How to Develop Your Career
and Keep Love in Your Marriage
Dear Dr. Harley,
I am a 29 year old woman who has been married for 6 years and I really love my husband. I am a medical student and he works to support my education. I appreciate what he is doing to help me financially, but I am not getting enough emotional support from him.
I really feel overworked and I am frustrated that my husband is not more supportive. When we decided that I would go to medical school, I thought that he was making a commitment to help me get through. Instead, I feel that he has abandoned me.
The cleaning and grocery shopping falls to me primarily because I have trouble keeping my thoughts organized when the house is a mess and when meals are not planned. When I repeatedly ask him for more help, he says he will, but he either does nothing or does a crappy job. School has been tough and I feel that my husband does not understand my increased need for his support during this difficult period. I have repeatedly expressed my frustration but it seems as though he takes my need for partnership as a demand and as an expression of his failure.
My husband also refuses to tell me what he wants or how he feels about practically anything. I have tried to make him feel less threatened and more willing to explore his own emotions to no avail. I know that my frustrations are not his responsibility. But he waits until I get over whatever's bothering me instead of trying to fix the problem.
He spends hours trying to fix things at work, trying everything he can think of. But if our marriage has a problem, he's satisfied to say "I don't know." But after every fight, he comes to me and apologizes in tears. I really feel desperate. What do you suggest?
If I were to talk to your husband about your marriage, he would probably tell me that he has done all he can do to make you happy, but he has been a total failure. All his efforts are getting him nowhere. Each conversation he has with you leaves him feeling increasingly inadequate.
You say in your letter (fourth paragraph) that your frustrations are not his responsibility. Yet what you say in the rest of the letter suggests that you think they are his responsibilities. Which is it? I'm sure that he feels that your unhappiness is something that he should fix. I doubt that helping to clean the house and doing grocery shopping would help. Besides, it's something he probably never liked doing, even when you were very happy with him. We go to our spouses for help when we are unhappy. That's normal. But what could he do to make you happy?
When you ask him what he wants or how he feels, I would imagine he wants to share his frustration with you. What do you think I'm getting out of all of this, he might think. You never seem to be too concerned about how much stress I'm under, all you ever think about is yourself. Do you think I'm satisfied with the lack of attention I get from you? If he were to say that, it would make you even more upset. He wants you to be happy and feels terrible that you are not. But he doesn't want to make you even more unhappy by loading you down with his own frustration.
He's making a big sacrifice putting you through medical school, and you're making a big sacrifice by going. You are probably both overworked and living on a tight budget. Furthermore, you have years of education ahead of you that will require even greater sacrifices. The very thought of it probably puts a knot in both of your stomachs. He thought that his financial support would make you happy.
You seem to complain to him about the fact that he is not helping you with housework and grocery shopping. But what he doesn't understand is that the worst part of it is that you have emotional needs that he is not meeting. And you are probably not meeting his either because of your busy schedule. Put simply, your lifestyle is preventing both of you from meeting each other's emotional needs.
I don't think you are upset about grocery shopping. I think you're upset because your emotional needs are not being met. He is probably as upset about it as you are. But he is trying to tough it out by keeping his nose to the grindstone and ignoring the symptoms of marital demise. When you do have time to talk to each other, all you ever talk about is problems, so he doesn't say anything. You don't use the opportunities you have to support and encourage each other.
I'd like you to reflect on the time when you and he did meet each other's needs. You probably spent much more time with each other in meaningful conversation because you simply had more time with each other. Now you try to sneak it in between all of your responsibilities and it doesn't work. Your husband just tries to ignore your problems because he feels that now that you are in medical school there's nothing that either of you can do about them.
Here's the solution to your problem: Spend fifteen hours a week with each other engaged in 1) affection, 2) sex 3) conversation and 4) recreational companionship (not all at the same time!). In other words, take fifteen hours a week out of your busy schedules to have fun with each other. Take a vacation from your problems. Don't bring up unpleasant topics for a while. Instead, enjoy your time together.
If you can't find the time to be together just to talk, be affectionate, share recreational activities, and find sexual fulfillment, you've discovered why your marriage will ultimately fail -- your career development prevents you from meeting each other's emotional needs. It's that simple. Whenever your education, children, career, finances or anything else prevent you from meeting each other's needs, your marriage does not have much of a chance of survival.
The agreement you and your husband made for you to complete medical school should not have required you to stop meeting each other's emotional needs. If you can't meet each other's needs and go to medical school too, you should abandon medical school, not your marriage.
If you decide to spend those 15 hours a week together, but just don't enjoy each other's company as much as you used to, your problem is creeping incompatibility. Over the past few years you have been growing apart. The solution -- keep spending 15 hours a week together, but learn to grow together by following the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). You have been trying to force your husband into a lifestyle that is increasingly unpleasant for him (and you, too). The Policy will prevent you from doing that. Within a month you will find your time together to be much more enjoyable.
Most important, you will be meeting each other's most important emotional needs. If you follow my advice, by the time you finish medical school you will both be as much in love as you've ever been, and there will be no complaining about emotional abandonment.
Throughout your life, you and your husband will have important objectives that will tempt you to abandon each other's emotional needs. Never yield to that temptation. No objective is important enough to risk the love you have for each other.