Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Boyfriend Has Lost all Ambition”

My boyfriend and I met a little over five years ago and a lot of really tough things has happened since then. When we were first dating he was an ambitious up-and-coming artist who was in college, owned a home, worked several jobs, and had a solid a 5-year plan. This was very important to me because I wanted someone who was as ambitious as I was with the same values and sense of humor, and in Brad I thought I had found that. Fast forward a year and a half, when Brad received some very bad news. His house had burned down while he was away. I offered him a place to stay while he got his world back together and after some hesitation he took it.

Since that time a number of really rotten things have happened to the man. His favorite aunt died of cancer, he was laid off at work, he nearly lost all vision after it was discovered he had acute retinal necrosis caused by taxoplasmosis, and finally last year his father passed away. Due to the eye-complications he has a lot of problems seeing fine detail which, for his art, was completely heart-wrenching, and the final straw after he lost his entire art portfolio in the fire. He took it as a sign that God did not intend for him to become an artist and ever since has been struggling to find a new mission in life. It’s as though the past five years have completely sucked all the ambition and energy out of the man and he’s constantly wrought with guilt not making anywhere near as much money as I do and insecurity not knowing where he’s going in life. We’re both 27 now and had talks about wanting to get married and have children by the time we’re 30 — an age that is fast approaching.

I’ve tried to encourage him to get a job but in today’s economy he has had no luck. He’s back in college now trying to get a new degree but he doesn’t even like the careers that the degree will get him. He complains about not contributing to our finances yet doesn’t actually obtain a job. He gripes over his health and well-being about how fat he’s becoming but doesn’t keep up a workout regime. Part of me is tired of the excuses and wants to see results, and part of me is more empathetic and recognizes that he’s had a lot of really rotten things happen to him in a very short amount of time. I’m just wondering: should I change my life goals and expectations to meet his? — Distraught in New Hampshire


No, you shouldn’t change your goals and life plans for him, but if you love him, you should definitely encourage him to seek therapy and treatment for his possible depression. If he does and is able to get better, you may way to think about compromises you can make and adjustments in your expectations to have a future with him. For example, he may never be the financial provider you hoped he might be, so you need to decide if you’d be willing to be the major breadwinner in the family. If you both want a family one day soon, how would you feel about him being a stay-at-home dad? Also, with his vision issues, you may be called on to be more of a care-giver — and at an earlier age — than you’d planned on when you first met him. Are you OK with that?

On the flip side, if he refuses therapy — you should decide for yourself how much longer you’re willing to wait for him to go (three months maybe?) and continues to show no signs of changing his life, it’s probably time for you to move on. It’s unfortunate what has happened to him these last few years, but let’s face it: life is full of hard knocks; no one is immune from them. If you can’t be with someone who can roll with life’s punches and eventually pick himself up and dust himself off, better you realize that now than before you make marriage vows to him, you know?

*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com and be sure to follow me on Twitter.

27 comments… add one
  • avatar

    lemongrass July 4, 2011, 10:11 am

    I think this is a good example of how people can change simply because of life. This is what people should be really sure they can take this from their partner before they marry. This is the “worse” of “for better or for worse.”

    But other than that, I agree with Wendy. He sounds depressed and therapy/antidepressants can make a world of difference.

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    hana July 4, 2011, 12:07 pm

    I am not going to jump on the therapy bandwagon here. If he wants to go you should be happy and supportive but if he doesn’t I wouldn’t leave him. He has been through many tragic events in a short period of time. Give him tine to heel. As for his artistic needs, my great grandfather was completely blinded in world war I and became a sculpture when he returned home. His work is fantastic and better than most from sighted people. He has extreme detail on his pieces and color and he made all of them himself. Perhaps your boyfriend could find another media to work with on his art or do more abstract things. best of luck!

