Six months ago my husband got a new job. It was a top management position that I thought he really wanted. The application process was very involved and I gave him a lot of help with it. I thought I was being loving and supportive, and that we were working as a team.
Unfortunately, he now hates it. He’s exhausted, overworked, and also bored. Unfortunately he can’t just quit and go back to his old job, it’s already been filled. In our industry, management means a departure from more interesting day-to-day work, which he excelled at. Once you make that switch, that’s it. Moreover, he’d never let anyone down by quitting.
The short version is that he resents me for how unhappy he is. He accused me of pushing him into applying in the first place, and suggested I more or less ruined his career. I think he feels like the life he worked so hard at for years is over now, and it’s all my fault. That he didn’t care about getting the management job and never would have applied if I hadn’t made a big deal about it. Worse, he feels like he has to work non-stop to keep up, and there’s no escape. He has to work most evenings and weekends, and finds it really hard to take a break.
He’s not just being a jerk, he’s the kindest and fairest person I’ve ever met. So I have to believe he really means it. The fact that he only let this slip once makes it more impactful. I don’t know what to do. I genuinely thought I was helping him. I’m ambitious, but the idea that I’m pushy really upsets me. I really did believe I was just being supportive. For context I grew up being called a worthless good-for-nothing, so I’ve always wanted to help my loved ones succeed. I don’t know what to do now.
Hi there, Shark!
Off the bat, I’m noticing a lot of black & white thinking in your letter and your husband’s communications with you about the promotion. This is not strange, given how stressed out he is, but “my life is basically over and it’s all your fault“ is not necessarily the mental space to make big decisions or relationship-defining pronouncements from.
For instance, “Once you make that switch (to management), that’s it” may be a common expectation and practice in your industry, but in reality *lots* of people switch from hands-on, implementation tasks to management careers, discover that they’re not cut out for them, and make the switch back to something they like better. It’s true, your husband can’t immediately revert to his exact former job, but it’s possible in the future he could find something that fits him better than this, either with the same company or elsewhere. He won’t be the first person in the history of jobs and job interviews to say, “You know, I did my best, and I was grateful for the challenge and opportunity to make a difference for my team, but I really miss just [twisting widgets into sockets] and [this widget-socket position] is truly the best fit for my interests. Blah blah here’s why my time as a leader will make me even better at widget-socketing blah blah blah.”
If his own stubbornness or fear about “letting down the team” or capitalism’s insistence that he should want advancement at all costs gets in the way, you can’t control that, but you can both resist the temptation to apply all-or-nothing despair thinking to the situation and challenge it whenever it comes up.
Next, I don’t know how to weigh your husband’s statement blaming you for all of this. If he’s only said it the once, it may have been momentary venting more than permanently affixing blame, but since it’s still bothering you, I can provide some questions you can use to revisit the series of decisions and be honest with yourself about if, where, and when you may have applied unnecessary pressure.
- How did you find out about the promotion at work? Did he bring it to you, like, “I might apply for this, what do you think?” or did you bring it to his attention?
- When you helped with his application, is it because he asked for the help? Did he define the help? Him: “Honey, can you take a look at this thing I’m doing for work, I need an extra set of eyes” vs. You: “Don’t worry, I’ll handle everything!”
- During the lengthy application process, who moved it along? Were you like, “Remember, we’re supposed to work on your job materials tonight?” or did he drive the timing and scope of the work you did together? My mom “helpfully” won a series of elementary school science fairs when she couldn’t resist sprucing up or outright redoing my work, she also helped (actual help) me with college applications and choosing a school in a thousand different ways. Who really put the baking soda in this volcano?
- Your husband is an entire grown adult man, if he didn’t want to apply, he was capable of NOT submitting the application, and perfectly capable of saying “thanks for the promotion but I’ve reconsidered” to his managers, but can you remember him expressing doubts, ambivalence, or “soft” refusals at home during the process of applying? (“Well, if it happens it happens, but I’m pretty happy where I am.” “I’m not sure I’m cut out for this.” “We’ll have to see.” “Eh, don’t get your hopes up.”) If so, how did you understand those, and how did you respond?
- Edited To Add: Shower Thoughts! Sometimes people disguise a “soft” no as self-deprecation, as in, “But you deserve a much better partner than me!” instead of “I want to break up with you.” Or,”I’m not sure I’m cut out for that promotion, they probably won’t pick me” instead of “I don’t think I want that promotion.” The encouraging, helpful, loyal partner sees the self-put-down and immediately goes into reassuring/cheerleading/problem-solving mode, like, “No, you’re the greatest! You can do it!,” which instead of reassuring anybody just frustrates the passive naysayer (“You’re not HEARING ME”) and confuses the fuck out of the encourager (“That’s because you’re not SAYING THE THING”), and both people are kinda right. I don’t think the answer is to second-guess and probe every slightly negative or self-deprecating statement for worst-case scenarios, “I told you I wanted this but I secretly didn’t and you’re ‘pushy’ for not reading my mind” is no way to live, but if you know yourself to be an automatic cheerleader, sometimes interrupting that impulse and slowing down, like, “Wait, what are you saying?” or “Is there something you’re asking for right now?” can stop it from eternally compounding on itself.
I don’t think that your answers to those questions are necessarily about affixing or accepting blame, it’s just, the more self-aware and honest you are, the more authentic the conversations you have next can be. Think: 1) “Husband, maybe you’re right, maybe I did always want this for you more than you did, and I’m sorry I made you feel pressured. What do you want to do now? Is there anything I can do to help, or do you need me to back off?” vs. 2) “Hey, I know you are miserable, but you came to me with this opportunity and you asked me to help. I’m willing to listen, and to assist you in any way you wish to get you out of this mess and back to something that suits you better, but it’s not fair to make me the Fisherman’s Wife.”
Ok, finally, I want to talk about this sentence in your letter: “I’m ambitious, but the idea that I’m pushy really upsets me. I really did believe I was just being supportive. For context I grew up being called a worthless good-for-nothing, so I’ve always wanted to help my loved ones succeed.”
To repeat, I don’t think your husband needs to be trapped in this hated job forever. He has choices about where he takes his own career, he has choices about how he processes his feelings about that, one choice being a talk with his managers about, “Hey, now that I’m in the position, I could use some help and training to be as good at this as you hoped I’d be.”
I also don’t think you created a global pandemic that matches up almost perfectly with when his promotion started and when it started sucking, nor did you invent corporate learning curves, corporate pressures, and corporate assumptions that being great at one thing automatically makes one instantly great at everything. Managing people and navigating management structures are distinct skillsets that they don’t teach at Code Academy.
That said, I think this rift in your marriage and question of your ambition is giving you useful information about what to do next. Acting out “I just want to help” assumptions based on your own issues about worthiness doesn’t make you a bad person – and, again, to be clear, it doesn’t make it true that this is somehow all your fault – but “I was only trying to help” is one of those factors that increase the chance that excellent intentions will meet messy outcomes. In that context, no matter what happens with your husband’s job, you have a chance to 1) Rethink and reset some boundaries about how the two of you mix work and love, 2) Take all that ambition and desire to see people succeed and pour it into your career from now on, and 3) Consider the marital career-center closed, unless or until your husband asks for help, with words, and spells out exactly what kind of help and how much.
I hope this helps you find some perspective and peace, and if your husband is beating himself up for not immediately being the World’s Most Happy & Functional Boss “in (plinking piano) these uncertain times (plink plink plink)” I hope he stops that and tells a therapist or something. ❤