Sunday, September 21, 2008

Out of Work

What happens when a Master of the Universe loses his job, retires to the living room couch, and tries to reflate his ego by becoming the master of all her surveys? How should his wife manage the situation?

That is the question asked of Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times this week. It is a timely question, and it has elicited many comments. Here is the letter, in full:
"My husband has just lost his job on Wall Street. When he was in [sic] work he was impossible, living on the adrenaline of deal-making. Now he loafs around the house, sullen, full of self-pity, and criticizing everything the children or I do. I have spent years living with his over-sized ego, but now his ego has collapsed it is even worse. Is there anything I can do? Should I be sympathetic? Or shall I tell him to suck it up and be grateful we are not under any financial pressure? I am not going to divorce him, because of the children, but I'd like to know, do damaged Masters of the Universe ever recover?
Wife, 42"

One is tempted to say: these two sound like they deserve each other. And, recovery will surely require a more supportive spouse. As one reader said, he has been supporting her for these many years. It is time for her to return the favor.

One comment stood out for me. A woman who had found herself in the same situation offered that she had decided not to express her feelings. "If I had revealed how shocked and scared I was I would have sounded like that wife..." That is, like the letter-writer.

How does she sound? Not so much shocked and scared, but as exasperated and contemptuous. She seems mildly grateful that they have no financial problems, but she does not find him any better now than he was before.

When her husband was Master of the Universe, he was full of himself. To her he was "impossible." Now that he has been dethroned, she finds him insufferable.

Of course, she did marry him, so this cannot all be a surprise. And she does not want to divorce him.

So, she is stuck. He is stuck. They have attained a special kind of togetherness.

Imagine that the content of her letter is what she communicates to her husband. What is she telling him? That he is deficient no matter what he does? Why would that motivate him? In her eyes he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

Anytime a person is put in a position that he loses no matter what he does, then he will normally sink further into the living room sofa. It is a classical definition of depression, as Martin Seligman described it in Learned Optimism.

Surely, he was acting like an arrogant Master of the Universe. And now he is acting like the proverbial bull in the china shop. But just as surely, this wife's own management skills need an extreme makeover.

When a man loses a job that was the focus of his existence, he has also lost his social network and the organization of his everyday life.

That is the time when he should be able to count on his wife and family, to restore his morale, to cheer him through adversity, and to respect the time he needs to recover.

This not what this wife is offering. She is contemptuous, disengaged, and critical. She imagines showering him with sympathy. For all we know she already looks at him with pity. How better to feed his own self-pity?

In response many readers wanted this wife to understand that marriage is a partnership. As one said, she must choose between manning the pumps or abandoning ship.

This means that her first duty should be to let him know that they are in it together, that she believes in him, and that she has confidence in his ability to move on.

Had she, perchance, been expressing pride in her husband's accomplishments when he was doing well, she would be having an easy time expressing confidence in his ability to overcome his current setback.

Instead, she labeled him impossible. Having shown contempt for his boisterous, frat-boy antics, she seems to have defined their relationship as adversarial. If that is true, that would explain why he has no interest in taking her into his confidence.

Given that the situation is dire, given that she knows that she has become part of the problem and not the solution, what advice can we offer her?

First, spare us all the sympathy and pity. It suggests that he is a victim and works to stifle positive motivation.

Second, spare him the criticism. His criticism of her and the children is probably a last ditch effort to retain some pride, but she should avoiding returning like for like. This creates drama, and nothing more. (I suspect that she has not refrained from showering him with criticism.)

Third, don't tell him what to do. It never works. His pride cannot absorb the blow that would be implied if his stay-at-home wife knew more about his business than he did.

Fourth, as one reader recommended, this means that if she is going to introduce suggestions, she must label them as his. Remember when you wanted to start your own business, manage our investments full time, go back to school, travel the world, run the marathon.

Fifth, be counter-intuitive. Thank him for showing an interest in the household and the children's schoolwork. Do not denounce him as obnoxious and incompetent. He is probably feeling like he failed at his job, so he will never accept that he is also failing as a father and husband.

Sixth, send him off to the gym. Hire him a trainer, sign him up for classes. As one reader wrote in, this will organize his time, get him out of the house, and improve his mood and energy. Since this does not concern his professional competence, she can be more assertive here. Best would be if she signs him up for some training sessions with a man who has completed Marine basic training.

Seventh, jump start their social. Few things organize a household more efficiently than an incipient dinner party. She might invite other men who are in similar straits. He is surely not the only person to have been fired recently. New opportunities most often arise from current contacts.

Eighth, lightly shame him. If she is friends with women whose husbands are in similar conditions she can report on how these other men are dealing with their down time.

Ninth, appeal to his sense of responsibility. She should tell him that she understands why he wants to chill out for a while, and that she has no objection. But instead of accusing him of hurting the children, she should mention that the children look up to him, adore him, and imitate his example. Does he want them to emulate the sullen soul who has commandeered the sofa and does nothing all day?

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