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      TMSC July 5, 2011, 11:54 am

      My grandfather went blind when he was mid-age. He had 3 small children, a house, etc. He changed his career, took a train into the city every day to train to be an x-ray technician (yes, and he was blind). He also was a woodworker. He built all kinds of things, including a dollhouse for me that was on wheels, and was taller than I was. He was amazing. I think the LW should encourage him to towards his art. It doesn’t have to be the same type of art, but you can be creative in many different ways. This might help him heal as well.

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    • avatar

      mf July 5, 2011, 11:54 am

      What a cool story about your great grandfather! He’s proof that people can overcome anything.

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    WatersEdge July 4, 2011, 12:18 pm

    Life has thrown some terrible things at this guy. I don’t blame him at all for feeling the way he does. But if you want an ambitious guy, this guy is not it. If he were ambitious, the only thing that would have made a significant dent in his ambition would have been the loss of his eyesight which leaves him incapable of becoming an artist. If my house burned down, my mom died, and my aunt died, I’d be having a totally shitty time in my personal life, no doubt. But I wouldn’t stop looking for work or filing homeowners insurance claims to recoup the loss of my house.

    LW, give your boyfriend some tough love. Tell him he can be doing better. Some people succeed no matter what life throws at them. Some people don’t succeed at much despite having every advantage in the world. Some people succeed if the opportunity is right, but quit after some setbacks. Hopefully your boyfriend will get his old motivation back, but if he doesn’t, then consider yourself lucky that you didn’t marry this guy yet and go find a guy with your level of ambition.

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      SpaceySteph July 4, 2011, 12:57 pm

      I agree. Yes it sucks and he’s obviously had it rough, but people are able to bounce back from these setbacks, change their course if they need to. Living in hurricane-prone states my whole life I’ve seen people lose their homes, members of their family, their livelihood… and get back up.
      Also if I understand the timeline correctly, all these hits have been spread out over the course of over 3 years? I understands its alot of rough things, but has he really been crashing with you, moping over his lost artwork, and refusing to find a new job for THREE years?!
      Its time for him to get his ass up and for you to quit making excuses for him. Exercise with him, motivate him to better his physical condition. And since after 5 years I’m sure you know him pretty well- are there any careers out there you think he’d be good at? Suggest he look into something you think he might enjoy. But above all, stop letting him complain because he’s fat and aimless and can’t pay for anything around the house… encourage him to get active, get motivated, and start helping out.

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    • avatar

      DramaQueen224 July 4, 2011, 5:51 pm

      I don’t know, I couldn’t just separate my personal and professional life like that, especially when both took such a big hit. And, to me at least, it doesn’t sound like her boyfriend is completely unmotivated (he’s back in school and trying to find a job) he’s just lost as to where to find happiness. I have to force myself to run errands and go to the gym and I’m healthy and professionally fulfilled, I don’t know if I’d be strong enough to do so if my life was completely falling apart.

      I agree that this guy needs to go to therapy for himself and for his relationship. I would also recommend some serious career guidance (college guidance counselors, talking to any art mentors he used to have, finding new ones in the degree he’s pursuing, maybe even taking some personality tests) so that he can find a track that makes him happy again.

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  • avatar

    Desiree July 4, 2011, 12:52 pm

    I find it odd that nowhere in the letter (at least as it is presented to us) does the LW really express any interest in *staying* with her boyfriend, least of all marrying him. Regardless of her sense of empathy for him, if she isn’t happy envisioning a life with him, she would be unwise to stay.

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  • avatar

    tedster July 4, 2011, 1:36 pm

    dump him, you deserve better.

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  • avatar

    tedster July 4, 2011, 1:43 pm

    *How can he make my life better?*
    *He cannot make enough money for me*

    ” I’m just wondering: should I change my life goals and expectations to meet his? ”
    a selfish person like you would be unable to do that. don’t kid yourself.
    go take a good hard look in the mirror.

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    • avatar

      Lydia July 4, 2011, 3:27 pm

      Nowhere does she say that she thinks he doesn’t make enough money for her. The problem is his apathy; he worries and complains about a problem, but then does absolutely nothing to fix it.

