Dear Carolyn: My husband quit his job two years ago to start a consulting practice. I have continued to work full time and my salary pays most, but not all, of our bills. We both agree his income so far has been insufficient to support our needs, and he tells me he is pursing other employment opportunities in addition to consulting work.

Except I don't think he is: He's had no interviews, and I don't see him networking as he usually does when looking for work.

I’m tired of being constantly on the financial edge. When I bring this up, he agrees. But then nothing changes. How can I tell the difference between a man who is happy not working so much, and a man who is just down on his luck?

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Or the third man — the one who understands he needs to find more work, wants to find more work, knows it’s not just about luck, but has an unidentified or unreckoned-with obstacle to finding more work.

We're not all just “productive” or “lazy,” “contributing” or “taking advantage,” “happy not to work” or “unlucky.” Too often we use binary thinking against each other — and ourselves, in self-loathing — that erases the nuance in who we are, what we do and why.

Maybe this will sound familiar: I think men bear the brunt of binary thinking with work. I think women bear the brunt of it with appearance.

I think most of us could do more to break its grip on our collective thinking.

And I think anyone looking for reasons a job hunter might be well-meaningly stuck right now can find plenty of them courtesy of the pandemic. It could be internal — depression, anxiety, languishing, etc. — or external, in the form of a job market that has nothing for him right now, or is still in damage-control, or won’t offer networking opportunities for weeks yet as we all stumble out of our caves. It can’t rest on him easily that two years ago, he steered his career straight into a 100-year global storm, even one he couldn’t have seen coming.

While it's not deserved, any one of these reasons can also stir up shame — which, in turn, can silence and paralyze someone entirely on its own formidable power. And which you might not recognize in him because it's new to you both.

So toss out the either-or and treat him as a good-faith actor in his job plan — one who might need the nudge of outside support to act on that good faith.

Maybe: “Hey. I know you know you need to do this. I know you're sincere. I'm wondering if it's harder than you thought? Especially given everything that's going on.”

Listen carefully to his response.

If he brushes you off, then that makes your next step harder; help is rarely helpful where it's not welcome.

But it's your life, too — and true partners try to catch each other's falls: “You don't need me second-guessing you. But we're better facing this together than struggling alone.” Also consider relieving pressure on the cost side; more revenue isn't your only play.

This is really Part 1 of a multipart answer. If there’s no emotional or other obstacle — just bad luck or flagging interest — then please write back for Part 2.