My husband can’t relate to people and has lost his job

<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

The question My husband has been unemployed for two years and I feel like he’s fading away. He’s proved himself to be good at what he does in most aspects of his chosen field. He’s worked at a senior level (CEO, partner, etc) but he struggles with relating to people and, because of that, he’s eventually been let go from every job he’s had. He’s never had a leaving card. He’s an intelligent, experienced and educated man (PhD level). He can make a great first impression, yet he doesn’t know how to navigate the complexities of relationships and that keeps being his downfall.

At home I take the lead in parenting, managing wider family relationships and friendships, and running a home and a social life. He will help if I ask, but he leaves all thinking and decisions to me. Our life is like a ship with him on the deck and me occasionally able to come out of the engine room into the sun. It’s lonely and exhausting.

He has signed up with job agencies and now he’s just waiting for the phone to ring.

I fear when our son flies the nest, I’ll really feel how alone I am. I have my own career, which is going well, but I worry I’ll leave him dormant and feeling unloved if I focus on myself too much.

We’re OK financially, but without the structure of his career I’m left with a man who’s directionless and depressed, and I don’t know how to stop that from happening. We are best friends – I think the children within us connect over a shared experience of surviving trauma and growing up too fast. I’m trying to accept him as he is, but I also want to drag him down to the engine room and tell him to steer the ship, so I can come up on the deck and soak up some sun.

Philippa’s answer Behind every great man is a great woman, as the saying goes, but behind every woman who isn’t reaching her full potential is a man who needs too much work and attention.

He sounds as if he has never put himself in anyone else’s shoes. What I mean is, he can understand life, and probably maths, from his point of view only. He never imagines what it is like to be you, or his colleagues, and so, because he never looks at any situation from anyone else’s viewpoint, he appears selfish to others. He probably can’t help it. It could be that he is on the autistic spectrum. He may be extremely talented, but people skills aren’t his strong point. It is usual for executives of his calibre and position to be headhunted or find work through their existing network of contacts, built up over decades of being in the workplace, rather than to rely solely on recruitment agencies.

He sounds as if he has never put himself in anyone else’s shoes, it could be that he is on the autistic spectrum

It appears that you are doing all the emotional and the practical maintenance work of the family, which means you have less time for concentrating on yourself. Because he can’t think of how you see and experience the world and your lives together, from your point of view, it will mean a lot of the time you are likely to be lonely. You are his best friend, but is he really yours? I suppose his job situation is feeling a bit like the last straw. You may have been able to tolerate a lot more when he was out at work.

I wonder if he could be persuaded to be tested for autism and then he would know what type of help he needs to get him back to work and to have a better marriage. Even if he isn’t autistic, seeing a clinical psychologist would be a good idea.

You hinted that you both come from chaotic childhoods. It could be by his avoiding doing any of the emotional work in any relationship he is circumventing retriggering himself from aspects of relationships he found traumatising when he was growing up. If he were to face his childhood demons in therapy, it may help him see how he is sabotaging himself. Defensive behaviours we develop to survive childhood often become self-defeating behaviour in adult life.

It is never too late to use therapy to unpack everything we’ve been told, or told to ourselves, and only put back what we need. It is hard work, but as he is not working now and you don’t have financial worries, it would be a good opportunity for him to do the work he really needs to do. But this, of course, would mean you extending yourself once more to look after him by suggesting this, rather than concentrating on yourself.

The coping mechanism you may have developed to survive your own childhood might have been to look after everyone at the expense of your own needs. Having your own therapy may give you the impetus you need to move his problem from your shoulders and on to his.

Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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