Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My BF is scared of success

Dear ESB,

I know it's kind of a trend with these letters to start with "I never thought I'd be writing this letter," but now I empathize with everybody who does start that way. I guess I should also start by saying that this isn't strictly a wedding-related question, rather a plea for some straight-up ESB realtalk.

My boyfriend and I are coming up on four years together soon, and though money (isn't it always money?!) and other practical things like that are keeping us from being engaged, we agree that we're in this for the long haul. We do a good job of resolving any disagreements or problems or whatever you'd like to call them as they arise.

But as my education and career have really taken off over the past two-ish years, I've come to understand that the only way anyone ever gets anywhere is by getting out of her comfort zone. My BFF is a great motivator for me, encouraging me to apply for things even if I'm not sure I'll get it, and I was also raised the same kind of way -- apply for everything, you'll never know if you don't try, you can do anything you set your mind to, and if it turns out you can't do something well then at least you can cross that off the list!

Boyfriend, on the other hand, wasn't really raised that way -- or at least, it wasn't a priority -- and even worse than being scared of failure, I think he's a little scared of success. He is a writer by education (mfa) and experience, and a something-totally-unrelated-that-ALMOST-pays-the-bills by trade. As of yet, he's unpublished by anything bigger than university lit journal. He's been saying he'll submit to journals and contests and etc. etc. for ages, but hasn't, and when I make suggestions he dismisses them. He's picky about which journals he submits to, even though he has no "experience" to help get him into the more prestigious journals. He also talks about finding a better paying and/or more fulfilling day job, but does not actively go for it -- usually his rationale is, "I would apply, but I probably won't get it, so I won't bother." (Even if he totally would get the job.)

It's not that he's lazy! He's so hard-working! But he loves being inside his comfort zone -- he is even very much a homebody, something that is a whole other issue for us altogether (I'm a travel bug with a firm belief in moving around and DOING THINGS while you're young, able and untethered by babies [if you see them in your future]). I know he can be successful if only he would get out of his comfort zone and throw himself out there, setting himself up for some definite failures and (hopefully, probably) some heartbreaking successes. So while I always play editor and encourage his writing process, lately I try to get him out of this comfort zone with the publishing process -- "come on, just apply, don't be picky, it'll be fine" -- and sometimes I even end up taking a "wake the fuck up! throw yourself into this or else nothing will happen!" kind of approach. Which in print looks like an awful decision on my part, but I don't know how else to handle this stuff. But that makes him very angry and he says that I nag and that he's "always a step behind where I think he should be," which is awful and not how I THINK, and also not how I want to treat the man I plan on spending forever with.

So how do I be the most encouraging girlfriend ever without coddling him? Am I wrong in thinking that being inside your comfort zone will never get you anywhere? I want to be encouraging, but I don't want to let MYSELF down by apologizing for trying to force him outside his comfort zone (and into the success zone! jeez with the cliches already, I really apologize) when I'm not sorry at all. And I don't want to get to age 35 or 40 or 60 and feel like "if only he believed... if only I could have helped him believe in himself!" Not knowing what could have happened if you'd only tried sucks, I know that already, and I don't want that kind of regret for him or for US.

Help, please please please, from someone outside the situation who has nearly-infinite wisdom and also experienced in maintaining a healthy and fulfilling and loving relationship?

--Cheesy, Cliche-y, Cheerleader Wannabe


You've done everything you can to encourage him.

Now you need to ask yourself: Am I willing to be with a guy who's less ambitious than I am?

Photo: Mert Atlas and Marcus Piggott, model Tanya Dziahileva via Kylea Borges via La Bastidane Créations improbables + The London Evening Standard


  1. That's just the way he is. You need to be comfortable with his attitude otherwise he'll make you miserable later in life. He might change but it won't be you that changes him, it'll be something inside him that does it.

  2. You love him? You think he's the one? You've been together for 4 years? It's time to get over the fact that he's not as ambitious as you.

  3. Not everybody defines themselves by professional success. Some people always want to achieve more. Others just don't have that drive.

    You should also ask yourself whether your partner is really "scared" of success or just not uninterested in it. Is this lack of publication deeply disapointing to him? Or is getting into these journals something he might vaguely enjoy, but isn't driven to do?

