advice: how to encourage and not belittle

QUESTION FROM A GREEK TRAGEDY READER: How do you rally the troops for a significant other who has fallen in on themselves? We moved across the country a little over a year ago, and have struggled endlessly ever since. The job market has been wholly unforgiving, with him being unemployed and myself being underemployed the entire time. He recently sat for a licensing exam he has spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears on only to miss the passing mark by an anguishing hair. I managed to escape the wretched job market by going back to school for a Masters degree, but he’s headlong and neck deep into a graduate degree for almost $200k. We coulda-woulda-shoulda scenarios all day, but the point now is, how do I motivate him without making him feel any more beaten up than he currently feels? This is especially hard being the partner in the relationship who is finally excelling in an area I’m rabidly passionate about.

straight up advice

Before I give my two cents, and I will, I’ll open this up to other readers who might want to chime in. I’ll weigh in after I drop the wee ones off at the Jewish Community Center and once I’ve strung a few rows of lights on our Christmas tree. Promise.

While I did manage to drop off and pick up the wee ones, the stringing of lights have not yet begun. In truth, I’m sick in bed, my eyes puffy, my nose running, coughing, headache, buried in covers watching Bernard & Doris. There’s a point here.

There’s a lot at play here. A lot on both your shoulders. You say you moved across the country a little over a year ago. Do you have family closeby now where you live? Stress actually decreases when we know we have a support system in place, even if we don’t necessarily utilize it. It’s comforting to know there’s a sense of security, a sense of family, a sense of "No matter what happens, we’re here for you." Yes, we should all be that soft pile of blankets, that sense of security, of shelter, but you can’t do it alone. Well, you can. But it helps when you’re not the only one doing the listening and pep.

Now then, onto his missing the mark with regard to the exam, that’s an issue of pride. Man pride, which for sure requires kid gloves but not a kiddie tone. I think it comes down to his mood, the mood of the moment, only you know when it’s best to try to lift his spirits. If he resists, I’d leave it alone, but I wouldn’t give up. Remind him of all the things you love about him, that this is just a moment, that there will be ups and downs. Things move in cycles, and what really makes us successful is how we rebound. How enthusiastically we spring back up after setbacks. That’s what I see your role as, to nurture, to remind him of his best self, not who he was or what the original plans were but who he is, what he’s made of, the tools, the strengths with which he was born. He’ll trust in his talents again, he will, in the meanwhile, you’ll listen, you’ll comfort, you’ll step back when you need to, and you’ll do what a mother does (even though he’s your partner, not your son), you’ll mother him, which I interpret as comfort, and mindfulness. A mother’s job is to nurture, to provide shelter and security, and to pay attention, to notice her child’s strengths and remind him of them, remind him of how proud you genuinely are of him, and I promise, you can’t go wrong.

go ahead, ask

If you have questions or need advice on anything from where to eat to how to get over the bastard, just email your question to my advice email address. Nope, I’m not a shrink, but since people keep asking for my opinion, I might as well share it and air it, so everyone else can weigh in too.
4 YEARS AGO: Snow Feathers



  1. This kind of general advice is not easy to give because it’s personality specific.

    Sometimes, helping him come up with an action plan, incremental, tangible things that can be done, is motivating. But for other men,it’s the kiss of death. They don’t want that kind of help and wouldn’t find it motivating.

    Sometimes counseling will help, but some men won’t go there. But if there is an underlying depression, it might be helpful.

    I would be wary of drugs for that. There is appropriate depression (situational –after a death, job loss, etc) and then there is black clinical depression. Many, many docs want to hand over drugs for situational depression. I think that’s a bad idea.

    there might be helpful job counseling in your area he could look into, but again, a fine line between helping and making him feel that he is not doing enough.

    I don’t think you can motivate another person. Only they can motivate themselves. All you can do is show love, support and no judgment.

    Maybe there was a time when he supported YOU through something so you can tell him that you are happy to be there for him as he was for you. maybe there are things he excels at right now that you could reinforce.

    I would bet anything, though, that he doesn’t want to talk about the situation itself.

    Maybe this is “an opportunity” in disguise, I don’t know enough about your specifics.

    Maybe YOU can see someone for help and guidance in dealing with it, maybe through your school at a reduced rate.

    Can his loans be renegotiated, delayed, etc? Same with car payments, etc. I’ve had friends do that.

    This is a tough one because many men do feel inadequate when they can not provide. Good luck and I’ll be praying for you.

