"My husband is an engineer who hasn't worked in forever, and I'm fed up," said Lisa, 47, who runs an employee-assistance program for a big corporation. "I earn a good salary, but after taxes and health insurance are deducted there's not a lot left. We've fallen behind on our bills and to pay them we've had to borrow against our retirement savings — what's left of them, that is. Like everyone else we've been hit hard by the recession. It's time Ted got serious about finding a job — any job. I'm so mad at him I can't see straight, and the last thing I want is to have sex with him. I can't even remember our last civil conversation much less the last time we saw a movie together.
"We got married 11 years ago. It was Ted's first marriage and my second. He worked in telecommunications and three years ago his company reorganized and transferred his job to Connecticut. We didn't want to move or have a commuter marriage, so Ted took a year's salary as severance. We agreed he should take six months off to regroup. Six months turned into a year, at which point he decided he'd only work for an environmentally friendly company. Well, in this economy no one can be that choosy! When I suggest consulting or teaching at a local college or even working part-time at a sales job — anything to get us out of this crisis — he says it's too much effort for too little money. Instead he volunteers for nonprofit groups that advocate for renewable energy. Yes, it's important work, but it doesn't pay the bills.
"I've been working hard for a long time and I'm tired. I spent most of my childhood trying to cheer my mom up during my dad's frequent bouts of depression. He was a frustrated artist who had to settle for a teaching career, and when my two much-older sisters went off to college Mom leaned on me for support. I remember feeling sad a lot of the time.
"I finally found happiness at 23, when I fell in love with Jim, my first husband. He taught English at the school where I was a guidance counselor. When his ex-wife remarried and moved away soon after our wedding, we got custody of their three kids, Jill, 10, Robin, 5, and John, 4, whom I love as my own. I got pregnant right away with Kim, who's now 22. We had trouble making ends meet, so I took a higher-paying corporate job. A few days after our sixth wedding anniversary Jim was killed in a car accident. I was devastated and couldn't bear the thought of losing not only him but also three of my children. So Jim's ex and I worked out a custody arrangement that kept her three with me during the week but let them spend weekends with her.
"As a young widow I dated a little but mostly socialized with one of my coworkers, Maureen. Her brother, Ted, would visit on breaks from graduate school. He was smart and funny but I couldn't imagine a 30-year-old engineering student being interested in a 31-year-old widow with four kids. Four years later, when Ted finished his PhD and found a job in our area, he asked me out. We fell in love fast, spending hours talking about politics, movies, and work.
"Ted has been a wonderful stepfather to my children — never begrudging them anything, even when I've overindulged them. And I have: Over the past few years we've paid for Jill and Robin's weddings, put Kim through college, and bought John a car. Two years ago our real-estate taxes went up, so we had to tap our retirement. Ted even asked his 83-year-old father for help. How embarrassing is that?
"Ted insists he loves me but doesn't seem to care that I'm carrying all the financial burdens. I'm sick of it, and I'm sick of hounding him to do what's right. 'I'll get a job, but I'll do it my way,' he says. Well, his way isn't working."
"I don't blame Lisa for being mad that I'm out of work," said Ted, 46. "I understand her anxiety. We need two salaries to maintain our lifestyle and to save for retirement. We should have cut our spending. Instead we gave our adult children handouts without really considering the impact on our finances.
"I'm not the slacker my wife makes me out to be. Yes, I took time off after being downsized. But I was exhausted from years of 70-hour workweeks. During my break I've done a slew of home-improvement projects that Lisa never gives me credit for. And I've looked for all kinds of engineering jobs, and not just in alternative energy. I blame my unemployment on the hiring slowdown in this terrible economy and on age discrimination. My field is dominated by kids, and I'm a dinosaur in their eyes.
"Lisa thinks I spend too much time volunteering, but I'm passionate about the environment. And when I'm doing projects I believe in I'm expanding my network and keeping my spirits up. I'm more likely to meet someone in the energy field by volunteering than by getting a part-time retail job. That's a short-term solution to pay off some bills — not the path out of debt and to a solid retirement. For all that I need a decent-paying professional job and a flexible schedule to get one. How can I go on interviews if I'm stuck at a minimum-wage job? I'd rather ask my dad for what he calls an 'advance on my inheritance' while I continue to job hunt. A few months ago Lisa pestered me so much that I finally applied for an adjunct teaching position at a local community college. I never even got an interview although I called the dean to confirm that my application had arrived — twice.
