My husband is too creative to work

We're going bankrupt and losing our house because he refuses to take a job.

Published April 28, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been married for over 20 years. He's an interesting, creative, intelligent, funny person who everyone loves and we've had a good marriage -- rocky at times but always loving and fun, even exciting -- and we've raised a smart, talented kid whom we're very close to and proud of. We both feel an incredibly strong bond and attraction to each other and have since the first day we met. The problem is he doesn't work much, and over the years I've slowly become the principal breadwinner by default. His job is in a creative field, as is mine, only I can go on staff and earn a salary and he's an independent contractor.

As talented and creative as he is, he has never made enough money to support himself, let alone our family. I've hung in there hoping he would finally "break in" or "make it," but he's still working toward this amorphous and seemingly unattainable career that just never happens. Don't get me wrong -- he works like a dog doing freebies and below-the-line work to meet people, network and make connections -- but he refuses to take a job just for the money in fear that a "real" job will come up and he won't be available. Since he only works about three weeks a year, a job wouldn't get in the way. But when I try to talk to him about it he gets angry and defensive. I lost my job last year, and even this hasn't seemed to light a fire under him to try to get work. So we've been living on my unemployment -- not easy with three people.

We're losing our house, our savings is gone and we've filed for bankruptcy. My unemployment is ending in two months and I keep reminding him, hoping he'll start looking outside the box, but it's like he's paralyzed. I know it's bad out there, but what others are going through right now I've been going through for the last 15 years. (He worked at the beginning of our marriage for a while.) I'm starting to think I'm a crazy enabler who should have left him years ago. But the good stuff has always outweighed the bad -- until recently. I'm exhausted and defeated. Sometimes I can't even get out of bed, yet there is something holding me back from ending this relationship. I've always believed you stick by the people you love and am loyal to a fault. And letting money get in the way of love and family seems so ugly to me. But I have lost everything and can't help wondering if things would have been different if he had helped out. We'll have to leave our house in a few months, so it seems like the perfect time to leave him. There's nothing  left to split and we could go our separate ways, yet I feel like a terrible, disloyal person running out on my family when times are tough. I'm so confused.

Bankrupted by Love

Dear Bankrupted by Love,

I personally relate to much of what you say. I, too, was raised to believe that creative people need our undying support because they are not capable of handling life on their own. I have at times played the part that your husband is playing -- the part of the hopeless creative, needing to be cared for by a mother figure. I have also played the part of the loyal martyr caring for a hopeless creative. I have the potential to be both the martyr and the caretaker. You probably do, too. In fact, as a fellow artist, you may identify with your husband's ambivalence about extracting his price from the world, and making the compromises and hard sacrifices that survival requires.

Oh, I relate to this quite well, believe me. And over the years I have sought help wherever I could find it -- including private therapy, consultants and the 12-step program known as Debtors Anonymous. All these resources have been helpful.

But you need to act fast. Unless you have other resources that you do not mention, you may soon be homeless. So  you need to decide, today, if you honestly believe your husband is going to change. If your loss of job and impending loss of unemployment income have not shocked him into action, if the impending loss of your house has not shocked him into action, then he may be insensate to calamity. He may be incapable of acknowledging what is happening. In fact, he may have certain characteristics of the narcissistic personality.

How can you find out? One joint session with a skilled therapist might be enough to determine if your husband does have these traits. Such people truly do not seem to grasp the effect they have on others -- or if they grasp it, they do not act on it. They go on, seeing only to their own needs, even if it is evident to everyone else that their actions are harming people. You cannot make deals with them because they will change the terms. You cannot rely on them because something else may come up. They will revert to meeting their own needs as soon as you turn your back. If this sounds like your husband, then you may really need to cut him loose. Hanging on to him would be like hanging on to an anvil dropping to the bottom of the sea.

He may need someone to care for him. But you are not in a position to care for him. You must take care of yourself and your child.

So make the call. Consider your situation desperate; consider it an emergency, and act accordingly.

Whatever you decide short-term, here is the long-term thing: For years, you have sacrificed your own life energy to keep this other artist alive. I suggest now that you begin examining the patterns, the rules, the assumptions underlying your ongoing sacrifice.

You can find the strength to get through this. Whatever emotion has been driving you, you can use it to your benefit. If it is fear, then you can use that fear to respond to the actual threat. The possibility that he might leave you is an emotional threat. But the actual threat involves survival: the possibility of real, enduring, grinding poverty and homelessness.

The will to survive is a great gift. It contains boundless energy. Once we can admit to ourselves that our very survival is threatened, we can find the strength to do anything. If you can actually confront the possibility that you will be unhoused, adrift, hungry, impoverished ... in that realistic fear you can find the strength to do what has to be done.

Money and creativity? Yep, there's stuff in here about that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coupling Economics Since You Asked U.s. Economy