Bullish: When Your Male Partner is Not Exactly Helping Your Career


Here is a letter I received shortly after Hurricane Sandy. I had evacuated to my fiancé’s parents’ house and was going a bit stir-crazy (I did discover that you can make a pretty decent fake espresso with half a mug of hot milk and about ten times more instant coffee than the package suggests.)

I had been persuaded not to bring any books, because we had to walk down 25 flights of stairs carrying a cat. Once I had done this, I realized I could have carried at least fifteen pounds of books in addition to a backpack and a cat carrier, because I have quads of steel.

So I was trying to get some things done on my laptop, while lamenting my lack of books (and, for the record, buying shovels and breathing masks and baby supplies on Amazon and shipping them to one of the many relief efforts in the Rockaways).

And then, this:

I feel a little dopey writing this while I’m sure you’re mucking out from Sandy, but if you’ve been trapped in an apartment with your fiancé this week, I think you might have an extra dose of insight for me.

In the last two weeks I’ve gone through some pretty momentous changes: my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, so my husband and I picked up and moved halfway across the country, from the city to a farm, to take care of her while she goes through treatment.

Being a Bullish-type gentlewoman, I negotiated to keep my new big-step-up-professionally-and-remuneratively job and am working remotely rather than starting from square one in a town with less than 5,000 people. I’m extremely ambitious and have been making big strides in my career in the last two years. My husband? Not so much.

This generally doesn’t bother me. He always has a job that pays pretty well and reliably pays half our bills. He just doesn’t have much interest in moving up the career ladder. Again, this is totally fine with me – he works shorter hours and makes less than me, yes, but he also takes care of all the household things I can’t or won’t do because of the demands of my work. It works for us and I’m not looking to change him.

When we moved out here though, he quit his job. Completely to be expected: the nature of his work doesn’t allow him to work remotely. The chances of him being able to find suitable employment where we are is basically zero, especially when one considers the fact he needs to be working part time and on a flexible schedule to be there to take his mom to appointments and do whatever she needs.

Again, this doesn’t really bother me. We’re staying in an apartment owned by a family member rent free, and my salary is more than enough for us to live on. We’re taking this interlude as a chance to save some serious money and put together a sizable down payment on a house for when we move back to the city.

Here’s where the problem comes in: the apartment is pretty small, just a bedroom, living room, and small kitchen. I’ve set up a desk in the living room and am using a corner of it as my office. My darling husband doesn’t have much to do at the moment, and is also using the living room to entertain himself. And it is driving me absolutely nuts.

At this very moment, he’s sitting about two feet from me, with his feet up in a recliner, watching an idiotic true crime procedural on Spike TV. I love and adore the man, but I can’t concentrate on my work. I can hardly concentrate on this email. No amount of “could you turn that down” has had any effect – the man can’t take a hint. Today I’ve finally started straight up saying “I can’t concentrate with you watching TV in here – can you find something else to do?”

Well, really, he can’t. His mom’s at work, doesn’t need his help, there’s no pavement to pound to look for a job, and there’s no real other entertainment around than to watch TV until I finish up so we can go to the next town over and belly up at a bar. When I asked him to skedaddle this morning, he dutifully turned off the TV, cleaned the apartment, did laundry, and made lunch. Wonderful. Then he sat back down and turned on the TV. I’m working on writing a very complicated grant, and hearing about the Halloween Massacre in LA between Crips and Bloods is just not helping me. I, feeling like a nagging and absolutely horrible wife, asked if he could find something else to do until I was done, and he as politely as possible said no, that there’s nothing else to do.

I see his point. There is nothing else for him to do. But this situation is untenable and is interfering with the quality of my work. We’ve only been married a year and a half, and I knew this experience would be a trial by fire for our marriage, but I didn’t expect that it was the simple act of living together that would be the hardest part.

So what do I do? Send him out into the countryside and tell him not to come back until he’s tracked down and killed a mountain lion with his bare hands? Swallow my frustration and learn to work with these distractions? I’m all about compromise but I just don’t see a solution here, so I’m turning to you.

Here’s hoping that you and yours are safe and sound and warm and living with power. Thanks for reading.

– Frustrated Farmwife in a Flyover State

Oh. My. God.

So, first: You’re right, I can relate. Intensely. Virginia Woolf was also pretty big on that “a room of her own” thing.

Second: You are not a “frustrated farmwife.” You are a breadwinner. It is totally reasonable to require some semblance of a normal work environment.

I kind of want to strangle your husband with my bare hands.

Let me digress a moment.

I have often had this kind of problem in relationships. I work all the time because I like to. Solving math problems, explaining vocabulary words to confused people, and planning new companies are my favorite things to do, provided I can do them in my home (or on a beach) with enough espresso and wine.

But then the guy gets bored. I say, “What do you want to do? If you want to make dinner plans or go see a movie, just give me some advance notice and I’ll shut down.” (Note: My ex-boyfriends may tell this story differently.) Sometimes they say, “Just come hang out on the couch.” This is nice for a little while.