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      • avatar

        Critic August 1, 2013, 12:50 pm

        I disagree.

        Look to what attracted her in this man

        “When we were first dating he was an ambitious up-and-coming artist who was in college, OWNED A HOME, WORKED SEVERAL JOB$, and had a solid a 5-year plan. ”

        A surefire way to lose a relationship is for the male to start making less money than the female. Look to psychology and statistics on this. Look to the biology model to see why women are often materialistic. The biology model explains why men are more apt to be skanks while women are more likely to be in a relationship with a well to do man, it all comes down to raising children and the amount of energy consumed per viable offspring. Men need merely sow their seeds as often as they can, while women are more likely to have children who survive if that man sticks around and has resources to keep her and the kids thriving. This model is not specific to any species or time period.
        Also note that the average human relationship lasts 3 years, the approximate time it takes for human children to become “almost certain” to survive without the male. Coincidence? perhaps.

        It is hard to fight what evolution has taught us. IF your man is making less money than you, has lost his confidence, and has lost his resources, you will simply find him FAR less attractive as a mate, period, as a female.

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    RavageMaladie July 4, 2011, 4:44 pm

    I agree with Desiree. You consistently call him ‘the man’ in your letter and somehow the whole thing came across as very distant. To me it almost sounds like you have already given up on him.

    Hey, but even if you do: no shame on you. It takes a lot of hard work to support a person who’s not particularly fun to be around, upbeat, ambitious or interested in his surroundings, for such a long time. And by the nature of what he’s been through, he can’t help BUT not be all those things.

    On the one hand, I would cut him some slack. I’m a writer – if I were told that I could never write again it would definitely take me a few years to adjust my life to that and get excited about something else. On the other hand I also agree with other commenters that letting that adjustment process take place on your girlfriend’s couch and hardly getting up from it for years, is taking it rather to the extreme. I would always get even the humblest of cleaning jobs while I figured my stuff out. So the fact that he’s not doing that might either point to a depression or a mental fixation that he needs a good kick out off.

    I do wonder about one thing, though. Here in Europe it might be different, but if somebody told me ‘I’m going to be an artist and make lots of money’, I would kind of…politely point to my forehead, if you know what I’m saying. Even if you’re a very successful artist, in this economy it’s an extremely hard field to make a living in. If he’s anything like all my out-of-work friends, he must have had SOME kind of back up-plan? What kind of a job did he have? Maybe there’s something there?

    Either way, right now it’s a tangly mess and I think that if you’re willing to stick it out with him, it will probably take at least a couple of months to entangle. Tell him your worries, device a plan of action together, and decide, if he agrees to follow it, whether you have the stamina to be by his side while he does. If he doesn’t, you have your answer straight away.

    Best of luck to you AND him!

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    • avatar

      RavageMaladie July 4, 2011, 4:46 pm

      *disentangle* (damn)

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      WatersEdge July 4, 2011, 6:37 pm

      I agree with your point that his “career” as an artist was most likely a pipe dream at best. Very few are able to make that profitable, and the ones who do seem to link their art into something more practical (medical textbook illustration, teaching, curator) or are truly insane and create genius. Most people can’t support themselves on their art. I think the fact that he lost his vision in this story overwhelms the other facts, including that he probably should have had a backup all along. If someone “was going to be an actor but he got his face burned in a fire” we’d be saying the same thing… I know a few artists (my college had an art school) and they all have backup skills/careers.

      Also, how/why did he own a home while in college?

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      • avatar

        demoiselle July 5, 2011, 11:17 am

        Maybe he inherited it? Or maybe it was a gift from his parents? He may have been receiving financial support from his parents which couldn’t be continued once his father got sick, which might account for why he seemed to be doing so well and now can’t seem to get his act together . . .

