Spouse Work Envy

How do you handle your own joblessness when your significant other is thriving?

Your spouse just got a big promotion, while you haven’t worked in months and are struggling to get your foot in the door for an interview.

How do you feel? Happy? At least your family income is more secure. Envious that he or she has gotten something you haven’t? Bitter, even, because you deserve at least as much success? This is definitely a situation they didn’t include in the marriage manual… nor in business books.

If you’re like most folks, chances are you have mixed feelings, including guilt that you have mixed feelings. After all, aren’t you supposed to be rejoicing in the achievement of the one you love? It’s easier when it’s someone who’s not close to you — a friend or former colleague, perhaps, who meets with great success. That way, at least you don’t have to fake joyfulness with your bedmate!

It’s all in your mind

Whether or not you have trouble accepting the good fortune of someone else has most to do with we see ourselves, said Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor whose work, as she describes it, “bridges developmental psychology, social psychology and personality psychology and examines the self-conceptions people use to structure the self and guide their behavior.”

As she describes in her bookMindset, if we have a “fixed mindset” — a tendency to see our basic qualities such as intelligence and talent as fixed at birth — we feel threatened by the success of others because we fear it exposes our lack of ability. Conversely, when we believe intelligence and talent are things we can grow our whole lives through effort, we find lessons and inspiration from others: “If he can do it, it proves that I can do it.”

I’ve written before about the studies Dweck has done to demonstrate the profound effects a growth mindset can have on increasing success at work. It can also make the difference between whether the little green monster raises its ugly head when our loved one does well and we’re stuck on hold.

Moving beyond

So what can you do if you recognize you are not feeling great about your partner’s achievement? Here are some tips:

  • First, tell yourself the truth about what you’re experiencing — “I’m having some mixed emotions about this.” Denying it to yourself will only mean the feelings come out sideways in actions and words.
  • Embrace a “both/and” attitude. You feel envy and happiness, joy and discouragement. Human beings are complex creatures capable of varied emotional states. Share your both/and attitude with your spouse rather than faking it. After all, this is a person you see every day, so he or she probably knows anyway. We all have specialized brain cells called “mirror neurons” that allow us to perceive the emotions of others. When there is a disconnect between what a person is saying and what these cells are picking up, neuroscience tells us a person can smell something’s fishy.
  • Remind yourself of your talents and the ways you’ve succeeded in the past. These inner resources are the raw materials from which you build your future.
  • Ask yourself what you’re learning as a result of this career setback. What qualities of mind and spirit have you developed? These too are resources you can call on anytime.
  • People experiencing a setback do better when they remember it’s temporary. You’re going through a bad patch, but it will be better in the future. If you’re feeling discouraged, ask your mate to help you remember it won’t go on like this forever.
  • Find a way to succeed at something that requires only your effort and talents: run a half-marathon, take up oil painting, write a blog. The experience of success gives us energy to use in the job hunt. And who knows? It might spawn a whole new career.
  • Embrace the challenge to grow and learn. “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset,” Dweck wrote on her Web site. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”