An Endless Grievance

Pushing past the discomfort of moving forward.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published April 29, 2020 - last reviewed on May 5, 2020

HARA ESTROFF MARANO

I am in my late 60s, a former journalist turned college professor. I stand closer to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder than the top, where I probably belong. I cannot stop brooding about my parents. Although he was a good provider, my father was psychologically abusive. When I earned a 93 on a difficult chemistry test at a difficult school, he replied, “What happened to the other seven points?” And that was probably the nicest thing he ever said to me. I was not only a good student but also a good ballplayer, yet my father kept telling me I would never amount to much. My mother did nothing to counter his talk. And both of them were physiologically abusive, with incessant smoking. How I can stop the brooding?

You can shut it down whenever you’re ready to muster the courage to “speak up” to your late parents. Yes, you can just turn off the soundtrack on permanent loop in your head and swap in another of your own making. If you want to be professorial about it, you can list their complaints and generate point-for-point refutations, so that you have ammunition to battle the bad talk and actively end the rumination over it.

Once you stop the brooding, it’s possible to move forward with your life. Of course, it’s uncomfortable to take new steps. There’s always the risk that you’ll disappoint yourself by not achieving whatever dreams you still have. That may, in fact, be what’s kept you brooding all along—better to rehash the known than to step into the unknown. But your father’s pronouncements were not oracular. They were driven by his fears; he hoped they’d motivate you to keep on excelling. It was a ham-fisted way of trying to wish you well. He likely had no clue what a buzzkill it was.

It’s more than time to forgive him and your mother for their ignorance, because there’s no way you can change the past. As you begin to act on your own goals, don’t be deterred by the discomfort of the new: It doesn’t last very long.

Split Decisions

When my fiancé and I first met, we made the same amount of money and, after moving in together, split all bills 50-50. But my industry collapsed, and I’ve had to restart my career. Although my boyfriend makes six figures, I now struggle to make $35K. Yet we still split the bills 50-50. He travels monthly for work, when he gets to do much sightseeing with friends. I can never save enough for trips. When I suggest that he contribute a higher ratio of his income (he pays less than 10 percent while I pay more than 60), he says it’s not fair because it’s not up to him how much money I make. He is supportive in every other way. How can I approach this disagreement?

It depends on what you consider the real disagreement. First up: Equal is not always a synonym for fair. When you were making the same amount of money, it likely was. Equal is a financial calculation, applied regardless of circumstances. Fair is a moral and social judgment that considers reasonableness and relational factors.

A relationship thrives only by being mutually satisfying. Do both partners feel that they give and get roughly equally across all domains? You’re definitely not feeling that concerning expenses. In an ongoing relationship, when circumstances change, many partner roles and responsibilities generally need to be rejiggered.

But there may be more to your feeling of unfairness than the expenses. Some of life’s big pleasures—such as travel and time with friends—are not shared, and that may be influencing your sense of burden.

With expenses, ratio is a good proxy for reasonableness. Currently, your fiancé benefits way more than you do: Your life is highly constrained, his isn’t. Plus he stifles discussion not only by declaring your low income your fault but also by claiming it has no bearing on him. You don’t challenge either point. True, he didn’t cause your income to fall, but he can do something about the consequences. In a partnership, you do what’s needed for the health of the relationship.

There are huge hidden problems when one partner feels cheated in the way couple life is arranged. Resentment accrues  silently and subverts the flow of affection.

A wise and caring partner would be concerned about any perceived unfairness and open to discussion about more equitable sharing of both the burdens and the benefits of life together—a conversation you both badly need. It’s no guarantee, but if your fiancé knew of your deep emotional distress about present benefit- and burden-sharing, it might move him beyond intransigence into a conversation. If not, then perhaps the real question is, Just how supportive is he?