Moving the old toy box in the basement together. Sharing the burden makes it easier.
FSW = Financially stressed wife
FSW inspires this week’s post
A couple of days after writing last week’s post on breaking the taboo of debt-talk at work, I was surprised to receive a message from someone I’ll call FSW (for financially stressed wife). I didn’t even know she was reading my blog. “Did you ever think of writing about the historical expectation that a man should provide for his wife and family, and that if he doesn’t, he is less of a man? I believe that is part of the shame we feel when talking about debt when we are in a relationship.” I thought, What a great idea for a post! Debt and gender roles. It’s a sensitive issue that many people find awkward to talk about.
I thought I understood why she was making the suggestion. I knew in a vague way that her husband had suffered a failed business and that they’d dealt with more or less chronic financial stress as a result. I asked FSW if I could write a post about her experience. It wasn’t a comfortable thing for her, but she said, “Yes,” and she answered the questions that I sent to her by e-mail.
As I read her answers, I realized that my understanding of her situation had been wrong. This wasn’t a case of a man’s bad luck in his career and of his wife’s sharing the resulting financial burden with him. It was a different case altogether. I changed my mind about what I would write for this week’s post. I’d write about the dilemma one spouse faces when the other persists in corrosive career and money moves that negatively impact everyone in the household. Despite the experience of hitting rock bottom; despite the suffering of the family.
Visions of grandeur: Addiction to “making it big!”
“My husband is in debt due to business ventures,” she wrote. (I’d thought there had been only one business mishap.) “I don’t know how much … He hasn’t given me any info this year – though I ask for it on a regular basis. I support us and have done so for most of our marriage … My feelings of insecurity, and stress – which I explained to him on many occasions – have never seemed to affect his actions.”
And what have those “actions” been? FSW points out that her husband has consistently worked hard. That it has never been a matter of laziness. She believes the problem is that he is not realistic. “I think that [he] and perhaps other people who take risks in business are extremely optimistic . . . He is a thinker, always coming up with new ideas . . . [He] loves the idea of making it big!! Every idea he has is going to be a huge success. He never thinks small and steady. He seems to repeat the same errors over and over . . . He also wants to have a job that enhances his perception of himself. So being the owner of his own business . . . is much more prestigious than doing some menial job.”
FSW’s uncertainty: What can she do?
While FSW has been steadily working, earning an income, and managing it to support the family, her husband has been dreaming, borrowing money for business, and when it doesn’t work out, dreaming a new dream – only to repeat the cycle. Deaf to her advice; in denial of the weight she carries alone. A clear picture of his character and of her situation formed in my mind as I read her words. “It is unfortunate he has not been in partnership with a person who could put his dreams into action in a realistic way,” she wrote. I don’t think so, I thought. He wouldn’t accept the input of a practical person – like his wife. He would feel limited by it. “I also think it’s a kind of addiction,” FSW wrote of her husband’s repeated patterns. “I am the enabler.”
FSW is an outspoken person who has added spice to her life by seeking out opportunities to take on unique work, to travel extensively, and to meet adventure in a way that goes beyond most people’s confidence to do so. Why has such an apparently strong and independent woman endured the imbalance in her relationship? And why has she not talked about her situation? “Good question. Why have I never really talked about it? I have talked to him ad nauseam. One friend suggested I talk with a psychologist. I suppose I think that my only other option is to divorce him … something I have considered… but since he is a good person, we enjoy doing many things together, we have been together for [many] years and have many common friends, and because I stand to lose half of all I own and earn, I choose not to go that route. I don’t know anyone who could really help him/us.”
Listen to your friend! I thought. Of course you should see a counsellor. Both of you should. But would he agree to it? Perhaps not. After all, he doesn’t believe there is a problem. “He is not a consumer type of person. He doesn’t buy things for himself and usually thinks we don’t need more than we have already – which is true. We are comfortable and have been most of our married life.” I imagined the workings of her inner doubt: Am I exaggerating? she must ask herself. He’s not all bad. Nobody has a perfect marriage. Maybe this is no worse than what other people deal with.
“I feel anger, discouragement, disappointment, regret, impatience, fatalism, and many other feelings. Shame too I suppose, but I am ashamed of myself, for allowing this to happen. How could I let the situation go on and on? I should have been more demanding at the beginning of our relationship. Sometimes, I can’t believe how patient, and dumb I have been over the years.”
I felt a real sadness for FSW. I’d had no idea of her hidden frustrations and uncertainties. I wondered along with her: What can she do? Opening up is definitely a good place to start. “Well, that wasn’t so painful,” FSW wrote at the end of her answers. “I hope it may be helpful to you. If you want any more details, or better yet, if you have any advice for me, let me know!!”
I feel utterly unqualified to offer advice to FSW, but she is seeking direction. Do you know of a situation where one spouse is shouldering the financial burden alone? Do you have any insight to offer?
Helpful and respectful comments are welcome.