Q: DEAR Apw,
My husband and I have been together for nearly thirteen years, married for eight, and we have a kindergartner. We’ve been through a lot—long distance for two years, debilitating illness, clinical depression, family drama, graduate school, infertility followed by ill-timed accidental pregnancy. We’ve done our “richer and poorer, sickness and health” bit, and then some.
These days, I am a full-time writer and he designs lighting for architectural and theatrical projects. I’ve had a long time to immerse myself in his work and develop an understanding of and appreciation for lighting design. I think he’s brilliant at it. I genuinely like the work.
How do I come to terms with the fact that my husband doesn’t appreciate my art? In simplest terms: he’s not one of my fans. He wouldn’t willingly read anything I write, were it not written by me, and he can’t say (with any honesty) that he likes it.
He doesn’t read much fiction at all, but he does have a few novels he loves. He claims to neither understand nor appreciate poetry. He is incredibly supportive, in a general way; he supported me during graduate school and has been 100 percent on board with my career. But he has never given me a compliment on my writing. Ever. In the beginning, this was something I liked about him—that he didn’t flatter me when it wasn’t sincere. I could trust him to be honest. I still can.
He honestly doesn’t understand or care for my books, or my poetry, or my essays.
I don’t need his approval to do my job. We don’t have many similar interests; we never have, and that has never been a problem before. As an artist, I’m used to criticism and take rejection well. Objectively, I know I’m a good writer and people love my books and poetry. Just not my husband.
What can I do? What can he do? Can our marriage flourish, despite the fact that I’m an artist whose husband thinks her art isn’t all that great? I feel like this big, important part of my identity is completely inaccessible to him. It is starting to taint what has been a very successful marriage.
A: DEAR Anon,
As a fellow writer, veteran of thirteen-plus years of a relationship, and mother of a kindergartner, I can more than empathize with you (probably on more things than discussed in this letter). But when it comes to writer life, I get it. We spend our days at a keyboard pouring our soul into our work (or, you know, on less creative days, just getting it done), and the people in our lives don’t always want to read it. And sometimes the people who are really not that interested in it include our partners. So what then?
To discuss this, I think it’s important to parse out two separate issues: respecting and admiring you as a creative, and actually caring about your very particular work. While these two ideas seem like they might be one and the same, I’d argue that they’re actually very different.
My Husband Hasn’t Read My Books
Confession time. I’ve published two books that collectively helped buy us a house. They’ve sold a lot of copies. They’ve paid a lot of our bills. I’m pretty proud of them. My husband has read exactly neither of them. I figured this out when I was in the middle of writing my second book, and over dinner said something like:
“I’m doing a version of what I did in X section of the last book, but I’m fleshing it out an Y way.”
So I tried to explain it again. “You know X section of my first book?”
Silence, followed by a blank look.
“So, you have READ my first book right?”
“Um… not… really? I mean, I did look at that rough draft in Mexico?”
And that, my friends, is how I found out that David (known throughout all of our friend groups as being the most supportive career husband ever) had not read the book that I’d written. And I know for a fact that he hasn’t read the very logistical follow-up book. His defense is that he’s not planning a wedding, and I didn’t write the books for him anyway. And you know, fair enough.
Or it would be fair enough, except I am also here to disclose that he also reads nothing on this website, including long heartfelt personal essays that I write. That is, unless I tell him three to four times to please read an essay, because it’s really important to me. And then he reads it and tells me it was, “Very good.” Every time. When I ask for follow-up, or if he has any further thoughts, he always just says, “No, it’s just very good! I can tell you worked on it a lot.” End of conversation.
Keeping It Even
Is this annoying? I mean, yes, sort of. Though over the years I’ve also decided that it’s kind of freeing as well. Because you know how I’m mildly shit-talking him right now? He’s never going to read it, and more than that, he doesn’t really care. So I can be as honest as I want, with no guilt or regrets. (And trust me, that rule does not apply to everyone in my life.) And as a writer, it’s pretty delightful to have a carte blanche to be as honest as you want to about someone.
And besides, it goes both ways. My husband is a litigator and an appellate attorney. Do I read his briefs and motions? No. Do I want to? Nope. Have I ever read his thesis about British Jewish solders in WWII that he really wants me to read? Um, no. And will I ever read it? Given that we’re going on fourteen years, I’d guess it’s highly unlikely.
Making It Work
Why does this work for us?
It works because I know that David is my number one fan. He thinks I’m talented and hardworking, and he pushes me forward constantly. I wouldn’t have launched this website without him, I wouldn’t have written my first book if he hadn’t cold called his former boss who is now my current agent, and I wouldn’t have written my second book if he hadn’t pushed me past my own bullshit. He believes in me, he believes in my work, and he believes in my business. And he’s not here for all my fear and resistance and thinking small. When I hesitate about taking a risk or going bigger, he pushes me. When I wonder if I’m talented enough to do something, he tells me to get over myself and get it done.
And I like to think that I serve a very similar purpose in his career. When there were no jobs when he graduated from law school, I made him keep taking Bar Exams tell he got one. The poor man took both the California and the New York Bar, because my attitude was that you keep working so you have access to even more opportunities. When he complains about something in his career, I tell him to do something to change it or stop bitching.
And it’s fine. I have a very public career where I get lots of positive feedback on my work. (And he’s always ready to tell me when some vicious internet criticism is bullshit.) And he’s got plenty of people in his office that talk about how super smart and super talented he is, so God knows he doesn’t need me blowing further smoke up his ass. (And when opposing council says truly awful things about him, I’m always there to shut that shit down before it takes over his brain.)
This Is What Support Looks Like
So in short, the answer is this: your partner doesn’t have to read your work to be supportive. He doesn’t have to like novels or poetry to be your number one fan. But he does, somehow, need to find a way to be your number one fan. He needs to believe in you and your talent and your potential in this world. He needs to push you to thrive and not tolerate your excuses when you try to hold yourself back. And he absolutely, fundamentally, needs to learn how to give you a compliment. It doesn’t need to be, “The poems you write tickle my soul.” But, “You are a bad-ass hardworking poet, and I believe in what you do,” will do nicely. He can think your art is not his cup of tea, while thinking you, the artist, are amazing.
And I will add one other thing here: it may be time for you to dial back your effusive support of his work. If you understand it and like it, great. But when it comes to spending more time understanding the nuance of his work? If you know you’re not going to get that energy back in return, don’t waste it. Spend it on your own work. Or your kid. Or your shared life together. Or literally anything that’s not a waste of your time. Use that energy in that room of your own. He’ll be fine.
And if he’s not fine without your overwhelming support? Well then, maybe that will prompt him to take a look in the mirror and then maybe things will change.
But until then, give what you receive. And save the rest for yourself.