The Other Half
In the past year, I’ve heard from many readers that share my sentiments about practicing dentistry and wanting to change. There was one element that I hadn’t really thought about sharing until someone brought it to my attention. A while back, I received an email from a man whose wife followed my blog because she, too, was unhappy in dentistry. He mentioned that as the spouse, he occasionally stopped in to read it looking for some insight and advice. There’s a fine balance of how you can lend support but maintain certain boundaries, and be firm yet gentle about what you expect. As I write this post, I realize that it isn’t only for the husbands and wives that share our lives with us, but it can also offer some insight about how our own unhappiness can affect the whole family.
Support is the most important thing a spouse can provide in this situation. I am lucky to have a very supportive husband who believes life is too short to waste it being miserable. He encouraged me to change. I could not and probably would not have changed without him. He once said to me, “I don’t care what we have to do. If we have to sell our house and move into a smaller place, that’s fine. You just need to be happy.” Having a partner on my side gave me that extra bit of confidence and courage I needed to follow through with change… but more importantly it forced me to be held accountable for my words and actions.
As the spouse, it’s also important to ask yourself what you really want from your life. Do you want to walk through life with a miserable partner or a content one? Do you prefer to have a spouse that makes a nice living regardless of how it makes them feel, or are you willing to sacrifice certain things to help them become a positive, happy figure in your life?
Did you ever have that friend who is in an unhappy relationship? Every time you are together, it’s one big sob story about how terrible it is. After hearing about the same problems over and over, you eventually just want it to stop. Your friend has become so focused on the problem that they struggle to hold a conversation about anything else. You really want to scream, “either break up, or stop talking about it already! How many times can you rehash the same story over and over?” Instead, you avoid this tough love approach and end up listening– a lot. You may occasionally slip in a gentle suggestion to break up or change, but you don’t want to sound too forceful because you know it is really not your place to tell someone else how to live their life.
It’s hard to watch people we care about continue to suffer but simultaneously make decisions that prolong that suffering. Your spouse is going through a similar relationship struggle with their career. They are in a long-term relationship with dentistry. It is a relationship in which they have invested a lot and feel very tied to. They will have to come to terms with this relationship and the loss and change associated with letting it go on their own terms. Whatever process it takes to lead us to take action is different for all of us. Pushing might only lead to resistance and anger. You might be sick of hearing the same complaints, but sometimes people just need a teammate, someone to take their side and agree how shitty it is. However, this cannot go on forever. At some point, you may have to confront how it affects you. When it comes time to encourage action, be sensitive to how hard it may actually be to face it, and then do so while expressing your desire to support.
Remember when I said that one night my husband said to me, “I don’t care what we have to do. If we have to sell our house and move into a smaller place, that’s fine. You just need to be happy”? Well, what he also said in that same conversation was, “we can’t do this anymore. Our marriage will not survive if you keep this up.” His patience was running out. My complaining was driving him insane, and I was so self-absorbed that I had no idea what I was doing to him! It wasn’t an ultimatum or a threat. It was a call to action, a plea, and it certainly got my attention. He was able to express to me (and I was capable of hearing) that not only was this causing a chronic problem, but that he would support me in whatever solution I chose. He was right, and we both knew it. I just needed to know that he was behind, and I needed a reminder that my emotions weren’t the only ones being affected by my behavior.
It’s important to be honest about how your spouse’s emotional state affects you. My husband’s candor helped me to notice how crappy it must have been to come home after a long day of work, excited to see his wife, only to have the simple question of “how was your day?” bring on daily rants and complaints of how bad it was. Poor guy. He didn’t need that. I was so worried about how miserable I was, that I failed to see that I was making my husband feel those same things. It wasn’t until he told me that I was able to look beyond myself and understand the impact my unhappiness was having on him.
Continue to discuss what’s going on, and find out the extent and depth of the problem. Don’t sweep everything under the rug thinking it will make the problem go away. After I discovered how destructive I was being to my husband, I shut down for fear of exposing him to my problems and fear that he would think I was a doomed, depressed person. This wasn’t a solution either. It only alienated us from each other for a while. When he discovered things still weren’t okay, he felt shock and guilt and maybe even a slight bit of betrayal that I felt I couldn’t share this with him. After we sorted this out, he understood the gravity of my problem, and I no longer had to carry the weight of my stress all alone. This freedom and teamwork shifted our attitudes to allow us to work together to reach movement in change.
We have a friend who once implied to my husband that he must be really annoyed by the fact that I wanted to quit my career and that I was weak, or lazy, or whatever definition he wanted to give me for this. I always felt grateful that my husband disagreed with his perceptions (and that I didn’t marry that guy.) Trust me. We judge ourselves enough that we don’t need those close to us piling on any more disapproval. It will not push us into action any sooner or even change how we feel about our careers. Have faith in your mate that they know themselves enough to determine whether they need to change or not. Most dentists aren’t going to simply switch careers on a whim. Most dentists probably share at least 1 trait (okay 2): we strive for the best, and we are generally very hard on ourselves. When we consider a career change, we have already spent an eternity criticizing ourselves and worrying about who else is judging our “failures.” What we need from our support team is faith and confidence.
Working through this issue together requires a fine balance of contradictions. As the wannabe career-changer or the spouse, what have you experienced together to keep you stuck or get you moving?