A copy and paste entry from a journal entry toward the end of 2018 with my partner about Early Retirement and her dissatisfaction after a couple of years. She had a growing sense of unease with our situation and wanted to do something different.
Me: If you want to go back to work, then go back to work. I am the last person on earth that is going to stop you. Life is about happiness and satisfaction — if you think you’re going to be happier working, then by all means, please don’t let me stop you. But I don’t want to, personally.
Her: It isn’t that I’m going to be happier working. I don’t know if I will be. I just know I’m not happy now.
Me: What do you think is preventing you from being happier? You have all the time you want to explore things that might help.
I just don’t feel like I’m going anywhere. And I’m a nobody. At my job I was a god. People looked up to me.
Yeah I know what you mean. I get some of these vibes too. From friends who can’t understand our lives.
It’s weird. Everyone I know is working and we’re not. I feel like I’m being lazy. I want to work at something again.
You can work at anything you want. That’s the point. You don’t have to work at your old job anymore. But of course you can if you want to — if you think that’s going to help.
I don’t know how to do anything else but <my old career>.
Then learn. Like you learned French last year because you felt like it.
What was the point of that? I learned another language and I barely use it.
We did go to France. You used it plenty then. And sometimes you make fun of me in French which is pretty funny, I have to say. Like when you tell me I have rocks in my head. (She didn’t laugh.)
I want to do something that feels purposeful again.
You can do that. You could volunteer — There are so many ways to touch other peoples’ lives. And you’re already spending a lot more time with your nephews. That’s purposeful, isn’t it?
None of it feels like enough. I felt like it was enough when I was earning money and I had people reporting to me and I was solving problems and closing projects out and leading a team.
I call bullshit. You hated it. Four out of five nights a week we would just bitch about work in the evenings. Where was the satisfaction then?
But I got paid and I got promotions and I felt like I was somebody.
That was problem number one right there, numero uno. She didn’t feel like anybody anymore — she’d lost some kind of self-respect. Instead of a gritty, hard-working, high-earning IT corporate climber with a clear identity, she’d become something else. Something she couldn’t come to terms with and something she couldn’t figure out how to change. She felt like she’d fallen off the map, and she didn’t like it. She felt irrelevant. Among other things.
I feel that way too sometimes. But I’m trying to break out of that kind of self-talk. I am trying to change my old patterns of thought. So now I tell myself that I’m writing and that’s enough. I want to pursue that and see what happens.
What if nothing happens?
What do you mean?
What if you never go anywhere. With your writing, with anything.
I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me much. I didn’t feel I was going anywhere when I was working. Think about all of the writers that nobody knows about. All of the people who toiled in their journal entries or poems or short stories or novels without recognition. Does the lack of recognition render their work meaningless? Are you saying my pursuits are meaningless?
Not exactly. But think about your friends. They all felt you were going somewhere and now you’re not. You were making money. It was a clear indicator of success. Now you are pursuing things that aren’t going anywhere. According to their ideals.
Yeah that’s true. I feel that sometimes. They think I’m two steps removed from a hobo now that I’m not on the same path. And they wonder why I’m not chasing the same things. They wonder what’s wrong with me.
Don’t you worry that they’re all going to leave you in the dust?
What do you mean by that exactly?
They’re all buying vacation homes for their kids and planning European trips, river cruises down the Danube or whatever, they have stories to tell, crazy experiences to brag about. I see their Facebook posts. Their lives seem… better than ours. My friends, too — I see the same things.
They’re working though, sweetie. I don’t see their lives as being better. I can’t forget the tedium and stress of it all – the daily obligations of office work. Yes, they have those things — they are in the process of acquiring “more” than we have. But they are working. They aren’t able to pursue their dream lives or be themselves. They aren’t free.
I think we just want different things. I didn’t think this was how it was going to be.
We had this conversation a dozen times in a span of a month and it became increasingly awkward and painful and agonizingly detailed with every subsequent discussion.
