I'm holding my husband hostage to his job

His work life is killing him but I feel we need the income

Published June 27, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

Hi Cary,

Welcome back. We missed you.

Yesterday, my daughter suggested I write to you for advice, so this morning I am doing exactly that. I need a lyrical yet sane voice to guide me.

I'm afraid you'll tell me I'm selfish and domineering, but if you find me so, please do tell.

My husband of 10 years (we're in our early 50s) and I have followed similar life paths. We both married as teenagers, raised families in our 20s, got divorced and went to college in our 30s. I continued after my bachelor's degree and earned a graduate degree. We reinvented ourselves at midlife, became professionals, found each other, married, and began to build a very middle-class life together, complete with the house in the suburbs and the annual trip to Europe. Our combined salaries make our lifestyle enviable, no money problems, no worries. After decades of being young parents with cars that broke down weekly and not enough money to pay all the bills every month, it's been amazing and I've been grateful every day that my life turned out this way.

However, my husband I are both creative people, people who have successfully reinvented ourselves and continue to do so in many ways. I have had a major creative breakthrough this year and am enjoying artistic success that is beyond any hope I had for my life. Everything is peachy for me.

But not so great for my husband. He earns a great salary for sitting in a cubicle. But it is killing him daily. He has an easy, unchallenging job, but it is a job where he is not using any of his numerous gifts. Remember, he's a guy who thinks outside the box, a guy who raised three kids and worked in a warehouse 40 hours a week while he commuted to a state university to earn his B.A. He is the most creative guy I've ever met. It's not possible for him to climb the ladder in his current workplace. His younger boss and colleagues have plugged him into his boring little job and they do the things he could do better. He is miserable.

And it's not because he wants a different job. He is tired of earning money for the man. He has his own ideas, good ones, but risky ones. In short, my husband wants to quit his job and become an entrepreneur. He wants to live on our savings (not extensive, a year or maybe two of replacing his salary) and take the plunge of earning real money and preparing for a decent retirement. He's right that it's not looking good for us in 13 years. I am earning a pension, but he is not. Who knows about Social Security payments by then? And as comfortable as we are now, it's because we have decent paychecks coming in every month.

We've been fighting about this for nearly three years. He won't quit without my blessing and I am loath to give it. He earns more than I. If his business doesn't work, how will he find another job in this economy at his age? If he was lucky enough to find a new job, it would be entry level at half or less his current salary. And our retirement prospects will be bleaker than ever.

I don't want him to be miserable, to be a Bartleby, but I don't love my job either and I would never quit it. Security means everything to me. I know you will see easily that my need for security trumps my desire for my husband to be fulfilled.

But why should a job ever bring fulfillment? It's a necessary evil. It's not our real life. It's what we do to survive and life begins after hours. Right?

Or terribly wrong? And selfish?


Dear Conflicted,

Your husband's job is killing him and yet you are loath to permit him to leave it. You have been fighting about this for three years.

What is going on?

You need to find out.

If given the choice in a free and fearless environment, you would not force the man you love to suffer a meaningless existence and waste his life, would you?

There must be some powerful force at work.

My guess is that it has something to do with your need for security. It seems as though your need for security is driving you to act against your own true values.

Briefly put, you are going to have to find security within yourself. Until you do, you will hold this man hostage. You will have to. You will have no choice. As long as you feel that your survival is at stake, you will not be able to loosen your grip. The thing about such powerful drives, though, is that we often cannot locate them and work through them on our own. The reason is simple: They are invisible to us for a vital reason. We have made adjustments and decisions for our very survival, at an earlier time, and they are now locked away. These decisions appear to us as facts. We cannot, on our own, see how they are illusions, the result of our reaction to past threats to our survival. We think these beliefs are facts. So you may need the help of a supportive witness who can guide you in finding out just what vital survival fears are driving you.

I also suggest you get a couple of books, "Your Money or Your Life," and also "The Lifelong Activist." These books can help you take a good, smart look at how you are living and suggest ways to create security while living in closer keeping with your core values.

They can help you figure out how to create security by letting go. Create security by letting go. What an idea. By letting go of what you think you need, by facing the fact of our fundamental groundlessness, by committing to embrace the future whatever it brings, you can bring some calm and security to your life.

Then you can begin to look at how you are treating your husband. You have to find a way to feel safe no matter what happens.

Job security is not security. Clinging to your job will not ensure that you keep it. In fact, his job does not sound secure at all. His job does not sound secure because what he is doing can be done by others. So I urge you to let go of the notion that his job offers security.

Let me say a little bit about your relationship. You came together after you each had raised some kids; you came together as two free individuals. You are not bound by the need to sacrifice your own dreams for children. You have already raised your children and made those sacrifices.

My guess is that those early years were very difficult and painful, and that you live in fear of repeating them. Those years are in the past. You could not repeat them even if you wanted to. That time is gone. You are OK today.

Yet some kind of transference, or codependency seems to have occurred in which you have allowed yourself to believe that your security depends on your husband. You have allowed yourself to act as though you are dependent on him. You are not. You are capable of taking care of yourself.

Yet because you do not feel fundamentally secure in yourself, you and he are working yourselves to death to provide yourselves with luxuries the chief function of which is to distract you from your insecurity.

Luxuries provide a false sense of security. If your life requires regular infusions of luxury because you feel fundamentally unsafe, if you cannot feel relaxed and comfortable wherever you are and however your circumstances change, then you are a slave to your own fears. You are a slave who must maintain a lifestyle of outsize consumption to meet symbolic and outsize needs.

So after you identify the forces of fear that are driving you, perhaps you can make some changes that enhance your security while at the same time giving you and your husband more freedom. Security and freedom, or right living, do not need to be opposites. You do not have to give up security to pursue your dreams. Actually, the two work together.

One way in which security and freedom are very close is that freedom from need creates security. The less you need to live happily, the more secure you are. The fewer sacrifices you need to make. The less can be taken away from you. The harder it is for fate to plunge you into misery.

I think your husband basically has the right idea. But quitting abruptly and plunging into the unknown right now may not be the best way. I suggest something gradual -- a gradual transition. Perhaps he can take some vacation time and use it to research his idea and begin writing a business plan. Writing a business plan will force him to examine every detail and every assumption. Examining his assumptions will create a foundation for assessing risks. It will force him to identify his customers, see how many they are and how much money they spend on what he plans to sell.

Right now, he is a desperate man. A desperate man does not plan well. In his desperation to leave his stultifying job he has probably fantasized a little, amplifying the upside and evading the downside. Perhaps, while you still have a good cash flow, you could hire a business consultant to help you evaluate his ideas.

Having cash flow from a job is useful, but its security is illusory. "Your Money or Your Life" will show you how to calculate how much money your job is costing you. Jobs are very expensive! Jobs require you to buy clothes to dress a certain way and drive a certain car. They require you to eat mediocre food at overpriced restaurants. They require you to drive here and there. You must maintain cars and maintain insurance. Commuting jobs exact a toll on the environment as well. And they take a toll on you personally. Doing a job you hate raises your stress level and can contribute to depression.

So, to sum up, rather than fight about the particular question of whether he should quit his job, I suggest that you and he commit to a courageous inquiry into the meaning and the substance of security. This means finding those ways in which you feel insecure and examining them. It also means making concrete the ways in which he figures to create this business of his.

I urge you to go in this direction but go slowly and carefully.

Have courage. Life is uncertain. There is no security but in the moment.

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By Cary Tennis

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