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      demoiselle July 5, 2011, 11:15 am

      It sounds to me like she’s already cut him many years worth of slack . . . though I do feel for him. I think she’s going to have to take a hard look at their situation and ask if she can be happy with this man as he is, if he makes no changes. She can’t plan her future based on what he seemed like he’d be in the past, or what she hopes he will become in the future. She’s in a relationship with the guy who doesn’t bounce back from life challenges, and who has been living out of her house for years without formulating a plan for the future or making do by finding a job and a healthy lifestyle in the present . . . she can’t count on him ever being anyone significantly different from what he is today.

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  • avatar

    Turtledove July 5, 2011, 1:42 am

    I’m an artist, so I get a lot of what the LW’s boyfriend is going through and it’s just got to kill. Something about that old saw, “That which does not kill you… makes you want to die.” So he’s likely depressed and I can completely get that he’s difficult to live with. So both the LW and her boyfriend have my sympathies, it seems they’ve both gotten a raw deal these last couple of years.

    I have to wonder though, the LW said that her boyfriend lost the ability to see fine detail, not that he’s now blind. That’s an important distinction to me, since I’d find a way to be making art even if I were blind and someone chopped off both my arms. He seems to be showing an inability to adjust his expectations to his circumstances, which as an artist, just makes me cringe. In college, everybody drinks the art school kool aid (I’m the best ever!!!! Art is important for everybody!!!) I was fortunate to have a good mentor who basically said, “If you can think of anything else you might like to do instead, go do it. Most of your career as an artist, you won’t be making any money off your art and if you go commercial, you won’t be making anything that interests you.” It’s definitely a career in which you have to adjust your expectations to your circumstances. Maybe you find a great opportunity, maybe it takes you 15 years to get where you want to go (and in the meantime you’ve got to eat)

    When these sorts of things happen I believe everybody deserves the right to mope– but it’s got to have a time limit on it. Surely less than a year, certainly less than 3. That doesn’t mean that you don’t still grieve, but you acknowledge that life goes on and you should at least go through the motions. What the boyfriend would most likely benefit from most right now is a job– even if it’s flipping burgers. He needs a regular schedule and a set list of places he needs to be so he at least has to go through the motions even when he doesn’t feel like it. Inertia works on people too, objects at rest… well it’s just too easy to stay there, to not force yourself.

    He may never be the ambitious person he was when they met. I actually believe it more than likely. What the LW should know now is how her boyfriend deals with crisis– which is to say he shuts down. He may heal and become stronger, or this may have broken him. What the LW should truly decide is if there’s enough love left in their relationship to make it work as he is. And can the LW adjust her expectations to her present circumstances?

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    • avatar

      RavageMaladie July 5, 2011, 1:54 pm

      Ha, ‘art school kool aid’- I love it! Very relatable.

      I would definitively have appreciated an ‘art school cold shower’ before graduation, to prepare me for how breathlessly the world was ACTUALLY anticipating my genius…

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  • avatar

    airivera July 5, 2011, 3:39 am

    Your boyfriend needs to be in therapy. Anyone who’s comments suggest otherwise is a ninny. Your bf has been grieving for the past few years; his aunt, his father, his job, his art.

    It sounds like he wants to recreate his old, healthy life; he is back in school. But he also sounds very bitter and sad and guilty because he knows that his personal turmoil is greatly impacting your relationship for the worse.

    It is only up to you whether you can decide if you can keep dating him. Everything Wendy said about that was spot on. If I was in that position I would definitely have some heart to hearts with him, express your concern and realize that if you want to be with this guy you’re gonna have to be honest to him about your concerns. Because ignoring growing frustrations is only detrimental to a healthy relationship.

    I passionately suggest researching therapists in your area and giving him the info. As someone who has experienced a lot of grief and loss firsthand, I know that rebounding from it is extremely difficult and a LIFE LONG PROCESS (despite what many may think). Your boyfriend is probably horribly depressed and unable to pull himself out of this rut. He needs you to give him a hand and pull him out. But you can ONLY be that support system if you want to continue this relationship, if you understand that he is now a changed person and has been forever altered by grief and if you’re honest about how his depression/grieving is affecting his ability to meet your needs.