    If he's truly unhappy, of course you want to help him become successful; if he's ambivalent, why should he invest the time and energy? You seem to be operating under the assumption that of course he should be more successful than he is. Does he feel the same way?

    Why is a lack of ambition a character flaw that you have to accept? I'm a fairly high achiever, but don't expect other people to act that way just because I do. I'm married to someone less ambitious that I am, and I don't love him in spite of that. I just love him.

  4. let the man send his writing wherever he likes; neither casting a wide net re: journals or being picky nor saving submissions for the biggies has a linear relationship with taking off in the publishing world anyway. his being a diva in that part of his life is his business.

    re: his day job and pulling his weight, however? until he's literature's next millionaire, he needs to be doing something that DOES pay the bills. not-quite-getting-by isn't lack of ambition, it's lack of respect for you. period. maybe he should spend some time away from your comfort zone, as they say.

  5. *or being picky AND saving submissions. hi, i'm a professional writer.

  6. I agree with Rob. I am married to a less ambitious man my self and there just came a point where I decided that his lack of ambition was less important then the million amazing things about him. And then I chose to let it go. And I have to keep letting it go every time it comes up because we are only responsible for our own actions.

  7. My husband and I have this same difference between us...he is always making goals and planning ahead and thinking about the next big exciting thing. I am content to live day by day, enjoying the small pleasures of life that I consider to be the most important things. We strike a great balance: he wisps us off on exciting adventures, during which we experience new things, grow, learn, and make memories together. He also grows our business with his determination and ambition...while I keep us grounded and remind us both to slow down and smell the flowers, and be grateful for what's right in front of us instead of *always* striving for the bigger and better.

    I love this balance. I think maybe you should embrace your BF's outlook on life she see what you can learn from each other, instead of fighting against it.

  8. Disclaimer - if he is not REALLY unhappy with his current position and you are projecting your own thoughts on him, then I agree with ESB. If not, read on:

    I've struggled with this before. FH was in a job he hated, and was ready to get out, but needed encouragement. It's a hard balancing act.

    At the end of the day, it's 50% the ambition that HAS to come from him, %40 luck, and 10% encouragement. Don't take the whole 100% on yourself; that's a recipe for disaster.

    Stay really, really positive in your conversations. Keep bringing the conversation back to him and asking him what he wants.

    I found the best way to encourage was to probe and let him find his own motivation and way, bring him out of the dumps when he needed it (jobs are soul-sucking and motivation-sucking), and praise the hell out of every single thing he did that helped him towards his goals.

    B/c really, if you go to work all day and come home and take the time to apply for new jobs, that is a lot of work and sometimes it gets you down, and you just need someone to praise you for trying so hard.

  9. You have to love his soul. You don't have to love his jerkiness. Figure out which is which.

  10. Another vote for living with his lack of ambition. My husband is way less ambitious than me, and it's kind of awesome. In August, we're moving across the county to a rural area so that I can take a job I want. The move is taking him from the best market in the country for the work he does, to one that is less than mediocre. I am fucking lucky he is unambitious enough to be willing to do this.

    If he is *unhappy* with his career, that's a different story. Living with depression is no joke. If that's the case, tell him he needs to get his ass to a therapist and/or doctor so he can figure out how to live in a way that doesn't drag down both himself and those around him. But if he's happy with mediocrity? I don't see a problem.

  11. I'm with a less ambitious man too. We've been together four years and are getting married in two months. In his family, the women are the breadwinners and the men also work but do not really have career jobs so to speak. I find this incredibly refreshing. Sometimes I worry that my FH will have regrets later in life if he doesn't try to find a more fulfilling career, but I don't think that everyone defines themselves in terms of their career, and that's okay. When people ask me what my FH does, I'm never ashamed to say he's a bartender - even if they think it's weird for a future professor and a bartender to be a couple. You might feel differently, but I do suggest looking at your own attitude on the matter.

  12. Yeah, I think you might be projecting a bit here. It sounds less like, "I don't want you to regret not trying" and more like "I don't want to regret being with someone who doesn't try".

    But there's a big difference between not striving for "success" and not pulling your own weight. My husband is as unambitious as they get. He's in a dead end job and could care less, but at the same time he pays more than half of the bills and has super boring hobbies that make him happy.

