Reality bites: How do you change everything?

Dear Carolyn:      

Sometimes I think I'd like someone to rescue me from my life– someone to make it so I don't have to work anymore, and I just sit back and not think about anything serious or responsible.      

I know this comes from having always been the "responsible" one, and it's gotten to the point where I'd love to make some very significant life changes, but I find myself unable to do so because of what seem like insurmountable obstacles. I'd love a job in a slightly different field, but I get paid a lot where I am, and I would have to take a pay cut if I went anywhere else, plus I would probably need more education, which I can't afford and don't have time for.      

I would also love to end my marriage and move back to the part of the world I'm from, but I haven't been able to figure how to manage either of those things.      

How does one balance out desire and reality to cobble a life that feels right? Or maybe there is no real right, and we're all just fumbling around looking for greener pastures that don't exist. – Wishing for Greener Grass          

We're never just one "if only... " away from a perfect life, because there's clearly no such thing, if that's what you mean. But there is some room to fiddle with the desire/reality balance. You don't have to hate your job, marriage and location for the rest of your life because that's what reality ordered.      

The pertinent question is, which changes to which element of your life will bring the most satisfaction– and for the least gratuitous pain?      

Figuring that out requires a level of rational detachment that's difficult in your current state, which I suspect is depressed. I'm not a mental health professional of any kind, so please start this process by seeking the opinion of one.      

You might dismiss this suggestion because you can see such clear, non-medical reasons to be down. It's not either-or, though; blues don't have an external cause or an internal one. The two can be independent or work in tandem.      

Yes, time and money are scarce, and therapy requires both– but it's hard to think of anything more costly and time-burning than trying to live an ill-fitting life. Seeing a good therapist for even a couple of appointments, scrounged and planned for, can help de-clutter the path to a significant life decision.      

Therapy or no, the next step I urge is to dismantle, piece by piece, your wall of "can't." You aren't trying to flap your arms to the moon; you can, in fact, change jobs, live on less, re-train, move, separate. Whether any of these is a good idea takes us back to the pertinent question, but you can't hope to answer it unless you purge your defeatist thinking.      

How? By seeing "can't" for what it is. You can change jobs, for example; you just choose not to absorb a pay cut. You eliminate "can't" by revisiting each of these choices, and reorienting each toward what you want. Right now, your focus appears to be on getting away from what you don't want, which invites a sense of hopelessness.      

Just as futility is over-represented here, truth seems too scarce. Does your spouse even know how unhappy you are? Intimacy makes a marriage, and withholding the kind of pain you're feeling starves intimacy, which launches your marriage into a death spiral.      

Give it and your spouse a chance to be something in your life that works. Or, if that's not possible, then just choose not to be the next person who blindsides a spouse with "This isn't working" as a fait accompli. Admit you're in trouble, out loud. Even if you leave out any details that feel reckless to include, you'll still set change in motion. That's what you fear, I get that, but it seems like time to accept that the status quo carries risks of its own. 

Dear Carolyn:      

The other day I was having a conversation with my mom and she said marriages are really about power. I am finding that, days later, I'm still really bothered by it. I am feeling angry (because that seems unfair to my dad), feeling sorry for her, but also wondering if maybe there's some truth to what she is saying. What do you think?– Anonymous      

I think it's worth digging into why this bugs you so much, including a follow-up with your mom.      

I also think there's some truth to it, but I'd say unhealthy marriages are about power.      

The healthy ones are about equilibrium– meaning, the power question is resolved to the satisfaction of both. Spouses whose needs are mostly being met and whose voices are being heard aren't the ones battling to have their way, their day, their say.

Dear Carolyn:      

I live with my boyfriend in his elderly mom's paid-for vacation home. She comes to visit a few times a year for a few days each time, and we are expected to provide meals and entertain her. I'm totally OK with this. When she's not here we care for the home as if it were our own: paying house bills, doing maintenance, paying for repairs, etc. Again, totally OK with this. I'm very thankful to live in her beautiful home with her wonderful son.       Here's the reason for writing: Once or twice a year, one of my boyfriend's siblings wants to use the house as a vacation home for his family and friends. Totally fine, but I'd rather leave town so they can use it freely. Boyfriend wants to stay to enjoy their visit, so we stay. While they are very nice to me, I feel awkward.      

Also, Boyfriend wants to make everything perfect for their arrival so we spend lots of time prepping and then have to clean after their departure. Visiting sibling makes way more money than us, but we foot the utility and food bills as well– again, at Boyfriend's insistence.      

Boyfriend thinks I'm being unreasonable in not enjoying (OK, in resenting) these visits.      

Part of me is willing to consider that he's right, but the other part feels put upon. I have my own home nearby, but Boyfriend insisted we live here for various reasons, so I'm no homeless freeloader. What do you think? If you say it's my issue and I should let it go, then I will.       – Conflicted

Whether you need it is irrelevant; accepting free stuff means accepting whatever strings are attached.      

Are some of those strings unnecessary? Perhaps. I think maintenance and Mom-hosting are the price you have to pay for using the home, whereas hosting the sibling is the price your boyfriend wants to pay for using the home. "Have to" means universal standards for decency demand it; "wants to" means your boyfriend's individual standards for conscience demand it.      

I suppose that means it's more negotiable, but what's to be gained by seeing it that way? Presumably such generous hosting helps your boyfriend avoid feeling like, to use your words, a "homeless freeloader." You're loath to appear as one even anonymously to us, so surely you can sympathize with his need to prove his value and gratitude to his innermost circle.      

Let's take it a step further, even: Isn't this a quality to celebrate in him, not resent?      

Yes, his efforts come at a cost to your comfort and convenience, and there is something primal about feeling as if your own home isn't truly yours. But it, um, isn't.      

And, you've apparently decided that Boyfriend's reasons for insisting on this home take priority over your reasons for wanting to live in yours. You've also made your resentment clear to Boyfriend, and he hasn't budged. Together, these mean you either need to accept this full-frontal hosting as part of that whole package, or reject the whole package as not worth this particular cost.      

Besides – after putting in a friendly appearance, you can leave when the sibling comes, can't you?            

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.            

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