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updated: 5/13/2013 12:08 PM

Pining away for a life that doesn't exist

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Q. Sometimes I think I'd like someone to rescue me from my life -- someone to make it so I don't have to work anymore, and I just sit back and not think about anything serious or responsible.

I know this comes from having always been the "responsible" one, and it's gotten to the point where I'd love to make some very significant life changes, but I find myself unable to do so because of what seem like insurmountable obstacles. I'd love a job in a slightly different field, but I get paid a lot where I am, and I would have to take a pay cut if I went anywhere else, plus I would probably need more education, which I can't afford and don't have time for.

I would also love to end my marriage and move back to the part of the world I'm from, but I haven't been able to figure how to manage either of those things.

How does one balance out desire and reality to cobble a life that feels right? Or maybe there is no real right, and we're all just fumbling around looking for greener pastures that don't exist.

A. We're never just one "if only ... " away from a perfect life, because there's clearly no such thing, if that's what you mean. But there is some room to fiddle with the desire/reality balance. You don't have to hate your job, marriage and location for the rest of your life because that's what reality ordered.

The pertinent question is, which changes to which element of your life will bring the most satisfaction -- and for the least gratuitous pain?

Figuring that out requires a level of rational detachment that's difficult in your current state, which I suspect is depressed. I'm not a mental health professional of any kind, so please start this process by seeking the opinion of one.

You might dismiss this suggestion because you can see such clear, nonmedical reasons to be down. It's not either-or, though; blues don't have an external cause or an internal one. The two can be independent or work in tandem.

Yes, time and money are scarce, and therapy requires both -- but it's hard to think of anything more costly and time-burning than trying to live an ill-fitting life. Seeing a good therapist for even a couple of appointments, scrounged and planned for, can help declutter the path to a significant life decision.

Therapy or no, the next step I urge is to dismantle, piece by piece, your wall of "can't." You aren't trying to flap your arms to the moon; you can, in fact, change jobs, live on less, retrain, move, separate. Whether any of these is a good idea takes us back to the pertinent question, but you can't hope to answer it unless you purge your defeatist thinking.

How? By seeing "can't" for what it is. You can change jobs, for example; you just choose not to absorb a pay cut. You eliminate "can't" by revisiting each of these choices, and reorienting each toward what you want. Right now, your focus appears to be on getting away from what you don't want, which invites a sense of hopelessness.

Just as futility is overrepresented here, truth seems too scarce. Does your spouse even know how unhappy you are? Intimacy makes a marriage, and withholding the kind of pain you're feeling starves intimacy, which launches your marriage into a death spiral.

Give it and your spouse a chance to be something in your life that works. Or, if that's not possible, then just choose not to be the next person who blindsides a spouse with "This isn't working" as a fait accompli. Admit you're in trouble, out loud. Even if you leave out any details that feel reckless to include, you'll still set change in motion. That's what you fear, I get that, but it seems like time to accept that the status quo carries risks of its own.

Q. The other day I was having a conversation with my mom and she said marriages are really about power. I am finding that, days later, I'm still really bothered by it. I am feeling angry (because that seems unfair to my dad), feeling sorry for her, but also wondering if maybe there's some truth to what she is saying. What do you think?

A. I think it's worth digging into why this bugs you so much, including a follow-up with your mom.

I also think there's some truth to it, but I'd say unhealthy marriages are about power.

The healthy ones are about equilibrium -- meaning, the power question is resolved to the satisfaction of both. Spouses whose needs are mostly being met and whose voices are being heard aren't the ones battling to have their way, their day, their say.

• Email Carolyn at, or chat with her online at 11 a.m. each Friday at

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