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Changing the Ground Rules: Losing a Career

Before I leave the topic of issues to consider when you’re thinking of leaving your marriage, I wanted to bring up a few situations that make the decision to stay or go vastly more complicated.

What happens in a marriage, and are you obligated to stay, when the very ground rules of that marriage have been changed?

This can happen in horrible ways, or merely as part of life changes, or when one spouse finds a new path they’d like to follow that was certainly not part of the marital contract.

When Trish married Tom,* Tom was well on his way to achieving the financial and career success that would shape their married lives. After Yale law school Tom had joined a well-known law firm, had married Trish, and then had quickly moved up the career ladder to partner in probate law. He worked long and hard hours, but both agreed that it was worth it in order to continue to support their family in style. Trish was a great stay-at-home mom and wife, and the perfect partner when Tom had business affairs. They were a power couple, Trish and Tom–their names even complemented each other– with successful children, and their lives revolved around the family and the firm.

But when they first came to see me, Tom had been more distracted. When I had a session alone with him he explained. He had a billionaire elderly client, Byron, whose work he had been doing for almost a decade.  However, in the past years Byron had been failing, and more and more work was done regarding his estate via the new wife–the trophy wife, the firm called her.

Tom had gotten a call from Belinda, Byron’s new wife, to come to the house, since Byron wanted to change his will, but wasn’t well enough to come to Tom’s office. So he hopped in his car [good clients get good service] and headed over to Byron.  He found Byron shockingly debilitated, and unable to speak, so Belinda spoke for him, explaining that Byron wanted his will changed to reduce eldest daughter’s portion.

Tom had misgivings at the time, but he nevertheless drew up the requested documents on his laptop, and watched, feeling worse all the time, as two home health-care workers signed as witnesses.

Within a month of my conversation with Tom, the fear he couldn’t even manage to put into words in my office was actualized:  Tom was sued. The lawsuit hit the papers–Byron was not just rich, but well-known, as so often goes together–and in short order Tom was threatened with disbarment.

Tom is a broken man, who will never work in law again. And Trish, who dedicated her life to her husband’s career, watched as their investments decreased and then disappeared, as bills started to go unpaid, and as her husband, a former Tom-Wolfe-ian Master of the Universe, sat in his office chair and smoked, staring out the window.

cancer and depression

Gone were two components of the marital life Trish signed on to lead: the luxury and comfort procured by Tom’s work–and Tom himself, as she knew him. His confidence and reason for being dissolved, the man she loved seemed to disintegrate almost by the moment. Sometimes she could only see the vague outlines of his former shape–and there still today is little hope for re-constitution, given Tom’s refusal to return to therapy, to try a different job, to see a psychiatrist. She felt betrayed, furious, hopeless. This was not what she signed on for.

“All is changed, changed utterly,” as Yeats said. But there was no terrible beauty being born, as far as Trish could see.

So what now?

If you ask me, should Trish stay or should she go, of course I can’t answer that.

When people ask me questions like that, I often think of the wary narrator of the Cat in the Hat, “What would you do, if your Mother asked you?” But this isn’t a children’s rhyme, and every person must make his or her own decision.

I offer some general suggestions for how to handle similar situations in a later post, but I’ll tell you what Trish did, and I respect her mightily for her decisions.

Trish decided to stay–she and Tom had built a life together over decades, after all–and it became clear in therapy that starting a support group for spouses of professionals who had lost their jobs was a mission that really appealed to Trish.

I’d love to say that Tom is a cheery middle-aged man working, say, as a real estate agent, but his depression is unremitting. Trish, however,  has started a group that laid the groundwork for a whole new social network, and she gets out with her new friends regularly, to prevent her falling into Timothy’s mood morass.

And, after processing what she’d like to do now, in this second stage of her life– darned if Trish didn’t go to school, create a resume, go through the interview process–and start work as a paralegal.


*As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Trish or Tom, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.

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2 Responses to Changing the Ground Rules: Losing a Career

  1. The Taxi Dog January 12, 2012 at 1:50 am #

    Years ago, I had a patient named ?. She and her husband DID THE RIGHT THING! And it turned out all wrong. There was a fight on the roadway and my patient’s husband intervened. He separated the two combatants. All seemed good. But one fighter slipped on the pavement. And died.

    The husband refused family therapy. He was consumed with guilt. He drove himself deeper and deeper into depression. She ultimately divorced him.

    I know there was little I could do. But…did I get attached to helping HER and not pay attention to him? I don’t think I did.

    The lesson? NO lesson. We do the work because it is the only work we can do?


    • Candida Abrahamson PhD January 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

      That’s a painful story, but what I note about it is your quick move from narration to self-blame. I don’t think we do the work because it is the “only work we can do.” I think we do the work because we believe in it, and because, overall, and despite some difficult or unsuccessful cases, it can be life-changing for the clients who see us. On, a blog of The Menninger Clinic, Dr. Jon Allen writes, “plainly, our capacity to provide mental health care rests on our own mental health.” My sense is that this event is eating at you, and perhaps wearing you down in ways you can ill-afford. On his entry, entitled “Practicing what we preach: the mental health of mental health professionals,” Dr. Allen highlights the importance of the therapist who has been through a traumatic situation, as you have, seeking out just what he would recommend for a patient in a similar case: “If we are to provide help, we too must have opportunities to talk about painful experience in the context of secure attachments (in personal therapy, supervision and other confiding relationships) as well as the skills to cope with our emotional distress and well-structured lives.” Check it out at, and take the advice for what it’s worth, if you think it might help you to move on from this difficult incident.

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