DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #93: How the Real Work Is Done


(I’m answering two letters at once this week, sweet peas.)

Dear Sugar,

I am newly civilly unioned. I love my spouse (wife?) dearly, though we have our issues. What appears to me to be our biggest problem—the one that keeps me up some nights—is that she won’t get a job.

We’re a quite poor couple in our mid-twenties, both in school. We’ve been together for four years, and in that time my girl has had three jobs: one she was laid off from because the job ended, one she quit, and one she was fired from. All these jobs lasted fewer than six months.

She’s made halfhearted attempts to placate me in the year and a half she’s been unemployed. Mostly though? We fight, she cries, she shuts down, she lies and says she’s been trying to find a job, even though I know she hasn’t. She has moderate social anxiety issues and says she can’t work any jobs involving other people because of it. She doesn’t even offer up excuses for not applying to any number of other jobs I’ve suggested (throwing newspapers! work-study in a low-traffic area of her school! selling her lovely quirky crafts online! dishwashing!). At one point, she suggested that she would rather donate plasma every week than get a job.

Sugar, I’m a full-time student working two jobs. We’re barely getting by on what I’m bringing in. We frequently must rely on my parents for money, and they’re rapidly losing their ability to keep up with my financial needs in addition to their own. I worry so much about this. I worry that my partner will never be motivated enough to hold a job. I worry about what her job prospects are going to be when she reaches thirty in a few years without ever actually having held a long-term job. I worry that, though she sees my struggles, she will never feel guilty enough to get things kicked into gear.

What can I possibly do to get her to take job searching seriously? She’s emotionally fragile, due to years of social anxiety, sexual and emotional abuse from her father, and a recurring eating disorder. Because of that, I don’t want to threaten her with any ultimatums, because I wouldn’t mean any of them and I fear it would do more harm than good. My girl’s got a good heart, but she is so afraid of failure that she willfully ignores how much I sacrifice to keep our rent paid. I love her, and she loves me, yet I feel I’m without a partner in this. I don’t know what to do next. Please help.

Working for Two


Dear Sugar,

My husband makes me laugh every day, EVERY day, multiple times. He’s been my best friend for years and is still my favorite person in the world. He’s enriched my life in so many innumerable ways and he has told me that I have reciprocated that enrichment. I do love him so. SO. And I am quite certain he loves me.

The issue is that he’s been unemployed for over three years. He did try to find a job for a while (and I believe he still occasionally does), but now I think he feels unqualified for anything other than the job he used to hate and also that he has no reason to be hired for anything else. Inertia has taken him over. He wants to write, but feels unworthy, so he doesn’t write. He is brilliant and funny and erudite, but he sees none of that. He doesn’t paint/sculpt/whatever might give him fulfillment or do anything that would move him forward in his life. I would be happy with him doing anything (and I truly mean that), yet he seems to be stuck. He’s also bipolar and self-hating and all of that.

Fortunately, my job carries us financially, but only barely. The house is clean, the laundry is done, the dog is walked, but in three years he hasn’t been able to figure out a way to financially contribute to our household. He’s stressed out about the fact that we have trouble paying our bills, but he does nothing (truly nothing) to change it. If I had plenty of money, I’d be fine with this, but I don’t. I’ve been carrying this load alone for a long time. I have repeatedly tried to talk to him about this, to no avail.

I love him so much and I’m so sad about this. I think my staying with him may be ruining both our lives. Perhaps my support is keeping him from fulfilling his dreams. What do you think, Sugar?

Responsible One

Dear Women,

As I’m sure you both know, there is nothing inherently wrong with a spouse who makes no money. The most common scenario in which it makes sense for one spouse to earn an income while the other does not is when the couple has a child or children who must be cared for, which goes along with a domestic life that requires constant vigilance of the cleaning, shopping, cooking, washing, folding, tidying up, taking-the-cat-to-the-vet-and-the-kids-to-the-dentist variety. In this situation and others like it, the “non-working” spouse is often doing more work, hour for hour, than the “working” spouse and though on paper it appears that the one with the job is making a greater financial contribution to the household than the one who “stays at home,” if you ran the numbers and figured out what it would cost to employ someone to do the work of the “non-working” spouse, it becomes apparent that one should probably shut their big trap when it comes to who is contributing what.

There are other reasons, usually more fleeting, that one spouse may not be earning money in any given period: if he or she is unemployed or seriously ill or attending school full-time or caring for an infirm or dying parent or working in a field in which the money comes only after an extended period of what may or may not turn out to be unpaid labor.

Neither of you appears to be in any of those circumstances. While it’s technically true that both of your spouses are unemployed, it seems clear that something more complex is at play here. Your spouse, Working for Two, has such a spotty and brief record of employment that unemployment is her customary mode rather than a temporary state of affairs. Your spouse, Responsible One, has apparently drifted into a post-unemployment funk and has given up the search for a job. You both feel overly burdened and seriously bummed out. You’re both desperate for change. You’ve both shared your feelings with your partners and been met with compassionate indifference (ie. I feel terrible, sweetie, but I’m not going to do a damn thing about it).

