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My husband and I are English. We are happily married and live with our twin 5-year-old boys in London. I think I’m asking you how to help my husband get over his ex-lover, America.
We met at a prestigious English university as undergraduates, and he was an academic superstar. He got his Ph.D. at a prestigious American university, and we got married and I joined him in the U.S. I was lonely at first; I had thrown away my professional, region-specific degree to be with him and I had no friends and no job. Eventually, I took work that was far below my training and skills. Seeing how miserable I was, my husband switched the focus of his Ph.D. from an area that would require international travel and months-long postings in remote locations to one that would ensure stability for both of us, including the promise of a secure job in London, my hometown, where I wanted to live and raise a family.
We both came to love the USA, and developed wonderful, warm friendships with a diverse, intelligent group of people. My husband got his Ph.D. and moulded himself into the perfect candidate for a job at a major international government organisation headquartered in London. We weren’t quite ready to leave the U.S., so he took a position at the New York branch first. We had our twins and I spent two years as a full-time parent to throw our family resources behind his career, as so often happens. After three years in NY, I missed my family and London itself. Our younger son has not life-threatening but challenging medical problems. We decided it was time to go home. He quit the job he loved, and we gave up the lease on the house in the neighbourhood we loved. He got a position at the London HQ of this organisation, and we cashed out his 401(k), said good-bye, and left.
The last three years have not been great. The London-based organisation, as it turns out, is a terrible place to work. Where NY was a meritocracy, London is a bureaucratic nightmare. The London office is filled with patient time-wasters who entered immediately after college and waited their turn to be promoted to just above their capabilities, where they will sit until they retire on a fat pension. My husband has been passed over for about ten promotions while younger colleagues with no more than a bachelor’s degree but with ten years on the inside of the organisation are rotated ahead because it’s their turn. Our friends are now tenured Ivy League professors or White House advisors and my husband has what amounts to a manager-level job in the public service. He’s angry it’s turned out like this. I’m angry, too.
And it’s so emblematic of London as a whole! The entire city is full of rich, short-sighted, and selfish people. Christ, it’s expensive! Our apartment in the city is miniscule, and there’s garbage on the street in front every day. People are shallow and greedy. Everyone’s an investment banker or corporate lawyer. I hate our prime minister. We both hate his job and his stupid colleagues, and it makes him miserable. From the outset I’ve said to my husband that it’s not too late, we can go back. We can admit that we made a mistake, and that we’d prefer to be in New York. I mean it. If he wanted to move back to New York, I would do it tomorrow. He won’t. He’s worked hard and made sacrifices specifically for this job. He’s made himself in the image of this organisation and they won’t recognise him. Although he doesn’t, the urge to just stand up and shout “You stupid fuckers I HAVE A PH.D. FROM [PRESTIGIOUS AMERICAN UNIVERSITY]!!” must be overwhelming. If he had just started at this organisation right after college, we’d have a lot more money now, a beautiful house, and two great careers. If he’d stayed on track to complete his Ph.D. in the travel-round-the-world field, hey, maybe we’d be living an expat life in India right now. Would that be so bad? It seemed so at the time, but now … I placed so much importance on us being able to live in London that he switched his lifelong career path and now I think I was wrong to do that. We both had times in the U.S. when we were unhappy, briefly, but not for long.
He knows that if we returned to New York, I would no longer be able to work professionally. The flickering firelight of my career is beginning to smoulder again in London, but barely. Moving away again would kill it dead. My family is in London, within two miles of our place, and I’m close to them. I would miss them dreadfully. Our kids deserve some stability, not being dragged hither and yon throughout their childhood for our enjoyment, especially our child with additional needs. I have to remind myself that there were things I didn’t like about the U.S. when we were there. He says to me, If we leave London, what will you do in 10 or 15 years, when our kids are teenagers and you’re in your mid-40s, with no work experience? He thinks we need to stay in London so that I can have a career. He’s probably been gone long enough that just sliding back into his old job in New York is not an option. Yes, that’s true, but in the interim I have an unhappy spouse and a shitty apartment and a barely enjoyable career that I am already ten years behind in, professionally. Help us. What should we do? Stay? Go? Does he need to get over it? Do I?
Your advice, please.
