The newest addition to the Dear Prudence lineup, the mini-column, is moving to Saturday for a spell. This week: career envy and work friendships.
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My wife and I are both women in our late 20s, working as classically trained musicians. We always support each other in this unpredictably brutal industry, but I find myself at a loss. We’re both ambitious but try not to compare ourselves to each other. Lately I’ve been getting a lot of positive career feedback and have taken bigger risks as a result. I’ve struggled with self-confidence in the past, but I’ve been working with a therapist and finally feeling better. Unfortunately, my wife has been getting a lot of critical feedback and has become very depressed, even considering abandoning the craft. She tried therapy a few times but didn’t like it.
I’m beginning to feel like my success is painful to her rather than something we can both be excited about. I don’t want to share my good news because it usually ends in her tears, and I hate that my good news is what hurts her. What makes it even harder is that I can’t understand why she’s unsuccessful. I think she’s fantastic, and I tell her that as often as possible! This industry is just unpredictable. I know that she feels horribly guilty that she can’t be excited for me, but also I’m starting to feel a bit down on myself again and like I don’t want to keep succeeding at her expense. My wife is hesitant to go to therapy with me, but I no longer feel equipped to handle the new dynamic. How can I continue uplifting and supporting my grieving wife without diminishing my own success and, frankly, happiness? I love her so much and fear I’m coming up short. Are we just fulfilling another lesbian co-dependency stereotype?
—Wives, Colleagues, Competitors
The good news is that you are not fulfilling any stereotypes. The bad news is that there’s a limit to how much you can do to fix this situation as long as your wife refuses to take steps to break herself out of this pattern. I don’t doubt that she really does feel guilty over her inability to experience happiness when something good happens to you, but that guilt is actually facilitating a cycle where she never has to change: “Something good has happened to my wife, which is bad, because it reminds me of how awful my own career is, which is bad, because it reminds me that I’m a monster who can’t even be happy for her own wife, which means that I’m fundamentally incapable of being happy for her, which means that there’s no point in going to therapy or changing careers or even just finding different ways to talk about our careers together, because this is totally out of my control.” Whew! I’m wiped out just from typing that.
I’m very glad that you’re seeing a therapist yourself, and I hope you can impress upon your wife the importance of finding a couples counselor you two can see together. Presumably you both hope to be married for a long time, and over the course of your lives together, you can reasonably expect that there will be times when one of you is doing well (professionally, socially, emotionally) and the other one isn’t. It will serve you both well in the long run to find ways to talk about your varying levels of success, perceived or otherwise. At this point, it’s clear that you’re doing all you can to be supportive and not speak insensitively about your successes to your wife. The work now needs to come from her—to find ways to talk about her insecurities and fears openly and without blame, to take action, to decide whether this is the right career for her, and if so, what professional help she needs from colleagues or mentors (or anyone she’s not married to) in order to make progress.
I have a friend who I met through work a few years ago. We used to be really close, texting all the time and hanging out. We really supported each other through a pretty toxic workplace. We’ve had some issues and tension but have generally worked through them. I left the organization in October and have tried to stay in touch with her; however, things seem to have become strained. She never reaches out and sometimes doesn’t even respond when I do. I know in the past she has struggled with some mental health issues, mainly depression, but usually she was pretty open with what she’s going through. I miss talking to her and hearing about her life. I miss the support she gave me and feeling like a valued friend. I’m not sure if this behavior of hers is related to me—perhaps she’s trying to cool the friendship or doesn’t value it as much or is just going through a difficult time right now. I want to be supportive and see what’s going on but also don’t want to be burdensome and ask, “Why aren’t you talking to me as much” because I feel like that could put pressure on her and drive her away. I’m also worried if I let this silence hold that it will become the new norm and we’ll never get back to the lighthearted friendship we had. This has been going on for almost four months now and is only getting more distant and strained each week.
—Trying to Be a Good Friend
My guess is that if your former workplace is as toxic as it sounds, your friend is probably dealing with some resentment that you’ve been able to escape before she does and is pulling away at least in part so she doesn’t end up taking it out on you. It may be taking most of her energy just to get through every day at work! I think you can gently acknowledge the recent change in your relationship and let her know that, on your side of things at least, you’ll always be there if she wants to talk, without putting pressure on her or asking for the kind of support she used to give you when the two of you saw each other almost every day. Something like, “I’ve missed talking to you lately, but I know work must be really stressful and keeping you busy. I don’t want to bother you if I’m checking in too often, so just know that I’d love to hear from you anytime and I hope you’ll call if you ever want to get lunch of catch up over the phone,” makes it clear that you’re not angry or trying to demand something out of her, while also leaving the door open for renewed closeness whenever she’s feeling less overwhelmed. But it may just be that what you thought was going to become a long-standing relationship was in fact one of those workplace friendships that don’t long survive a move or a promotion, and you’ll have to mourn that loss privately.
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