Hi, Carolyn: My husband just took the bar exam a few weeks ago. He is working now as a clerk and waiting for results. He put himself through part-time law school and he is really dedicated to his career, which is great. I’ve supported him since the beginning. I knew when he was studying for the bar, I would be taking up most of the house and child care and that was fine.
What I didn’t expect was to be such an emotional support for him. I didn’t say anything when he was studying because I want him to succeed and there was an end date in sight. But now, as soon as our kid is in bed, all he can talk about is anxiety over passing and rehashing his answers. I am exhausted of hearing this. Last night I told him he needs to cut it out, and that everybody is always asking him how he feels about the bar exam, but nobody asks me how it feels to support him. He told me that’s how he felt when I was pregnant and postpartum.
I was so shocked by that I slept on the couch and haven’t talked to him since. I get the bar exam is a big deal, but comparing it to pregnancy seems so unbelievable.
I have to talk to him sometime, obviously, and I have no idea where to start with this. Just that I can’t deal with at least a month more of this anxiety.
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Motherhood is too sacred to touch? The comparison with passing the bar somehow trivializes childbirth?
Or did he get too close to a world-flipping, utterly de-martyrizing truth for you to form any words in response?
I’m going with “C.”
Obviously there are apple-and-orange qualities to pregnancy and professional credentials. But if you look at the structure of what he’s talking about, those differences aren’t relevant: This is about managing a high-stakes life change that involves deep preparation, exhaustion, anxiety about the future and an appreciable impact on daily life for both the principal player and the supporting cast.
If anything, looking at it that way, he has the edge here: He took the brunt of studying while leaning on you; you took the brunt of pregnancy while leaning on him. OK so far. But all the while, through your pregnancy, he was becoming a father – an enormous transition for him. You’re becoming, through his bar anxiety … the wife of a lawyer (or clerk for a bit longer).
No matter what one’s opinion of the legal profession, I think we can agree that he was facing bigger, more support-worthy changes through your transition than you are through his.
I did the bean-counting for you here because it’s so corrosive for spouses themselves to do it. Also corrosive, though, is not even checking the beans before mouthing off about an assumed marital-attention imbalance.
And about that mouthing off. In your letter, you expose two forms of toxic non-communication: Saying nothing nothing nothing about your bar-fatigue and then, boom, snapping at him to “cut it out”; and now giving him the silent treatment because he said something you didn’t like. Silence is abuse.
Doing this is rough on those who love you, because you don’t let them see, much less help solve, any conflicts until they boil over – but it’s also bad for you. Who’s going to be emotionally honest with you when you punish people for it?
And it betrays a focus on self versus partnership: You avoid the sometimes difficult back-and-forth that mutual respect depends on, and save it all for an outburst of victimhood.
So please stop, both the withholding and lashing-out. Instead, when you have a concern, first put yourself in the other person’s position, see what he or she might be thinking. Entertain many options, too, not just the ones that suit your own worldview or vanity. Often that alone can put a concern in perspective.
If it doesn’t, then broach the issue promptly – as fact-seeking, not pound-of-flesh seeking. As in, to use the bar example: “Are you OK?” “Does talking about it help, or am I your chief enabler as you drive yourself nuts?” “I’m probably half as sick of it as you are, and I’m so done – can I be useful in some other way, or do you just want to ride out the rest of the month?”
Getting this out before you reach exhaustion means you give him a friendlier face to respond to, the benefits of which can’t be overstated. And, you leave yourself sufficient resources to respond in more thoughtful ways than huffing off to the couch.
So, “where to start”? See your overreaction. Apologize for it. Admit it never occurred to you that he supported you during pregnancy while likely being terrified himself of parenthood. Say you’re sorry you let it be all about you.
Then, ask. “Is there some better way I can help?”
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.