London Is Overrated
Your letter reflects so many of the paradoxes of modern living. People used to say “The world is your oyster!” in the old days, but all they really meant was that you should throw caution to the wind and walk down to the local manufacturing plant, because, by golly, they just might hire you! And then you could afford a little clapboard house and a square of grass right next door to your mom’s square of grass, which was right next to your grandma’s square of grass. And after 50 years of service and three kids and two heart attacks, you might afford another little square of grass up at the cemetery, right next to your mom’s and your grandma’s.
These days, though, the whole world really is your oyster, but you have to ship it from far-away lands at an extreme cost, polluting and overharvesting along the way. And does the oyster really seem worth it? Does that little nugget of luxury goodness taste sweet with just a touch of mineral-rich intensity, as advertised by the extremely well-informed waiter, or does it have the dead, salty stench of a dream that died a long, long time ago?
God, I love oysters. And I have to admit, I love the idea of living exactly where you want to live, parents and second cousins be damned. I love the thought of stopping for a cold beer with a friend on the walk home from work in a sophisticated but pedestrian-friendly city, and running into some other smart people at the bar. You know, as opposed to, say, standing in my suburban grocery store buying a six-pack and some cheese sticks for the kids, and listening to a guy on the phone to his wife struggling to pronounce the name of a common industrially farmed cheese. “I got the motzer-rellly? Motzer-ralleeah?”
My husband and I moved to a low-key suburb on the outskirts of L.A. because we had two kids and instead of dropping them off by car to a shitty school on a busy street, we wanted them to walk down the block to school, like the kids do in Afterschool Specials about Scott Baio being drawn in by the easy lure of marijuana and then braining his older brother with an oar. We wanted to live somewhere slow and regular, where Range Rovers don’t cut you off every few feet, and the sidewalks aren’t clogged with identical, expensively reengineered female bodies, all noisily comparing Club Med Cancún to Club Med Bali.
Even though L.A. is essentially a vast sea of suburbs, the outer fringe of suburbs tends to be more traditionally suburban than the others. I could’ve very easily heeded the warnings from any one of a million insightful works on the basic problems with suburban life written in the past half-century, but no. I thought those were speculative tales crafted by curmudgeonly city dwellers. I grew up in a smallish town and didn’t even know what suburbs were until I moved here. “Why does everyone pretend that people who live JUST OUTSIDE of the multiple hassles of city life are uncultured?” I wondered. “What’s so wrong with regular people who like walking their dogs without getting run over by a speeding BMW driven by a half-drunk studio executive late for his Rolfing appointment?” Here’s what’s wrong: The suburbs are formed by people fleeing the city. Like the Pilgrims, they are fleeing for various, not always completely embraceable, reasons. There is diversity in my suburb, but like the Pilgrims, the various groups keep to themselves. And some days, when I’m in a shitty mood, what I see around me are three or four mutually exclusive pockets of like-minded fleeing, fearful humans. People who basically want to be left alone, who are neurotic and grumpy, who can’t tolerate hassles, but who act like they LOVE EVERYTHING. And I’m one of them.
That’s my perspective on a bad day. So when you write “The entire city [of London] is full of rich, short-sighted, and selfish people … People are shallow and greedy. Everyone’s an investment banker or corporate lawyer,” the first thing I think is not “Who is this opinionated asshole with the prestigious degrees?” What I think is “Why can’t more opinionated assholes with prestigious degrees move to the suburbs so I’ll have someone to talk to about how fucked up the suburbs are?”
The truth is that all of us, corporate lawyer or dissatisfied academic or chumpy writer or suburban separatist, want to be nestled in a comfortable environment where we’re appreciated and embraced. We ALL want interesting, warm groups of friends and co-workers who don’t resemble bureaucratic drones, and we want to walk down our streets and feel like what we’re seeing consists of lively, open-minded, generous human beings. And while I’m sure that plenty of great people do exist in London, I understand that your husband’s shitty job is starting to pollute your overall worldview, and you have a lot of regrets about how you landed here.
So the first thing you need is a good friend you can talk openly to about your situation. When you’re in the wrong place, geographically, that can be tough, because most people don’t want to hear about the limitations of where they’re living. Chances are they’re well aware of the drawbacks of the place, and they’re already doing their best to manage those drawbacks. Even the so-called shallow, selfish humans around you are mostly people who fell into financial jobs that seemed sporting when they were younger, and then they backed themselves into lifestyles that require never changing a single thing, career-wise, forever and ever, or else defaulting on three different enormous loans and dragging their kids out of two different enormously expensive private schools. We can all say, “Cry me a river, richies!” But the truth is that modern life can be awkward and unsatisfying at every level of the economic ladder. Regardless, you’ve got to be able to talk about this stuff openly, to someone who’s not your husband. You can still talk to your husband, but it will feel really good to talk to someone smart who’s not in the middle of it.