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  • avatar

    YouGoGirl July 5, 2011, 4:52 am

    I can relate to the boyfriend’s situation because I lost my job and husband in just a year and a few years later almost lost my vision. The boyfriend has endured many traumas in the past 5 years and it would not be realistic for him to be recovered completely. I am not completely “over” my traumas either. But after 3 years it is not unrealistic for the LW to expect her boyfriend to make at least some progress towards finding a new path in life. His lack of progress indicates that he may need therapy.

    After 5 years of caretaking with little improvement in his condition, the LW is very discouraged. The fact that she calls him “the man” indicates that sheis feeling a lot of emotional distance from him. I would like to tell her that she is not obligated to stay with him just because he now has a handicap. Nor is she obligated to change her goals to accomodate him.

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  • fast eddie

    fast eddie July 5, 2011, 9:12 am

    If all the stuff he’s going through and still moving forward with more education to enable an income isn’t ambitious enough for you do him a favor and MOA then go suck an orange.

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    • avatar

      Critic August 1, 2013, 12:43 pm

      I’d like to see the male vs female views here.

      Im male, fyi.

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    SGMcG July 5, 2011, 10:50 am

    There is a difference between changing your life goals and expectations and adjusting your forseen timeline for your goals and expectations. LW, it sounds like that you and your boyfriend were on the same page and timeline before all those horrible events happened to him. I don’t think your boyfriend truly lacks ambition, otherwise he wouldn’t be taking any courses now. Rather, he may just be complaining about the bad hand life handed him, and staying the course accordingly. You are probably tired of hearing his complaints and conclude that he lacks ambition because of the slowness of the action to recover. You’re also probably upset that your envisioned timeline when things occurred is shattered because life got in the way.

    Part of being in a relationship with someone is handling the good times and bad with your partner. Have you talked to your boyfriend if your shared goals are still the same as they were before life got in the way? If he still wants the kids and marriage with you, yet the timeline has to shift because of the life setbacks, then stay the course with him if the timeline can afford to be shifted. If you can’t stay the course with him because of this, you should MOA accordingly.

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  • avatar

    misslisa July 5, 2011, 1:26 pm

    “The man” sounds like a mopey slacker. He’s not the only person who’s ever endured a hardship. Examples:
    * One of my cousins lost her home and most of her possessions in a fire. (Stupidly, from smoking in bed). A few years later her beloved brother died of AIDS and her ex-husband took her daughter away. Sure she grieved, but bounced back & moved on.
    * As for me, I don’t want to take up a whole page listing the crap I’ve lived through, but here’s one: my eyesight is for shit (botched eye surgery) yet I’m still fully capable of doing graphic design and technical illustration on my job, using a large monitor and zooming in. Could he not do the same?

    You know what this BF has that my cousin and I didn’t have? An enabler. We weren’t afforded the luxury of wallowing in our own misery, we had to work to survive. Therapy and meds do provide a big help, but ultimately many folks won’t thrive until the safety net is cut away.

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  • avatar

    Critic August 1, 2013, 12:41 pm

    I see some superficiality, aka materialism. You want a guy with money, a good paying job, and things. His things burn down, he loses his job, his financial prospects become less, you value HIM less.

    Please do not marry this guy, you will ruin his life.

    Relationships are based on love, ergo the sickness and health, richer or poorer clause in most marriage vows.

    If you are not attracted to him when he is down and out go gold digging elsewhere.

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  • avatar

    Shade November 28, 2013, 1:14 am

    It doesn’t matter if you are not able to stick with him through his downs then don’t marry him. Things are temporary. If it is a very big problem you’re best to get a guy on your level. Money can make or break a relationship. And really, if the guy does get a new job and such, it’ll be adhered to his own terms. Not yours. He’ll be only able to support himself financially.

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