What a mess.

I hope it’s not going to be news to you when I say you can’t make your partners get jobs. Or at least you can’t make them get jobs by doing what you’ve done so far—appealing to their better nature regarding what’s fair and reasonable, imploring them to act out of their concern for you and your wishes, as well as your collective financial well-being. Whatever dark angst is keeping your spouses from taking responsibility for their lives—depression, anxiety, a loss of self-confidence, a fear-based desire to maintain the status quo—it’s got a greater hold on them than any angry fits you’ve pitched about being the only one bringing in any dough.

It’s a truism of transformation that if we want things to be different we have to change ourselves. I think both of you are going to have to take this to heart the way anyone who has ever changed anything about their lives has had to take it to heart: by making it not just a nice thing we say, but a hard thing we do. Your spouses may or may not decide to get jobs in response to your changes, but that is out of your control.

The way I see it, there are two paths out of your misery. They are:

a)  Accept the fact that your partner won’t get a job (or even seriously delve into the reasons he/she won’t seek one) or

b)  Decide your partner’s refusal to contribute financially is unacceptable and end the relationship (or at least break it off until circumstances change).

So let’s say you went with option a. Both of you express love and adoration for your partners. You don’t want to lose them. How might you accept your dead-beat darlings for who they are at this era of their lives? Is this possible? Is what they give you worth the burden they place upon you? Are you willing to shelf your frustrations about your partner’s fiscal failings for a period of time? If so, how long? Can you imagine feeling okay with being the sole employed member of your union a year from now? Three years? Ten? Might you together agree to downsize and reduce expenses so that your single income becomes more feasible? What if you rethought the whole thing? What if instead of lamenting the fact that your partner is unemployed, the two of you embraced it as a choice you made together? Reframing it as a mutually-agreed upon decision, in which you are the breadwinners and your partners are the significantly supportive, non-incoming-earning helpmates, would give you a sense of agency that’s lacking now.

Working for Two, you don’t mention if your partner does more than her share around the house, but Responsible One, you state that “the house is clean, the laundry is done, the dog is walked.” That’s something. In fact, it’s quite a lot. It’s not money, but your husband is positively contributing to your lives by seeing to those things. Oodles of people with jobs would be deeply pleased to return to a clean house that doesn’t contain mountains of dirty laundry and a dog demanding to go out. Many people pay people to do those things for them or they return from work only to have to work another, domestic shift. Your husband’s unpaid work benefits you. With that in mind, what other ways could your partners lighten your burden if they refuse to lighten it financially? Might you draw up a list of your household and individual needs—financial, logistical, domestic, and administrative—and divide the responsibilities in a manner that feels equitable, in terms of overall workload, that takes your job into account?

While I encourage you to sincerely consider coming to peace with your spouses’ perpetual unemployment, I’ll admit I’m presenting this option with more optimism than I feel. One thing I noted about both of your letters is that—while money is a major stress point—what worries you most deeply isn’t money. It’s how apathetic your partners are, how indifferent they are to their ambitions, whether they be income-earning or not. It would be one thing if you partners were these happy, fulfilled people who simply believed their best contribution to your coupledom would be as homemakers and personal assistants, but it seems clear that your partners have used home and the security of your relationships as a place to retreat and wallow, to sink into rather than rise out of their insecurities and doubts.

So let’s talk about option b. Working for Two, you say that you won’t give your partner an ultimatum, but I encourage you to rethink that. Perhaps it will help if you come to see what I see so clearly now: that you and Responsible One are the ones who’ve been given ultimatums, at least of an unstated, passive aggressive sort.

Ultimatums have negative connotations for many because they’re often used by bullies and abusers, who tend to be comfortable pushing their partners’ backs against a wall, demanding him or her to choose this or that, all or nothing. But when used by emotionally healthy people with good intentions, ultimatums offer a respectful and loving way though an impasse that will sooner or later destroy a relationship on its own anyway. Besides, the two of you have been up against the wall for years now, forced by your partners to be the sole financial providers, even when you have repeatedly stated that you do not and cannot continue to be. You’ve continued. Your partners have made their excuses and allowed you to do what you said you don’t want to do, even though they know it makes you profoundly unhappy.

Your ultimatum is simple. It’s fair. And it’s stating your own intentions, not what you hope theirs will be. It’s: I won’t live like this anymore. I won’t carry our financial burdens beyond my desires or capabilities. I won’t enable your inertia. I won’t, even though I love you. I won’t, because I love you. Because doing so is ruining us.

Don’t you get a little bit lighter inside just reading those lines?

The difficult part is, of course, what to do in the wake of those words, but you don’t have to know exactly what it will be right away. Maybe it will be breaking up. Maybe it will be mapping out a course of action that will save your relationships. Maybe it will be the thing that finally forces your partners to change. Whatever it is, I strongly advise you both to seek answers to the deeper questions underlying your conflicts with your partners while you figure it out. Your joint and individual issues run deeper than someone not having a job.

You can do this. I know you can. It’s how the real work is done. We can all have a better life if we make one.