But once you and your trusted friend are done discussing this article or quoting passages from Capital by John Lanchester, it’s time to do some careful thinking about what you really want, moving forward, and how you might balance the various dimensions of your life against each other.
Many people would tell you that moving won’t solve your problems. That’s generally true, but I also think that gathering a lot of information about what it might MEAN to move — to the States, to a new part of London, to somewhere else entirely — will help to clarify what you want. You need to think carefully about your ideal environment, your dream career, and the kind of life you want to live, now and 10 years from now and 20 years from now.
Yes, of course, we’re all very spoiled. We should feel lucky just to be alive and warm and dry and reasonably satisfied. But let’s acknowledge this: Making tough choices when you’re young is hard enough. Making those choices when you ALSO have to take into account the needs of three other people is no small thing. You don’t want anyone to give up on their dreams. So, first of all, you have to recognize that every option is going to seem imperfect. That’s okay. You can’t make one factor or another factor a deal-breaker. Your husband is doing this with your career; it’s nice that he wants you to be happy with your work, but he also needs to respect that you want to improve the big picture.
So you have to follow some contradictory paths: You have to live where you are right now and treat your surroundings with more curiosity and acceptance, but you also have to imagine a better scenario, research possible moves, investigate different jobs, and consider other kinds of work you might enjoy in the States. As you weigh these options, you might find yourself appreciating what you have now a little more AND seeing where there might be room for improvement WITHOUT moving overseas. Maybe you need to look around for ways to meet the sorts of non-shallow people you knew in the States, people who might empathize with you, but who also might shift your focus away from the petty status concerns of your current environment.
But you also have to stop thinking of your careers in terms of what you could’ve accomplished and achieved by now. I understand this trap very well, but no matter what your friends have accomplished, most people’s careers unfold in unpredictable ways. Some truly talented academics never get past being an instructor or an adjunct. Giving up everything so your husband can work in the States doesn’t sound great. But as a professional writer who’s managed to get paid for everything from cartoons to TV criticism, I want to encourage you to think outside the box a little. Surely your options are not reduced to either (1) sallying forth in a place you hate, or (2) not working at all. I think that, with a little ingenuity, you can set yourself up with some kind of work, here or there, that satisfies you. I also think it’s clear that your husband needs to find another job. He hates his organization, he hates his work, he feels stifled and angry. Who can continue to live that way? Life is too short.
You’re both frustrated and unhappy and that’s no way to live. So do some research. But in the meantime, work on adjusting your attitudes, too. I don’t mean THINK POSITIVE THOUGHTS. Real attitude adjustment is a combination of letting it all out, setting it on fire, and building something new from the ashes, something that feels more authentic and comfortable and real.
You can’t spend the rest of your lives saying “I made this bed, now I have to lie in it.” I have two friends who wanted to shift gears and become doctors when they were in their early 30s, but they thought they were too old. Now they’re both in their mid-40s and they regret not going for it. Most people don’t realize how often many of us shift gears and do new things at 35, 45, 55.
It’s not frivolous or odd to want a lot from this life. People take risks and try new things every day; they’re the ones you look at and say, “Wow, X really knows how to live.” You need to integrate a few new positive habits into your life — a new kind of exercise, a new way of meditating, a new way of feeding the good parts of who you are — and then you need to take that positive energy and use it to fuel your investigations into a happy future for you and your family.
But don’t focus ONLY on the future. You can start cultivating gratitude right now. Gratitude for what you have right now will light your path to a great life. So you have to straddle two worlds, old and new. You have appreciate that little square of grass and recognize that it is enough, and you also have to reach out for the whole world, where anything is possible. You have to admit that you are disappointed, but you also have to allow room for hope.
You have to let in the full scope of your emotions, the good and the bad. Can you feel either? Don’t tell yourself you can’t feel anything because everything sucks right now. Don’t tell yourself you’re a thinker, not a feeler. Stop going around in circles in your head, and start feeling. You won’t appreciate a happy future you can’t feel.
Today, in particular, I want you to try to feel thankful that you’re alive. Your life is glorious and exotic. This is true whether you are in London or New York or Phuket or Boise or Rancho Cucamonga. Appreciate this day, let go of your fear, and step, hopefully and honestly, toward the future.
Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.
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