This is a case study of a couple that I saw in my Couples Expert Practice. The names have been changed to protect confidentiality (or the innocent if you’re a fan of the TV show Mission Impossible). We’re going to call them Ray and Sue. They came to me with a lot of fighting, bickering and frankly, some power struggles and control issues. When I met with Ray individually to talk about his feelings about the relationship struggles, he revealed that the shame of being a “house husband” was one of the big issues for him.
Sue and Ray are a couple in their late 30s, both college educated and both white collar professionals. Sue has a law degree and is working in a metropolitan law firm, and Ray is an English professor who was teaching at a local university. That is, until Sue and Ray had their first child. When little Chloe was born and Sue returned to work after her maternity leave, they made a considered decision for Ray to stay at home with their child while Sue continued her quest to be made a partner in her law firm. It made sense since Sue made more money than Ray did.
Ray applied for and received a writing grant to allow him to continue working, it was a small stipend, but at least he was able to bring in some income and work on his dream of writing his first book. Ray and Sue had been married for 6 years, had planned starting their family, but this decision for Ray to stay at home was something they had not planned for. When the time came, they simply could not bear the thought of someone else taking care of their baby. Ray saw it as an opportunity to do two things; be a great Dad, and to achieve a professional goal so he readily agreed. Little did he know how events would unfold that would culminate with them sitting in my office getting relationship counseling to save their marriage.
It’s the feelings of shame and guilt Ray communicated to me; that had him struggling with this decision; shame that he was no longer the breadwinner in the home; that his wife was bearing the majority of the financial burden. He felt less than able by allowing himself to be supported by his partner.
Guilt that he felt like he was failing in his career, failing in his relationship and he wasn’t showing his daughter a good role model of a confident and happy father who could support and protect his family. He also felt increasing insecurities that his wife would be surrounded daily by successful attractive men. He felt like he had zero control over the finances because Sue was the primary earner, and it galled him to ask her for money, and most financial discussions ended up in a fight. It had him feeling very upset that he’d agreed to this arrangement, and now he felt trapped in this role of house husband and felt he had no way out. He would be going back on his word to Sue if he backed out of the arrangement to pursue a different course.
Sue, on the other hand was happy with the arrangement. She could go to her high stress job knowing that her daughter was being well cared for. She had no issues with being the primary breadwinner. She felt that their financial plan was fine that her husband was doing a great job and everything was good at home. We started talking about their emotional closeness and a reduction in their intimacy and affection and feeling less connected than hey had been before. Sue acknowledged the change and attributed that to them both being busy and overtired. She really wasn’t aware of the depth of Ray’s feelings about his role in the relationship.
It was getting complicated for them to be happy and in love with this issue standing between them. My counsel was to facilitate an authentic discussion between them to share their true feelings about this to each other without anger and fighting but to share as a team. The solution was for Sue and Ray to evaluate this decision and see if this was the right decision for them. Not all couples are able to balance this role reversal. For those that can, it can be a wonderful thing. The husband who takes on this role has to be confident and sure of his ability to deal with these issues as they may come up without it becoming a negative force in the relationship. Resentment, guilt and other negative emotions have no place in a successful relationship. These issues have to be addressed with the two of you being a unified team who is working towards the same goals, not pulling against each other.