More Work Life Balance – Retiring a Spouse For More Freedom?
by Susan Sly
It seemed like a good idea at the time; something we had romanticized. Imagine defying the much loved American Dream and creating a new one for ourselves. By ‘retiring’ my well-educated, professional husband from his self-proclaimed boring career as a C.P.A., we could now be together, at home, present for our children, never missing a daytime recital, taking vacations when we wanted to, not worrying about sick days, and essentially living life on our own terms. We were looking for a greater sense of work-life balance, and it seemed like our own version of paradise.
We set a number – one that I would achieve in the home-based business I had started. It had to be multiple six figures in order to not only replace my husband’s salary, but also to give us a healthy buffer should the income fall. I don’t think my husband actually believed I would do it, thus when it happened, I demanded he live into his end of the bargain and come home.
So did we obtain more work life balance?
The early days were filled with a mixture of euphoria and shock. My husband did not know what to do with himself, and suddenly, I had this thirty-six-year-old man puttering around the house aimlessly. I had thought that he would assist me in business, an assumption that would later lead to fighting disappointment, hiring coaches, and eventually going to therapy. The reality was that we had achieved our goal; however, we had spent more time dreaming about all of the joys of this new era in our lives and somehow conveniently forgotten to really dig into what our new roles would be.
My husband had been the primary income earner for years. When I took maternity leave with our son, he out-earned me three to one. As my business grew and I was paying more in taxes than he was earning, I reasoned that his work was actually costing us money. I thought that we could work together and be equal partners. I didn’t anticipate him being so lost. Here was a man entering his prime in terms of climbing the corporate ladder and now he was relegated to diaper duty, carpooling, and trying to figure out how he fit. Needless to say, he went back to work, taking a new job as a corporate comptroller.
More work life balance or more issues?
He was miserable at his job. He vented about the commute. He complained about the bureaucracy. Although he found himself enjoying the feeling of importance, we once again dreamed of him coming home. I got pregnant with our third child and he did come home only to feel lost all over again. There were fights. There were tears. And he went back to work again, this time as CFO of a drug company.
The complaining began again. He was bored. He didn’t like his job. I wanted to rescue him, so we decided that he would come home once and for all. We reasoned that this time he would help me in business. We would hire him a coach and he would figure out his role. He came home and tried, in his own, way to figure out how to find his purpose. We fought again. He criticized the way I was doing things. There was resentment; however, this time he didn’t go back. Now, after being home for almost eight years, he still feels lost and this has caused a great deal of acrimony on both of our parts.
I don’t like to live with regret, but this was definitely not the life we had envisioned when we initially discussed my husband coming home. It took two of us to make the decision, and we both wonder if it was the right one.
This didn’t appear to be the key to the more work life balance we had been seeking.
What I didn’t anticipate was the intense feels of pressure of being the sole income earner, and the mommy, and the person who plans every vacation, doctor’s visit, and orchestrates our lives. As a work-life balance expert, I have found ways to create daily balanced moments, but living with someone who can’t seem to find their groove after all this time can definitely detract from what would otherwise be quite a beautiful existence.
Four out of ten American households have a woman as either the sole or primary income earner, according to a study conducted by Pew Research. Some of these households, approximately twenty-five percent, are run by single mothers.
Nonetheless, that leaves a healthy fifteen percent of homes with a woman at the income helm. For some, this may feel liberating and perhaps garner an, ‘it’s about time.’
For others, this version of more work life balance creates a new role reversal with undertones of stress, as we attempt to navigate areas that our parents were not as likely to experience.
My friend, a corporate executive with three young children, relocated to the U.S. with her family. Under her work visa, her husband was not able to work. He sulked around the house and took every opportunity to vent his frustration at her. She was running a massive, international team during the day, essentially living into her dream job, and coming home to a sullen, passive aggressive husband. She finally laid down the law and threatened divorce. He got himself together and things are good now. She credits getting honest, setting new boundaries, and very specific ground rules on saving her marriage.
In our life, my husband eventually came to a place whereby he assumed the role of CFO of our companies, liaised with the numerous lawyers and accountants, and although perhaps this is not his passion, it is his area of conscious competency. He wasn’t ready to embrace the world of entrepreneurship; he likes certainty and low-risk. I, on the other hand, only know this life – growing up in a family business and starting my own business at the age of eleven. Although I like a degree of certainty, I am fully aware that running businesses comes with levels of exposure to variables that are anything but certain. Today, almost seventeen years into our relationship, we are finding our stride.
I work with many women who dream of retiring their partners and creating a new paradigm. For those of us who have done it, the stories tend to be similar – initial euphoria, disappointment, and even resentment by both parties. It doesn’t have to be that way, as I have met several couples who have successfully been able to figure out a way to make things work, even if it means re-thinking the dream and having the partner go back to work on a full or part-time basis.
If you think retiring a spouse will help you obtain or achieve more work-life balance, my advice to anyone considering bringing their partner home would be the following:
1. Stop Fantasizing and Get Real
Set aside several hours to talk about the reality of what it will be like when you are both at home. Make a list of all of the daily chores and activities and get honest about who will do what. Creating clarity around expectations is critical.
2. Have The ‘Money’ Talk
If you are the primary income earner, how is it going to feel when you are literally giving your partner an allowance? What will happen when they buy you a gift and you know exactly how much of your money was spent? If a partner is coming home, they have to have access to funds – how much, how often, and will there be stipulations on spending? Who will ‘control’ the money? When I coach people in this situation, I recommend having a joint bank account and also separate discretionary accounts to help to retain a degree of empowerment.
3. Re-Define Your Roles
When my husband earned more money and had a job outside the house, I had a role, and so did he. There were expectations in these roles. You may not think you are living into roles in your relationship, but trust me – you are either consciously or subconsciously living into some form of expectation, which inherently is defined as a role. When one partner decides to stay home, the roles will shift. Old patterns from childhood may surface. You might come home from a hard day at work and find that the house is a disaster. Your partner was there all day and didn’t clean up. Now you are furious, because like it or not, you had expectations and they were not living into their role.
4. Meet Outside the Home
Having a neutral place to discuss topics that may be heated is essential. If you have children, avoid talking topics that may be contentious as they will always pick up on this energy. Children are exceptionally intuitive. My husband and I have our discussions when we run in the morning. This allows us to be out in nature and get anything off our chests that requires clearing.
5. Hire a Mediator
A coach or a trained therapist can act as a mediator when it comes to redefining roles and the challenges that come as a result of change. A good mediator will be neutral, unbiased, and help you define common goals. Marriages can often be saved with the right third party.
Lastly, if you are contemplating ‘retiring’ your partner, or already have, remember why you did it in the first place. What was it you were both dreaming of? Was the goal greater work-life balance by having one, or both of you, at home? If you can remember why you did something in the first place and capture some form of excitement, you will be just fine. All change comes with a degree of discomfort; knowing that ahead of time can help you navigate the fulfilling, and possibly frustrating, existence of bringing your partner home.
Susan Sly is a best selling author, work life balance expert, speaker and entrepreneur. She has appeared on CNN, CNBC, Fox, Lifetime Television and the CBN. Susan is the mother of five children and resides in Scottsdale, Arizona.
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