about the money), but I had responsibilities to my daughter that made total freedom to chase the dream ridiculous.

So, how did it come about? I met a lovely man a couple of years after the divorce. We are compatible; my daughter adores him; he is kind. He, too, was at a crossroads in his working life, and together we navigated a direction for him to become financially stable. I financially supported him through that time (several years) in my previous soul-sucking-but-sound job. When that was accomplished, I took my turn. I couldn't have done it without him.

The problem? He too is an artist. He's very good. He too has dreams. He works at his stable, unionized job (no, not the auto industry), which has great benefits and a pension. He worked hard to get there; but it's not what he craves. My question? Do I owe him the same chance that I got? I don't earn enough for him to quit his job. And in this economic climate, that would be crazy, whether he was with me or not.

He doesn't complain and is proud of my accomplishments. I have encouraged him to work on his art in his down time -- which he instead uses to mostly watch TV or play games. I worry he's lost his ambition, while I'm recognizing mine. I work very hard in a very tight industry. I guess I don't know if he just doesn't have the ambition, or if I'm an albatross around his neck.

Do I have a debt here?

Dear Possible Debtor,

You ask if you have a debt here. Apparently you feel a debt. You are uncomfortable. But do you owe a debt? I do not think so, just based on what you have said. What is given in love is freely given, and no one can go into debt by receiving what is freely given.

But you would like to see your husband pursue his art. You worry that you are in some way responsible for his success or failure. It bothers you that he does not use his time off work to pursue it. You worry that you are a burden.

What are you feeling, exactly? Are you mistaking gratitude for indebtedness? With gratitude comes a desire to repay. We do say things out of gratitude; we imagine repaying the favor. In doing so, we sometimes create indebtedness where before there was only gratitude. Sometimes we do this because, on a deeper level, we are unable to truly receive. We are controlling what comes our way; we rob an individual of the power to give. We take what is given as if it were a loan.

That is somewhat theoretical and idealistic. In marriage we also make deals. It is possible that, explicit or not, you and he have some sort of understanding. That is what you need to figure out: not whether you feel indebted, but whether you and he had some agreement.

Did you say to him at some point, "One day I will repay the favor"?

It's possible that you did.

What has passed between you? Is there something lurking underneath, some expectation that could turn to grinding resentment if not acknowledged? And what of the creative urge itself? That alone, if not answered, can turn sour.

Whether you "owe" him or not, there are things you can do. You can help him enroll in some classes or workshops. You could perhaps get him a workshop session as a gift.

But despite all that, in the matter of creativity, whatever debt is owed to his creative self only he can pay. Only he can nurture his own creative self. If he is wasting it or squandering it or strangling it or ignoring its calls, he can be nudged toward it, or put in a position to hear it, but he is going to have to do the nurturing. Let's hope he does.

It is hard to conjure up inspiration in our art after working a job all day. But a workshop can at least put him in touch with his materials. Often that is all that is needed to stimulate creativity. We sometimes think that a feeling of inspiration should precede our activity, but it works the other way. Sit down and begin playing notes and you may soon be making up a song. Sit down and start putting words on paper, or typing them on the screen. Soon the words will add up; a verbal artifact will take shape.

Witness this moment: Having dithered all week, I finally, on deadline, sit down and finish something.

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What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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