Ask Polly: How Can I Forgive My Husband?

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Dear Polly,

I can't forgive my husband. We moved our family recently so he could take a very prestigious and exciting fellowship. I left a stable but unfulfilling career in a male-dominated/mom-unfriendly industry to allow my husband to pursue this opportunity and keep our family together. I thought that this might be an opportunity for me to take a break, as I was experiencing significant burnout and wanted to drastically change my career course. Besides, we were moving to a place with expensive and difficult-to-find child care for our 2-year-old son and no family/friend network nearby, so I didn't see a way for us to move and both begin working right away.

We discussed this, and although I hoped that when I got here I would find potential career paths that sparked my interest and would begin working again sooner rather than later, we recognized that I might have trouble finding a job right away without an established network, and while caring for our son and orchestrating the move. Therefore we both expected my unemployment to last a while. We decided that we could afford it if we didn’t do much saving, and that it was worth it to keep us all together, facilitate my husband's participation in the prestigious fellowship, and maybe give me a chance to find a new career.

The transition was hard. Not working outside of the home, moving to a place with no contacts or structure, and having no career plan for the first time in my life was extremely stressful. I am loving spending so much time with my son, but it was a big transition for him as well, and we've both had good and bad periods.

Since we moved here, my husband has been on me about "getting a job." He now says that "exploring your options" sounds flaky, and he doesn't understand why I am not contacting people and sending out résumés, etc. He has given me no time and doesn't seem to understand how stressful this is for me. I found part-time day care, which he insisted that we get. But he then insisted that we couldn't afford it unless I started working part-time, which I have begun to do through tutoring and some freelance jobs.

We have been working through this together and we came to the conclusion that he is insecure about being the sole wage-earner in a job that is temporary and is afraid of what will happen at the end of his fellowship. However, we went into this knowing that, and that we could afford the year, and that my goal was to find employment within that time. His lack of support and disappointment in me is devastating; I feel it is totally uncalled for, and that it’s a breach of trust to let me drop stable employment so he could pursue this opportunity, only to blame me for not finding stable employment here.

He seems to be very contrite and more self-aware now. He has been able to articulate his anxieties and expectations of me in a reasonable and more self-aware way. However, I am so angry and upset and hurt at how he treated me and how I feel he pulled the rug out from underneath me. I am almost always on the verge of blowing up at him, ready to hear judgment and passive-aggressive digs in whatever he says. I always thought that, whatever anyone else thought of me, my husband saw me and what I did and cared about and was capable of, and loved me for it, but now I don't trust that that is true. How do we get past this?

Furious


Dear Furious,

When I read your first line — "I can't forgive my husband" — I assumed that you were going to tell me that right after your move, he started having an affair with someone at work. I was bracing myself for a potentially catastrophic marriage scenario. Instead, you're describing pretty run-of-the-mill marriage challenges, the sorts of things that inevitably pop up when one or both partners are under a lot of stress. Your husband made a mistake while he was feeling extremely anxious — about moving, having a young kid, worrying about his new position, money, the future, you, etc. He said the wrong thing and maybe even did the wrong thing in insisting on part-time child care, thereby forcing you into a position where your savings wouldn't last a year after all.

But look, your kid entered part-time care without you putting your foot down about it. You say your husband "insisted" on this, yet you're describing a relationship dynamic that sounds pretty egalitarian. So I'm guessing that some part of you thought it might be nice to have a break from your toddler now and then.

And who wouldn't think that? Toddlers are insanely taxing, particularly when you're also in a new place with no family and no career and you're worried about your future, your new life as a mother, your marriage, everything. It was natural for you to go along with the part-time day-care plan, and honestly, I think it was a good idea for everyone involved. You don't want to be stressed out and bewildered and spending every waking hour with a 2-year-old. Most mothers feel the same way. Why? Because it takes a village to raise a kid, and we do not have a goddamn village. Typically, what we have is a huge rent or mortgage payment and one measly salary and frayed nerves and no family within spitting distance. Don't walk around imagining that everyone has a mother or father-in-law or aunt on call, either. I know very few people with busy careers who have a reliable network of free child care.

Before you learn to forgive your husband, though, first you need to forgive yourself. You are the first-time mother of a 2-year-old in a new town with a stressed-out, busy spouse to lean on. Forgive yourself for not kicking ass and taking names career-wise. Forgive yourself for not being the world's best ever stay-at-home mother. (Those who paint this impression of themselves usually run sponsored lifestyle blogs.) Forgive yourself for pitching a plan to your husband that YOU YOURSELF feel shaky about. You feel nervous that you'll never decide what to do next, and that anxiety is bubbling up to the surface. You feel ashamed. You're used to being a badass on every front, so this is unfamiliar territory. Then your husband says, "Forget our plan! You're going to bury us while you sit around with our son, trying to make up your mind! And you're not even cheerful and happy when I come home anyway, you're grumpy and you shove the kid into my arms!" And that makes you feel angry and ashamed and sick and confused.