"I've always marched to my own drummer, just like my dad, a stockbroker who made a lot of money, burned out, and quit at 52. He did some consulting and traveled a lot with my late mother. Dad was a rebel in his professional life — men of his generation didn't retire in their prime — but as a parent he was strict and controlling. When I hit adolescence I defied his authority by cutting school. As a result my grades weren't good enough for a top university. So I spent two years at a community college, got my act together and transferred to a state university, graduating cum laude. I worked as a research engineer for five years but at 27 got bored and returned to school for my PhD. It took me seven years to complete because I wrote two theses — one that my faculty adviser assigned and a second one, the one I wanted to do.
"I loved seeing Lisa when I visited my sister, so when I moved to this area I asked her out. She's smart, beautiful, and outgoing and I'm in awe of her strength in raising four kids alone. I get along great with the kids and with Lisa, too — until recently, that is. Now I get the cold shoulder, inside the bedroom and out. I understand her anger but I can't take any old job just to suit her."
The Counselor's Turn
"Lisa and Ted had two main issues," said the counselor. "First, they had to stop living beyond their means. Second, Ted had to get a job. This couple was part of a national trend that began before the current recession created high unemployment: Roughly a third of American women outearn their husbands, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But even women who gain money and power — for instance, Lisa traded her public-school salary for a corporate job — want their husband to do his fair share, not sit around doing nothing. I've seen marriages fall apart when a wife becomes the primary breadwinner and the husband either gets jealous or opts out of the workforce. Ted did the latter: By holding out for his dream job he was effectively saying, 'I can pick and choose because my wife makes a good living.'
"I helped Lisa and Ted connect their behavior to their families of origin and stop blaming each other. Lisa had a long history of caretaking: Her father suffered from depression, so she became her mother's confidante. She raised four children after being widowed at 30 and continued to help them well into adulthood. 'Ted's unemployment didn't turn you into a caretaker — you've been one your whole life,' I told her. 'But do you want to continue this pattern?'
"Ted inherited his rebellious streak and controlling nature from his father, who stopped working to pursue hobbies. As an adolescent Ted thwarted authority by cutting school. Later, as a PhD candidate, he insisted on writing two theses, which kept him in graduate school three extra years. 'Do you want to stick to your principles like a rebellious teenager?' I asked him. 'Or do you want to save your marriage?'
"Like Ted, I thought retail work wasn't the best use of his skills, but I felt he should pursue consulting. 'It will earn income — that's crucial,' I said. 'You can't afford to wait for your ideal job. Besides, the longer you're unemployed, the harder it'll be to get back in the game.'
"Next, I challenged Lisa to weigh her options: 'You can get a divorce. You can stay mad and continue to hassle Ted for not working. Or you can accept him for who he is and be the main breadwinner. Which is best?'
"Lisa and Ted listened to my analysis and promptly apologized to each other. Together they decided not only to stop supporting their adult children but also to consult a financial adviser, who helped them create a workable budget. Conceding that he'd been selfish, Ted ramped up his job search and soon landed part-time consulting projects at two environmental firms. Appropriately, he also told his father he no longer needed his help.
"Once Ted started aggressively job hunting, Lisa's anger diminished and the couple resumed their once-active sex life. She also came to grips with the fact that no marriage is perfect and that partners must accept each other's limitations. 'I don't care whether Ted ever makes as much as I do,' she said. 'I just want to be able to pay our bills.'
"As the couple was ending therapy, Ted received two offers for high-level jobs at out-of-state engineering firms. He accepted the job with the higher salary (which actually exceeded Lisa's) and stays Monday through Wednesday nights in a corporate apartment and works from home on Fridays. 'Commuting is easier than I thought,' Ted said the last time we spoke. 'And this job has been great for us financially, professionally, and personally.'
"'Those Thursday-night homecomings can be pretty romantic,' said Lisa, smiling broadly. 'I'm so glad Ted and I are back on track.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2009.