She Said, He Said: Husband can’t get past wife’s waiting to work after kids
March 5, 2018
Dear Lori and Jeff,
My wife and I have been married for over 10 years and we have two kids. Things had been going well, for the most part, up until a few years ago. We'd previously agreed for my wife to stay home with the kids until they were both in school. However, for the first two years after the youngest started, my wife continued staying home. She said she was trying to get work, but I didn't see her making a real effort. We had several significant fights about it, and it seemed like our marriage was on the line. She recently increased her efforts and secured a good position.
However, I resent having had to work and carry our financial burden for so long while she had all of the freedom. I still love her, but can't seem to get past this.
Struggling to Move Forward
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Lori and Jeff: We commend you for your dedication to your family — for your work over the past few years, and for reaching out now. Too many great partnerships succumb to the type of strain you're describing. However, her increased efforts, along with your investment in finding resolution, indicate there's real hope for healing your relationship.
The first step to "get past" is to leave your story behind. Understand that it's human nature for you to create, and subsequently attach to, stories about your partner. The challenge lies in the fact that these stories are highly influenced by your emotions, and therefore, are often seriously skewed.
Lori: Moving your perspective away from extremes can begin to inch you closer toward her. Was it really all work for you and all play for her? What was she contributing during those years that you might be minimizing or overlooking?
Let's also explore the perception of effort. For many parents who stay home with children, the task of re-entering the working world can be daunting. Day after day had been consumed with the world of children, and stepping back into the land of adults is often unsettling. Additionally, years have gone by during which technology and career fields have changed and evolved, which can leave that parent feeling behind the curve. These factors can make it difficult to have the confidence needed to secure employment. Stay curious about whether your wife may have had more going on than what you saw on the surface.
Jeff: I'd suggest you try to see the underlying elements of your story and why they've left you feeling the way you do. What did your wife's not getting a job mean in terms of how she felt about you? Did it mean she was disrespectful? Unloving? Did she take advantage of you? And if any of these feel true, what would that mean about you?
The stories we create about our partners can generate feelings about ourselves we don't necessarily like. We might then blame our partners for these painful feelings. This is the root of resentment — one of the most dangerous emotions in a relationship. Resentment is a mixture of disappointment, anger and fear, and often accompanies the perception of some kind of injustice. While smaller resentments are common in relationships, the danger lies in the toxic compounding effect they have if left unresolved. They can ultimately become mountains of resentment and may feel far too daunting and overwhelming to ever overcome.
Lori and Jeff: Take some time to reflect on the tales you've created. What chapters are rooted in fact, and which lines are fictitious manifestations shaped by emotion? It may be that your observations were 100 percent accurate, but one's narrative is always a subjective truth.
Once you've had a chance to contemplate, share your experience with your wife. The key is to preface the conversation with: "The story I've created is … and the feelings I'm left with are …" This is the start of a powerful and cleansing resentment check-in, where each of you has the chance to begin resolving frustrations and healing fissures.
We do monthly resentment check-ins, and recommend couples do this fairly regularly, as well. If resentment mountain already looms over your relationship, consider working with a professional who might help guide you to a clearer path.
Lori and Jeff are married licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Coaching. Submit your relationship questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and your query may be selected for a future column.