Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
I've been with my partner for five years, and I want to spend many more together.
We both hate capitalism. He grew up extremely poor and I grew up wealthy. I'm all about redistribution of wealth in all aspects of my life, and my relationship with him is no exception.
He has worked for money almost all his life, but the whole time we've been together, he hasn't had a paying job. He does a lot of emotional labor and unpaid work for the people in his life and some volunteering. He has big dreams that would involve working for money. But trying to go after those dreams seems to bring him more emotional pain than reward, and it's hard for him to find motivation. When I try to to talk about what specific steps to take, it can lead to fights (or him completely shutting down).
Both “loving a person with depression and trauma takes lots of time and patience” and “women don't need lazy men with no jobs dragging them down” are sentiments that ring true and feminist to me. In my situation, it's confusing trying to reconcile them.
My question is: How can I be there for him and encourage him to do the work to follow his dreams, while still rejecting what society (and, sometimes, my friends) tell me about how he seems “lazy” and should “get a job”?
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
This question strikes me in a tender place, which is why I am choosing to take it up today. In part, I’m taking it up because I have been the sole or primary support of a partner who had a lot of reasons about why she didn’t or couldn’t work for money, and also because I am an artist and cultural worker who entirely freelances/hustles (which means that many people think I don’t earn money). But mostly, I have so many very urgent thoughts about this—about work and the worth of it, work and feminism, work and capitalism, what money is for, systemic oppression, and what it means to be a “contributing member of society” as well as balancing needs within partnership and being there for your person in the way that a healthy, long-term partnership requires.
The first thing that feels important is to validate your understanding that our societal concepts of human “worth” and “value” are a) completely tied to money/property/prestige and also b) profoundly fucked up. Those ideas prioritize competition and acquisition and the notion of prestige as well as all zero-sum thinking, in general, plus being ableist as hell in their concept of “hard work” being something everyone can do if they just buckle down and blah blah.
More money is better, more stuff is more success, some people are worth more than others. This is how we end up asking stay-at-home parents whether they work, right? Because culturally, we can’t quite hold onto the idea that everything a stay-at-home parent does is obviously (a lot of) work. Why can’t we? Because there’s no paycheck attached, unless you count the handfuls of pre-chewed food and drooly kisses. If there’s no paycheck, we don’t want to call it work. See also: Everyone who ever replied to a stranger’s question about work by saying “I’m an actor.” The next question is always, “Are you making a living?”
So, yes. For sure, there are a lot of ways to contribute to the world that do not require money. Some of us are Fredrick the Mouse, who appears to be dreaming and drowsing while his fellow mice are gathering up grain for the winter. In time, though, it is revealed that he is saving up all the feelings and images. When winter is cold and dark and everyone is miserable and hopeless, he tells stories and recites poems he has composed that recall the sweetness of spring and the warmth of summer, and he lifts everyone’s spirits in this way.
Sometimes, the thing that people Do, the thing that is their work in the world, is not something our culture (or our country) is willing to pay for. Emotional labor and artistic work are two big examples of that, advocacy and activism are others. These are real and valid and utterly necessary kinds of work.
That’s true alongside the fact that not all humans have the same capacity for work, for various ability-related reasons, and our idea of what constitutes enough work for someone to avoid being tagged with “lazy” is predicated on this tremendously ableist model. Trauma and depression are real reasons that someone may not be able to do something, or as many things, now or ever. It can be good to push ourselves, to try to do as much as we can, but it can also be toxic and harmful to get into the idea that if we’re not operating at 110% of capacity then we are somehow not getting the job done. Sometimes the best thing a human could possibly do for the world is drink tea and read a YA novel. The tea people need jobs, and so do the mug-makers, and the writer needs an audience, and the librarian needs patrons and also that feels good and people deserve to feel good.
This isn’t a “however” because I don’t think it negates the previous; I think it goes alongside. And, one of the important values of a healthy relationship is that things are managed cooperatively and consensually, even when they’re no damn fun. My concern here, relationship-wise, is that you’ve been expressing your discomfort with the current arrangement and you are not feeling heard. That’s less about capitalism and more about the work of being with someone. The dishes must get cleaned even if everyone in the relationship hates doing them. How do you sort out who does the dishes? Basically any solution could work—whether it’s strict turn-taking before bed or getting high and having a Kitchen Disco Party every Thursday or eating every meal from a take-out container with disposable cutlery—as long as you decide together. What’s not good is when someone always ends up doing the dishes because their tolerance for fruit flies is a little lower and therefore always feels fucked over.
Money is required to pay for things, and someone has to either generate it or do the other work of figuring out and dealing with the mechanisms to get things handled without money (barter, dumpster-diving, managing the relatives from whom the money flows, etc). So if it’s your agreement that you will do the money things and he will abstain from them, is that forever? Did you imagine, but perhaps not say, that you expected at some point he would find his feet again and go after something? Maybe this isn’t about money at all, but about drive. Do you just want him to be up to something in the world, to be excited about something, to have projects and passions? Does he really have big dreams, or is he just telling you what he thinks you want to hear? Are you finding it difficult, five years in, to be in a relationship with someone who is not creating movement toward something? Has the money become complicated in a way that means it would be very helpful if he were earning but he’s resisting? Some combination of those things?
Here’s the thing, Brave Correspondent: I can tell you a lot of things about money and work and ableism and trauma (and how it conditions people to NOT make long-term plans). But here, maybe two things that seem contradictory are simultaneously true and present: a) you should breathe deeply and notice the capitalist system trying to sway you and let it sail right on by and b) you seem to not be feeling okay about what’s happening in your relationship and that’s valid and you can ask for change. Maybe you need to have clearer expectations and agreements about the future. Maybe you would like to feel more acknowledged for the work you’re doing in the relationship (maybe he would too). Maybe some therapy would be a thing to try. And, you know, it is not our friends' business how we organize our affairs. But the fact is that sometimes we need the observations of a loving friend to guide us into action. Maybe they are reflecting something to you that you’re having trouble seeing.
Because it sounds like you ARE being there for him and encouraging him, Brave Correspondent, and that it’s not really causing the movement you need to feel okay. Whether you understand the current situation as “stuck” or “still” may get you part of the way there. But let me just remind you, please, as you spend your patience and loving care on your partner: You also deserve to be tended lovingly. You also deserve to be cared for, regardless of the circumstances of your birth, or his. You also deserve to feel seen, and met, and supported in your relationship. If he can’t show up to a job every morning at 9am, that’s one thing. If he can’t show up for you sometimes, that’s a whole other problem.
Love and courage,