A reader emails about a sticky situation: She and her husband are empty nesters, both with professional careers. Her career in the arts is unstable by nature, and the loss of that job is imminent. Her husband is happy in his secure career of over 25 years and he is naturally unwilling to risk a move to another city, though it presents new opportunities for his wife. He maintains that it would jeopardize their financial stability. That notwithstanding, it’s apparent that her giving up her life’s passion of over 38 years will breed resentment in the marriage.
There’s an old proverb that says, “Take what you want – and pay for it.” In other words, there are costs and gains to everything, all of which must be judged objectively before making a major decision. It’s even more of a challenge when you’re not certain what the costs and gains might be.
On the road to resolving this, the starting premise must be, “We are going to find the best possible solution to make us both happy. And we won’t stop until we do.” Nothing I suggest will matter without this premise in place. The simplest path is for the wife to make it clear that, “Of course your career is important to you, and it should be. That’s part of what I love about you. At the same time, my career is equally important to me. I trust that you’re prepared to come up with a solution that satisfies us both, even if some compromise is involved.”
In principle, that shouldn’t be a tough sell. If you value someone highly, you want to please him or her as much as you can. It doesn’t mean you’re willing to give up your own happiness, but it would bother you just as much to see someone you love give up his or hers as well.
You may say, “Yes, but some people are selfish. They won’t start with that premise.” But selfishness is not to blame. If we interpret “selfish” as caring about yourself, then this also includes who and what you value. If it’s true that you value your marital relationship, then why would you want that relationship to suffer because of your unwillingness to “selfishly” work to find a solution that satisfies you both?
It all boils down to this: “If you don’t treat my career needs as important as your own, then we have a serious problem, none the least of which an unhappy spouse. How is that good for you?” This is the point that must be driven home, because even though it’s rational, it’s not the way most people approach relationships.
Of course, different careers make different amounts of money, and it’s valid to take that into account. If the husband rightly states, “We can make a move based on your career, but we can’t live off of what you make,” then that’s a valid consideration. But it’s not a reason to end the discussion. The next step might be, “Let’s look at places we could move where you could have a sustainable career while I still retain what I have, perhaps with a few changes.” This combination of circumstances might not exist, especially if real estate issues are factored in. Though monumentally significant, none of these are reasons to not have an ongoing discussion where “…we don’t stop until we’ve exhausted every possibility.”
Here’s how it should work: (1) Partner A wants a change that Partner B does not initially want. (2) Both partners take the desire to change seriously, and weigh the options carefully and seriously. (3) It might become clear to both partners that the status quo is actually a superior option. (4) All is well, because Partner A appreciates that Partner B took the discussions seriously and was prepared to make a change if it had been possible.
This is neither selfishness in the popular sense nor compromise. It’s simply a rational negotiation to benefit the one you love – precisely because you love him or her.