Carolyn Hax: Frustrated over underachieving boyfriend

Carolyn Hax
Columnist August 16, 2013

Dear Carolyn:

I’ve been nudging my live-in boyfriend to get a second job to bring in more income. I make at least three times what he makes. He has a college degree, and we’re both about 30, but he’s been stuck in low-paying restaurant work for five-plus years.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

In order for us to have any future stability, move out of our low-income rental apartment, afford a mortgage to a modest home, go on vacation even for the weekend or even get engaged and married, he’s going to need to bring his income way up!

Unfortunately, he’s extremely slow in achieving results. He means well and wants better, but apparently suffers from self-esteem issues and a lack of role models or successful male peers.

While I’m happy I have this earning power, I still feel resentment that we’re “stuck” because he is not living up to his potential. What advice do you have for turning the switch on in his mind to more urgently seek higher-paying, stable work, and to help him achieve more?


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

B.

Whip? Blackmail? Powdered bull testicles in his food?

“Nudging” has failed so you’re on to “turning the switch” — and while you might mean well, too, escalating is not the answer. Taking your hands off is — and stepping back, and thinking.

This marriage-mortgage-vacations plan — his, or yours? Are you sure he “wants better,” or does he say that because what he really wants is to say what pleases you? Is “stuck” his word or yours?

Loving someone, even a life partner, does not constitute permission to remake him to suit your ideals. Even if it were, how’s that going?

You may not think you’re the one pulling all the levers here — he might even be telling you the (apparently lackluster) job hunt is all his idea — but as long as you care more about his income than he does, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

He is not potential; he is a person. A person, by your account, who has a degree and a job and a girlfriend and a life, overall, that he’s in no hurry to change. Maybe you mistook the fact of a college education as proof of ladder-climbing ambition; the correlation is not one-to-one. Maybe he likes where he is. Maybe you need to ask him that, without a tone or facial expression that warns him to pick the “right” answer or else. Maybe you need to consider that low self-esteem and low-paying jobs don’t correlate as strongly as do low self-esteem and others’ contempt for low-paying jobs.

But first, I think you need to ask yourself: Do you want (a) to marry this man as is or (b) to marry this man only if he becomes what you expect him to become?

I didn’t phrase things this way as an eye-roll or a shaming attempt. It is, face value, a chance for you to get your thinking straight. Don’t answer it the way you think you’re supposed to — big mistake. Don’t be afraid of hurting or losing him, and don’t be afraid of sounding shallow or grasping.

If, in your most private heart, you refuse to live like this much longer for anyone, then you need to concentrate on making your own choices — not his — reflect that defining truth.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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