She Said, He Said: If your partner’s career dreams change, find a way to support them
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
My boyfriend is incredibly smart and studied hospitality in college. When we met four years ago, his dream was to be the GM of a luxury hotel. But in the time we’ve been together, he hasn’t taken any steps toward advancing his career and is still bartending at the same restaurant. He’s been hinting at wanting to get engaged, but I’m struggling to get past his lack of career motivation. I know he’s good at his job and makes good money, and I understand that going back to school can seem overwhelming, but he sold himself as wanting to become a powerful agent in his industry. Now, he just complains everyday about the long hours on his feet and the rude customers he had to serve. I’m not sure I want to commit my life to this, but I do love every other aspect of him. What should I do?
Wanting Him to Aspire
Lori and Jeff: When we become focused on a change we want our partner to make, it’s often because we’re neglecting to look at something that is very important within us. It can be easier to find solutions to our discomfort by asking our partner to change than to have to look in the mirror. That being said, your partner did portray himself as having bigger goals and ambitions, so you do have a leg to stand on in asking him to explore whether that’s still important to him and, if not, what specifically has changed.
Lori: What you should do is highly dependent on figuring out what really matters to you about his job and why. Start by identifying exactly what your trigger points are related to his career. You can do so by imagining that your partner was to forever stay a bartender, and exploring the narratives that arise in your mind. What are the stories of fear, resentment and vulnerability? What do you believe you will lose if he stays where he is? Perhaps you’ve worked hard toward achieving a level of financial freedom or security and see his job as holding you back. Or maybe you perceive his work as keeping you from attaining a level of social status that you value. Maybe you’re just tired of hearing him complain about his job and don’t want to permanently tie yourself to someone who is miserable.
Recognize that your level of investment in his career is about you. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that you’re pushing him for his own good. Doing so will only put pressure on him and still not bring to focus what it is that you’re really needing. Own your fears and vulnerabilities about his work future and be willing to share those things with him. In doing so, you may realize that there are other ways to meet your needs outside of him becoming a GM.
Jeff: I’d recommend that you look at your gender stereotypes and the assumed roles that you may have created in your partnership. If you bought what he was selling about his career ambitions because you had expectations of being taken care of and provided for, you need to own that and stop putting pressure on him to become a more successful breadwinner. Often men are stuck in the trap of believing that they need to “be something” in order to have identity and self-worth rather than being allowed to feel like what we do with our lives is authentic to who we are. In a published letter to his friend entitled “A Man Has To Be Something,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.” And that a man has, “a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.” Perhaps your partner no longer wants to be a GM just for the sake of being something and achieving a goal. Maybe his values have changed in a way that has led him to a different perspective of what he wants to do with his life and that he wants to feel like it has meaning and purpose. I think he would really appreciate support in that kind of journey, too — not just in going back to school to have a better career. Of course, if he’s just blowing off steam when he gets home, tell him you’ve had enough and that he needs to leave his job at work.
Lori and Jeff: Stop fixating on his career as the solution unless you’re certain that truly is what he wants for himself. If it is still his goal, then ask what support looks like to him. However, if his values or dreams have changed, then as a couple your job is to explore together how both of your needs might be met.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.