Late in the year, in December (2018) I pressed her further. We needed to resolve this one way or another — it was impacting our day to day happiness. I was losing my sense of connection to her, and she to me.
Do you still love me? Can we work through this?
I don’t know. I love you, absolutely. Sometimes, most of the time. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. But there’s love still, yes.
Then what’s the problem? Do you feel that you can’t be with a guy who isn’t working?
Yeah. I think that’s it. Or at least part of it. I just can’t respect what we’re doing. I want to be with a guy who works and I want to work and I want to be normal like everyone else and I don’t think that’s a bad thing and I’m tired of feeling like you are shaming me into feeling like I should do nothing and love it.
I’m not shaming you into doing nothing. I want you to do what you want. It’s just hard for me to believe that what you want is a return to your old career. But if you want to do that, I’m not stopping you. I’ve never once said you shouldn’t do what you want. That’s the whole point of this early retirement thing. Or, at a higher level, of life in general. You should do exactly what you want — you should try to be happy and satisfied to the best of your ability. If, for you, that’s going back to work and making money and doing whatever, then go do that. I just personally didn’t understand what the point of it was, the work. It didn’t do much for me. I thought that what you wanted was to live a life of freedom, with me. We’d talked about this.
Not exactly. I wanted to have kids with you and work and be like everyone else. Live a normal life. I’m tired of being weird. And I don’t want to go back to work if you aren’t. That’s weird too. You wouldn’t even be a stay-at-home-dad. You’d be nothing.
(note: we found out we couldn’t have kids in 2014, a year before we quit work. she was referring to dreams we had when we got together that had been lost, unless we would consider adoption, which neither of us wanted to pursue.)
And that was it. That the second big ticket problem, critical issue #2. She couldn’t find a way to value her time in a way that allowed her to feel, in her words, normal. She needed the ego and esteem of work, the validation of a paycheck, the possibilities that additional money granted, the return to a culturally-acceptable-status-quo in the present as well as an abundance of future awesomeness that employment seemed to promise.
I had no idea how to respond to her.
I felt like I’d misjudged her. And she’d misjudged me. Her need to be just like everyone else won out over freedom. She viewed our life as restrictive rather than free. I also felt, privately, that she’d lied to me, perhaps unwittingly, about her own desires to pursue early retirement. Maybe she was just going along with it because she was afraid to lose me. Or she wanted to try something new, and she did, and now she wanted to go back to the way things were before.
One of the clear conclusions that I reached from our time off working, which differentiated us in difficult ways, was our definition of freedom.
Freedom for her: The ability to spend as much money as her peers — to keep up with them. To have their esteem. To have material options.
Freedom for me: To be able to opt-out of exactly that. I didn’t need the esteem of my friends and peers to be happy — at least, not to the same extent. Yes, I felt some of the same pressures to keep up but I was able to compartmentalize them. I didn’t view their continued climb up the ladder of affluence to be some kind of insult against me.
I was able to fairly easily convince myself that I had the better deal: They had to work, to report to other people, to spend the majority of their day solving problems ABC and pushing paperwork and pretending to care about things that I knew damned well they didn’t actually care about. I knew all about that shit. I’d lived over two decades of it. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I felt thankful that that phase of my life was over.
Apparently she felt like the trade was worth making again. Her time for money. Money for spending, spending for showing people how good your life is, spending for esteem. The peacocking didn’t seem purposeless to her. It was worth it. Maybe it was everything.
This was a shocking and horrible thing in our relationship, to have this profound schism revealed. I have no idea what to do about it other than to make sure she knew that I wasn’t holding her back from living her own life — from pursuing her own happiness.
A little bit of postmortem:
She did end up going back to work shortly after leaving me for that other dude. She moved to another state and they bought a 2MM house together. Hopefully she got what she wanted. (2021 update, a friend told me they broke up).