Listen up, you and the rest of the new parents out there: That's just how it feels to have a baby at first, and almost every couple under the sun has a conversation like this (or several of them) during their first year as parents. As a new mother, you feel like you're failing at EVERYTHING, and you can't believe that your partner gets to disappear while you sit at home and fail and fail and fail. It feels insane. You feel like a loser and a disappointment, on top of all the stress and lack of sleep that goes with having a baby.

I know that feeling. But your husband is contrite. It sounds like it took some time, but he understands the many pressures on you now. It sounds like he understands that the last thing in the world you want to do is stay at home while you both sink into debt. He can see how seriously you're taking this situation. He knows you want to sort it out. He was stressed out and he didn't think about how terrible it would feel for you, a woman who has always supported herself, if he suddenly laid on the guilt and changed the plan and expected you to run out the door and get a job without taking time to mull over your career path first. He was careless and his words made you feel panicked and angry.

So yes, he made a mistake and he knows it. Your continuing anger at him is unjustified. You know that, and that's why you want my help. You can't get over it. You're stuck.

Why are you stuck? Because you feel like you have to decide on a new career VERY QUICKLY now, and time is running out, and you're mad about that. Because you're just not sure what to do next, plus YOU'RE the one who watches the boy several hours every day while your husband gets to feel like a productive member of society. You're not sure HOW you'll ever decide on something so quickly. You hate yourself for not working, and you hate yourself for not being the perfect mother, and you hate your husband for noticing that you're not perfect at everything.

This is an extraordinary moment in your life. This is the point where you really grow up and learn who you are. This is where you find out how strong you really are, and how patient and kind and accepting your husband actually is, and how much you love him. You write, "I always thought that, whatever anyone else thought of me, my husband saw me and what I did and cared about and was capable of, and loved me for it, but now I don't trust that that is true." God, do I understand that. But nothing has changed. Can you trust ME on that? The fact that you position your husband as the one person who stands up for you makes me think that you may be a person who struggles with trust in your close relationships and friendships. But be careful not to project your fears onto your husband right now. He's the same loyal, devoted man he always was and he still appreciates you. You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable about your feelings in order to hear him tell you that. You have to tell him, in a soft way, how much this shook your confidence. You have to ask him to reassure you that you can decide your own pace in sorting out your career. Ask him for that directly. Be humble about it.

And if you haven't talked to him about other people in your life who've turned out to be untrustworthy, who didn't give you time and space to be who you are, who didn't stand by you and stand up for you, then you should do that, too. Talking about that stuff will make your marriage stronger, and it will make your husband less likely to freak out and say the wrong thing in anger. He'll be more protective of your feelings.

I know you're feeling terrible right now, but you're lucky to have this opportunity. This is an important turning point in your marriage.

Now here's the other side of the picture: This is also a great moment for you to see your husband and what he does and cares about and is capable of, and love him for it, no matter what. He's fearful about the future. He feels unsure what will happen after his fellowship ends. Being the main breadwinner makes him feel just as jittery as NOT being a breadwinner makes you feel. And honestly? I think you may be more Type A and more driven than he is, and maybe he actually prefers having you in the lead. He's wondering if he can really manage being the one who keeps everything glued together.

You two complement each other well, I bet. Don't set your life on fire over something this small. Be honest about how much time you'll need to figure out your career and hammer out a timeline and a budget. Resist the temptation to get defensive at every turn.

The most important thing you can learn to do, in a marriage, is resist the urge to blame. There are SO MANY opportunities to blame your spouse for almost anything, every day. "The houseplants died, the kids aren't bathed like you said they'd be, this pasta is overcooked, my feet hurt and I'm tired and somehow that's your fault, too." But you aren't married to some boss-man type who's holding your year-end bonus over your head and he won't give it to you if you don't cook his eggs like he likes 'em. You're with someone who's open and flexible and honest. Instead of blaming, explain your needs, let go of your anger, expose the sadness and vulnerability behind it, and always come back to this: "I support you and I love you and I just want us both to feel good about our life together."

I think you've been through some hard times with other people. Don't let that affect the way you see your husband, who is loyal and true to you and flexible enough to see your side. Don't let it change the way you see yourself, either. If you have open conversations about this, you'll only grow closer.

But you have to forgive him for his weakness under stress. He's flawed and he can't always do everything the right way. No one can. The fact that he's flawed doesn’t mean that he's untrustworthy, or that he'll let you down over and over again.

You are both flawed. Accept it and embrace it. Laugh about it, even. You will both make more mistakes, because that's what flawed people do. This is the real start of your love story.

Polly


Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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