"He's Been Out of Work Too Long"

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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.


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