But really, “not hanging out” might be the very secret of my success. I only like to do things that are very pleasurable or very productive; it’s all this “hanging out” business in the middle that’s like the Chips Ahoy cookie of life, not pleasurable enough to be worth the calories. Eat something healthy or bake some actual hot, delicious, non-hydrogenated cookies. The in-between is a waste of human life. (See Bullish Life: A Day in the Life of Bullish and Bullish Life: Achieve Goals and Glory By Recreating Like a Total F*cking Badass.)

I’m really pretty infuriated by anyone who thinks that there’s “nothing to do” but watch TV. (Learn something from a book! Do as many pushups as you can, and then do that every day until you are the PUSHUP CHAMPION. Take a free class on Coursera! Meditate.) I have been known to say to some perfectly nice men: “DON’T YOU HAVE ANY PROJECTS?!”

I’ve dated plenty of less ambitious men, or just men with 9-5 jobs who leave their work at the office and don’t have outside projects, and I’ve sometimes been annoyed when they come home at 6:30pm and expect me to instantly stop working. If I’m not teaching an evening class, then ideally I would like to work continuously until at least 1:30am, because I enjoy and am excited by my work, and I strongly value long stretches of unbroken concentration. To me, 1:30am is a nice time to go out for a drink and celebrate a day well-spent.

I once dated an entrepreneur, at the time I was also a full-time entrepreneur, and there was something glorious about it. We were a think-tank, all the time. When we found ways for our companies to work together, it was like we were getting away with something very sexy.

But that didn’t last. And I have found that the most ambitious men tend to have no trouble at all prioritizing their careers above their relationships (something ambitious women I know tend to waver on quite a bit), and they are not swayed at all by your feelings on the matter.

Two equally ambitious people are not necessarily a good combination. Somebody needs to slow down and remember when holidays are and how humans normally interact.

Personally, I have found that it is far better to be the ambitious one who is a little annoyed by being dragged off to fly kites and play Scrabble than it is to be the one wondering when your diplomat boyfriend is ever going to ask you how you feel about the fact that your grandmother died two weeks ago while he was negotiating a peace treaty somewhere.

Here, I’d like to defer to Dan Savage’s The Price of Admission. There is always a “price of admission” you pay for being in a long-term relationship. (“The only way you become ‘the one’ is becoming someone is willing to pretend you are…. because you’re not, nobody is.”)

Okay, back to Frustrated Farmwife. She doesn’t want to change her husband, just to work out an untenable working situation. So:

If your husband feels like you are working/online ALL the time and he can’t tiptoe around 24/7, then you need to set some hours. 40 hours per week during which there will be no TV, music, or other loud noises. If you are paying all the bills, he has absolutely no grounds on which to complain that he can’t watch TV while you are working full-time. Hell, he can watch Hulu on his laptop with headphones. HEADPHONES.

Put the working hours on a schedule. 9am-5pm M-F or whatnot, and take them really seriously, so he does too. If you make an exception (you go on a nice country walk mid-day), point out that the 2pm-3:30pm break will extend working hours from 5pm to 6:30pm — is that OK with him? Maybe even make a point of emailing your boss (“I’ll be offline 2-3:30, but working until 6:30pm today if you need me”) to drive home the point.

Also, can you express that you are concerned for your husband’s career prospects when you return to (whatever city) and that maybe he could work on his skills? You didn’t say what he does, but surely he could volunteer somewhere, or get some kind of online certification, or practice trimming the hedges into exciting shapes, learn whatever programming language is coming into fashion, start a blog in his field, or just read some books on the matter? Surely he could start some kind of small business.

He at least needs to join a club and make some friends. Hiking? Local politics? Dungeons and Dragons? (Going to Young Democrats meetings is totally unnecessary in a big city, but in a small town, it’s a great way to meet like-minded people.)

Could he do a marathon to raise money for cancer research? And then go on a lot of long runs?

You don’t want to make it like you’re giving him a to-do list, but more like, since you’re paying the bills now, he should lay down a foundation to be able to pay more bills later. (If you plan on having kids, maybe mention that — when you do, perhaps he will be doing most of the bill-paying for a couple of years while you are the one maintaining/growing your skills in the background; think of it like switching off over the course of a lifetime together.) Hopefully, he’ll take to one of these suggestions.

Finally, how about one of these backyard office sheds? (Here, here, here, and here.) You would put it on land on the mom’s farm, I guess?

These office sheds are a bit pricey to put outside a home that’s not yours. So … can your husband build you one? TWO PROBLEMS SOLVED AT ONCE.

Or, buy a used RV (see here and here for turning an RV into an office), and then you can sell it when you don’t need it anymore. Since you won’t really be putting any miles on it, it may not even lose that much value while you’re using it.

Speaking of which, can you work at the mom’s place while she’s at work? Or can your husband hang out there? She has a dining room table, right? Or does she have a shed or old barn or something that’s not being used, that could be turned into an office?

Whatever you decide to do, this isn’t really a situation in which your “wants” are equal (I “want” to work, and he wants to watch TV). Since you’re the only one working, your right to a suitable work environment is non-negotiable. I mean, I watch Mad Men. And stay-at-home wives don’t ever go to their husbands’ offices, turn on the TV, and watch true crime shows all day.

Good luck! Stay sane!

(See also Bullish: Picking a Boyfriend Who Doesn’t Hold Back Your Career Or Bank Account and Bullish Life: Should You Slow Down Your Career For a Guy?)

Originally published on The Grindstone.