  2. I don’t know how to encourage your husband, but please get Dave Ramsey’s book TOTAL MONEY MAKEOVER.

  3. my boyfriend and i were in a similar situation when we first relocated cross country. he was unemployed for almost nine months while i was working. everyday i would dread coming home from a days work to his anger, frustration and depression. he started to isolate himself and stay home all day and that made things worse. as a career counselor myself, i would suggest you look into career counseling. also, as cliche as it sounds, volunteering even a few hours a weeks can do wonders in boosting moral (and possibly allow for networking) and just getting that person out of the house and interacting with others. finally, just be as supportive as possible…good luck!

  4. I am going through something very similar right now. I would love to hear what people have to say. I’m in the home stretch of a PhD program. My husband finished an MFA two years ago and is currently working full time at a retail job for which he is grossly overqualified. His boss is a total nightmare and he’s totally depressed and miserable all the time, but we’re drowning in (his) student loans and barely making ends meet as it is – quitting his job is out of the question. I’m TRYING to be sensitive and encouraging, but I’m sure there are people in refugee camps who complain less about their situation and all I can think is that he’s lucky to have any job right now and there are thousands of unemployed people who would be happy to trade places with him. How do I keep him encouraged when what I really want to say is “man up, did you think paying off $100K in student loans would be a walk in the park with a fine arts degree?”

    1. Having finished up a PhD program with student loans, this is the only things keeping me afloat: I’m sure you guys qualify, and if you make under a certain amt, your monthly fee is $0. Debt is forgiven after 25 yrs (10 if working for a non-profit)

      1. Wow, this is fantastic. Thanks so much. He actually just interviewed for a teaching fellowship position in a public school last night! Being rid of this in 10 years would be beyond amazing.

  5. My husband and I were in a similar situation. I found what worked the best was my reminding him often that no matter what, and whatever happened I was there for him, not judging him, and rooting him on. I also reminded him when he would start to put himself down that he should be picking himself up- that little phrase seemed to remind him that you only make it harder and worse if you let all the crap push you down, you need to be your own support and cheerleader too.
    Lastly- I’ve found with men in my life that if you want a message to get to them, if you think they should take a certain action- the best way to get that across is subtle and small reminders over a period of time. It will get in, just give them time. The worst thing to do is be constantly telling them what they should be doing. That was hard for me, I’m a type A and very results oriented. But when I just sat back, reminded him of my support and let him take his own action it yielded the best results.

    Good luck!

  6. Fortunately, we seem to be past it now, but sometimes we would “take the night off” from being broke and unemployed. We’d spend $15 we didn’t really have to go see a movie – sneaking beer and milk duds into the theater like. Or we’d order takeout from someplace good and watch a movie guaranteed to make us laugh. This is Spinal Tap is always a favorite. A nice back/neck massage helps too. I found that more than encouragement, sometimes he just needs a break from it all for a few hours, to feel like he used to.

    Good luck, I hope things improve very soon!


  7. A friend of mine told me that when her and her husband moved and he was changing careers it took him one year to find a job. She was working and money was tight. They were just starting a life in a place they wanted to be and he was clear on what he wanted to do.

    He made it his job to job search every day. To meet with people for informational interviews, network and find out what sort of opportunities were out there and might be out there in the future. He also spent a good portion of his time volunteering doing things in his field or with people and organizations that might help him find a job.

    I know this is all job search advice and not the point, but even though there were certain times that things were frustrating and stressful for them, she continued to have a happy and healthy view of what he was doing. He was trying and she would remind him of that. She was very proud of every effort he made and eventually he did get and still has a good job.

    As she told me the story I could tell that she was proud of him then and now. Maybe part of it is perspective.

    It did not change that it took him a year to get a job, he may have had to start over and that things were hard, but I do think their relationship and his self esteem are both strong.

  8. I think if a woman treats her husband the way she would treat herself in a similar situation it would help.
    Wait…I don’t mean the way we might treat ourselves in the self depricating, dignity stripping, beating ourselves up and setting ourselves up for failure by setting expectations that are impossible to live up to kind of way ladies.
    I know we can be pros in that area.

    I mean the way we might treat our “inner-child”, in a nurturing encouraging and understanding way.

    1. Author

      That do onto others thing doesn’t work in my relationship with Phil. Because things that matter to him, don’t matter to me in the same way, and vice versa. I cannot treat him as I’d like to be treated. Instead I need to treat him the way I know he wants to be treated (good luck figuring that out, when sometimes he or I don’t even know), not the way I’d treat myself. Do onto others sounds good, but it doesn’t work, at all, in our case.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.