    If it really isn't an issue of him not pulling his own weight, then it's unfair for you to want things for him that he might not even want for himself.

  13. Let me tell you a story- similarly, my education and subsequent career took off, while my bf's did not. I pushed and pushed and pushed him to find something he loves and get educated in it so that he wouldn't be doing "whatever" jobs just to pay the bills. So he did, got an expensive education in a VERY specific trade... and a few months later was diagnosed with a serious disease that prevents him from working in said very specific trade. If ever we needed perspective, that was the universe sending it to us. I ceased to care about whether or not he had "real career success" and cared a lot more about, you know, the fact that he's alive. We're successful as a unit, and we define that success ourselves. He went back to a "whatever" job and now is really enjoying it and growing in it.

    Does your definition of "success" as a couple require him to have more ambition? When push came to shove, mine sure didn't.

  14. Yep. Just want to agree with everyone. I was raised in a very achievement-oriented family, and had (sometimes still have) the same frustrations with my more go-with-the-flow partner. I finally realized that I just needed to accept it and, as ESB said, decide if I was ok being with someone less ambitious. Turns out that I am! We're both a lot happier now. You're not going to change him, and, at the end of the day, the world works in mysterious ways. Good things to figure out before you go ahead and get married! I'm glad I did before we took that step.

  15. Agreeing with everyone.
    Again, my bf is not driving himself. I find that the places where this makes him seriously unhappy I carefully intervene (NOT nag) and I have learnt how to do this in a way that makes him happy. (The main way I intervened was to send him to a therapist.) The rest of the time - I focus on how to have fun with him and just be his girlfriend.

    About the travelling thing. I have a friend who has put off travelling the world (her greatest passion) for 8 years because her lovely man is a workaholic and won't go with her. No joke. We tell her to go alone - or for a shorter time. We have told her for 8 years. They are a fantastic couple, in it for the long haul.
    I think sometimes we have to learn to have space from our partners and do things alone (as scary as that may be.)

    A final thought:
    Seriously if you want to have babies with this man then be grateful you have this ambition difference. If you value your independence and freedom to DO things, then having a happy homebody man to look after the babies while you carry on with your career is going to make you VERY happy. As they say, every woman needs a wife.

    Accept him for who he is.

  16. What Rob said.

    As another point, though, if he isn't motivated to get a job that pays the bills so you guys can get married, then that would be an issue for me. It seems like (just from what you wrote) that it's possible that the money could just be a reason to not get engaged at all.

    But as far as the writing goes, seriously, if he doesn't care about it, then it sounds like that's your dream and not his. Either accept it or find someone else.

  17. I have to disagree. I don't see this as an lack of ambition, I see it as someone who keeps self-sabotaging his career by making lame excuses. It's a self-esteem thing. It's a "what if they don't like me" or "if they do like me, will I ever be able to meet their standards again" thing.

    My husband had the same issues when we first started dating. He was able to overcome his fears, but he did it in his own time, his own way and now is a much happier person for it. You can't force it. This is something that he has to do for himself.

    Good luck!

  18. Have been married to a less ambitious man for years (I DO MEAN YEARS) and it's caused a lot of problems in our marriage. He just doesn't get that he has to take some responsibility for paying the bills! I love having a job I love BUT I worked junk jobs to pay the bills until I found something I truly enjoy. By now I know he'll never overcome it, but just want to warn u, it may not be an easy road or the one your want to take.

  19. Who wants to be less successful than they can be???? That sounds like a lot of lame excuses and laziness to me. Success is not limited to careers either. It's success in health, life, love, partnerships, friendships and marriage. I mean seriously, If you have a chance to be great with some hard work then how can you let yourself be anything but great. Especially when you have wonderful husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, family or even friends to back you up, pushing you and motivating you to be a better person than you were the day before?!

    I stumbled onto this thread as I was searching for ways to help motivate and support my husband who seems to be depressed and has not reached out for help from a professional and won't unless I 'nag' him to do so. He tells me he isn't motivated and he doesn't know why. He barely likes to do any physical activity and our sex life is suffering. Without a partner in life to motivate me and if I am constantly worried about trying to help him, where will we be down the road, and how will we raise driven children?! Mediocrity is an excuse for laziness or fear of failure. Light a fire under your ass and stop accepting less than the best out of people. Unreal.