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posted: 1/20/2013 5:28 AM

Three degrees later, wife hints at change of goals

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Q. My wife and I have been married nine years, and it's starting to bother me that she has not begun her career yet.

Following college, she got a master's degree and then started her Ph.D. She's now six years into her four-year program and has hinted that she may not want to work after she graduates.

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As far as duties around the house, we split them; she cooks because I'm horrible at it, while I take care of laundry. We've got no kids and a cleaning service that comes twice a week.

This is such a big deal for me because I saw what my mother went through with my father. He was lazy and had zero ambition, making my mother work atrocious hours for us to get by before she'd had enough and they divorced. I told myself I would never marry a housewife.

We discussed all of this prior to getting married, and I wouldn't have asked her to marry me had we not agreed that both of us would have our own careers. She now says things like, "What would happen if I don't work?" and "People change." I'm growing resentful as I feel like I'm the only one putting in effort. I love my wife but can't respect someone who has the ability but chooses not to work. What can I do?

A. Say this to her, since her hinting and your growing resentful suggest you haven't -- not in so many words.

But first, please sort your concerns about your marriage from your old childhood wounds.

One thing to consider is that "hinting" at a preference for the future is not the same thing as "making my mother work atrocious hours for us to get by." Your emotions might not be able to tell the difference, but don't let your mind conflate the two. Maybe you saw signs that her degree-chasing was about avoiding entry into the workforce, but that's still about her, not your dad.

Meanwhile, people do change. Could that just be her excuse for dodging accountability? Absolutely -- but it could also reflect a true change of heart that you ignore at the expense of your marriage; "housewife" -- or -husband -- has no inherent connection to "lazy." She could also be working mentally through doubts about her career. Figure out where these nine years have taken both of you before you make any momentous decisions.

Then, you talk. I do get that it can be daunting to break a habit of not communicating, especially on your hot topic. There are moments, however, when the barriers to entry are lower. For example, you cite her speculation -- "What would happen if I don't work?" -- seemingly as one of her hints; why not treat it (or some other such hint) as if it's not a rhetorical question?

Choose a time when you're both rested and unhurried, remind her of her question, then ask her if she was serious. If yes, then say you'd like to give your answer: "What would happen is that I'd remain the only one earning money for us both, and I can't say how I feel about that without knowing what you plan to do instead."

Then, listen to her. What she intends to do with her days, energies and talents -- with her life -- and whether she follows through with them constitute the whole story here. Don't react to it till you see where it's going.

That's not to say your history is irrelevant; she deserves to know it's a loaded issue for you, so remind her of that as appropriate in the course of this conversation.

Please know, too, that it's not a conversation you can postpone much longer. Even if you swapped roles tomorrow, a mutual failure to keep the other involved in these important and intimate aspects of your lives together would be your undoing all the same.

Q. I have a relative who, after the courtesies, will talk nonstop about how great they are doing, never stopping to ask about others. Is there a polite way to ask them to shut up and express an interest in someone else's life?

A. Sadly, there's no polite way to say shut your pie hole/you bore me to tears/have you heard of this wacky invention called punctuation? There's only sympathy for a person who is, most likely, so lonely as to have lost the feel for the give-and-take of a conversation, and so insecure as to need self-promotion. Other possible explanations -- egomania, unacknowledged hearing loss -- are likewise intractable and deserving of our forbearance.

That is, if yours is a bit part. If you're in a central role, and if there is a foundation of love and trust, then you can point out gently that you're not getting chances to speak. If, and only if.

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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