I am a man in my 40s, and even as I’m writing this, I am struggling to see clearly what my problem is. Two years ago, soon after maternity leave and an extended parental leave, my wife got a big promotion shortly after returning to work. After being in the lead with my career, she unexpectedly jumped way ahead of me. I was delighted for her success – at least, I thought I was at the time.
However, I feel that our relationship has deteriorated massively since this, and though it’s hard to describe what is happening, I have this constant feeling that I’m somehow in her way. When we do communicate, it’s mainly criticisms of me, and what I haven’t done, and I do work to try to see what’s going on. But I end up with the same feeling: that I’m a disappointment to her.
Also, I worry that I might not be able to continue to achieve success in my career and that I’m now set to continue to lag behind her success.
Yours is a story has become more common in the past couple of decades, where a wife’s career can surpass that of her spouse. Traditionally there has been no blueprint on how to handle this.
During the recession in the late 2000s, many a family had to rely on the woman’s income while the husband’s suffered due to the stagnant market. An interesting phenomenon happened. In order to maintain the status quo and to keep the husband’s confidence up, the woman often continued to do her share, and more, of the housekeeping even though hers was the main income. One woman said that she used to hide paying the bills from her husband as she did not want to make him feel worse than he felt already. This was based on the traditional model of the husband and father being the main provider for the family, but much has changed in the intervening years.
Now both parties in a couple have to work in order to keep the family in reasonable financial health, and men have discovered that success in life is more than a certain level of income and includes good relationships and wellbeing. However, the adjustment to a new order is not simple, and we come up against blocks we might not even recognise, while at the same time we rejoice in the varying role models we are able to offer our children.
You say you are delighted at the career success your wife is experiencing, but while this is true, it brings other emotions with it that might require self-reflection and expansion. Indeed, your wife might also be experiencing complex feelings about her own position: delight at her success, but at the same time she may be sad and frustrated at the loss of mothering time with her toddler. These emotions may manifest in her criticism of how you do the things she used to, as she feels the pain of loss and disappointment in the reality that success in work requires letting go of control of things at home. Her continuous criticism (even if understandable) needs tackling and this needs to form part of the discussions that should happen at the earliest opportunity. Inevitably, we compare ourselves with those closest to us and you now are comparing your career unfavourably with that of your wife. The disappointment you are feeling directed at you may also be partly your own comment on yourself.
This new arrangement will require both of you to engage meaningfully about what is happening, that is, that no one is to blame but this shift in circumstances requires self-examination and open communication to begin to untangle the issue. Someone has to start this process by being vulnerable. This is the path to self-confidence. When we take ourselves seriously enough to warrant attention by requiring time, and being listened to, we boost our self-esteem and through speaking we identify what is really going on for us and what our needs are. This is not a selfish action, rather as we model how to open up for the other person, we allow them to consider deeply what is going on for them too.
You may have to change your blueprint from the traditional to one where a career step-down is a valid and confident step for you to take
In truth, what you are engaged in is nothing short of creating an alternative model for the structure of the family that is less gendered and more open to nuance. However, most change happens with some losses and gains along the way so persistence, openness and faith in you as a couple are basic requirements for this development. Your pleasure in your wife’s progression may be your fundamental position, but it raises your own thorny belief in what success means for you. You may have to change your blueprint from the traditional to one where a career step-down is a valid and confident step for you to take. If this is to work, you and your wife will both need to be on the same page, and therein lies the challenge.
Begin the conversation and be brave in both the questions you raise and in the exposure you are willing to commit to: a new and expanded model for you is on the horizon.
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