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Addressing Refuse-to-Work Syndrome

A person, supported by you, refuses to bring in income. What to do?

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

I have had many clients who work themselves to exhaustion, often to physical sickness, even a heart attack, to support his/her family, and begs the spouse to earn more than a pittance to contribute to the family income. Yet that spouse, who claims to love the person, refuses. I term such people as having Refuse-to-Work Syndrome.

The typical scenario is that the income-earning spouse works very full-time on a job s/he doesn't really like but needs to pay not only for family basics but for a nicer home than necessary and other non-essential expenses the not-working spouse refuses to stop spending on: extra clothes, new furniture, restaurant meals, etc.

The working spouse tries everything to get the spouse with Refuse-to-Work Syndrome to look for a job. S/he asks nicely, begs, gets angry, hopes s/he's planted a seed and gives it time. Nothing works.

The non-working spouse has an endless array of excuses for which the working spouse gives a perfectly reasonable response that gets ignored, yes-butted, or at most a half-hearted, rarely fulfilled promise to look for work. Examples of such exchanges:

Refuse-to-Work Spouse: It's hard for a stay-at-home parent to find a job, at least a job that pays enough to compensate for the child care and transportation.

Working Spouse: There are tons of jobs that pay well. You have lots of friends who can open doors. The unemployment rate is 5%. You have a college degree. You're capable. Yes, it's tough to get a good job but not, for example, a restaurant server job, which can pay quite well. Get a job. ( NOTE: A commenter on this article made valid points about how the low unemployment rate masks the reality. It's worth reading, even if you disagree with its controversial contentions.)

Refuse-to-Work Spouse: I have low self-esteem.

Working Spouse: Plenty of people with low self-esteem work. In fact, many of our most contributory people suffer from low self-esteem: Michelangelo, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Claude Monet, William Faulkner, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking, even your favorite actress Kate Winslet. Their low-self esteem drove them to work harder, not to give up.

Refuse-to-Work Spouse: The kids need me here.

Working Spouse: That may have been true when they were very little but now, if anything, they'll do better without helicopter parent indulging them and over-protecting them 24/7. The research is clear: Here's a literature review in the New York Times, here is one reported by CNN, and here's a more comprehensive one in Think Progress.

Refuse-to-Work Spouse: The kids will be out of the house in a few years I want to enjoy them while I can.

Working Spouse: There's plenty of time to enjoy them after work, on weekends, and holidays. Besides, it's better for them to have autonomy. Many studies show that children of working parents do very well. Per the literature reviews above, It's good for kids to have a role model of a parent who earns income.

Or s/he deflects attention by blaming the working spouse, for example, "If you did better in your own career, you wouldn't need to be forcing me to leave the kids to be latchkey kids." Thus invoking guilt, the working spouse slinks away.

The person with Refuse-to-Work syndrome usually just passive-aggressively wears down the working spouse with the aforementioned excuses and ploys. Or s/he agrees to look for work but does so half-heartedly and so doesn't land anything and tells spouse, "I tried, but I told you it's  hard for a stay-at-home spouse to find work."

Or if s/he is offered a job, s/he always finds a reason not to accept it unless it is magically perfect, for example, earning a good income working for a favorite nonprofit on a job that is low-stress, starts at 10:00 to allow plenty time to get the kids off to school and get to the job and ends at 2:00 so s/he can be there for the kids after school. If it's for a corporation, s/he denigrates Corporate America. If the work environment isn't bright and cheery, s/he says, "I can't work in that dingy place. It's depressing." If the hours are long, s/he insists it's unfair to the kids." There's always a reason. 

Or if s/he accepts a position, s/he doesn't work hard at it and so soon gets "laid off" or fired. S/he explains to the working spouse, "It's just too hard working and also being a good homemaker and parent."

So, in the end, the spouse with Refuse-to-Work Syndrome almost always wins---No one can force him or her to work. Or s/he or does a teeny, pleasant very part-time job like giving a few flute lessons a week from home.

While people with Refuse-to-Work Syndrome may have brief periods of earning modest or even moderate income, over the couple's lifespan, they end up contributing only a tiny fraction of the family income, leaving the primary breadwinner to, through his/her life, work long hours at that job s/he doesn't really like--S/he is, like the donkey above, a beast of burden.

What's a beast of burden to do?

Few of the working spouses choose to divorce their refuse-to-work spouse over it. They just feel unloved and after a while, give up and don the yoke of said beast of burden.

Instead, if you are enmeshed with a refuse-to-work partner, you might want to show this article to him or her. It will likely yield a difficult conversation but one perhaps worth having. To avoid it devolving into a screaming match, you might want to do it in a public place, like your partner's favorite quiet restaurant.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at