How to have the “I want to quit my job” conversation with your spouse

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I have been very intrigued with a sub-theme that has emerged from many conversations with corporate employees who want to become entrepreneurs:

How can I tell my spouse that I want to quit my job without him/her getting scared and/or defensive?

I fondly call this “The Conversation” and pick up the same amount of anxiety as if they were telling their kids about the birds and the bees for the first time.

The short answer is that there is no way to predict or direct your spouse’s reaction to your news since that is totally outside of your control.  But here are some ways to ensure that the conversation, or more likely series of conversations, goes well:

(Just to avoid endless s/he and him/her, I will use the male form of spouse in this article)

  1. Choose a low-stress moment when you have time and energy for a long conversation.  It is not fair to drop a major bombshell when you won’t have time to talk about it.  Don’t talk about this right before bed or in the morning before heading off to work, as this will just stir up questions in your spouse’s mind.
  2. Choose a good place to talk.  I find it is a lot easier to have a deep, meaningful conversation with my husband when we are up and moving around.  We have had some of our best conversations on long walks or drives.  One of the Mars/Venus theorists (I don’t remember who) said that men converse better while moving while women like to be sitting face-to-face, peering into the others eyes.  Because you should be concerned about your spouse’s communication style, choose the place that he feels the most comfortable with.
  3. Minimize distractions.  Get your kids a sitter, turn off your cellphone and Blackberry and don’t go somewhere like your favorite local cafe where you will be interrupted by lots of friends.  You want uninterrupted time.
  4. Explain why you are so excited about starting your own business. Make sure your spouse knows all about why this idea is so compelling to you and why you are excited about it.  Don’t just talk about the business idea, talk about what it would mean to you personally to get enjoyment from your work.  Would you have more energy?  Would you watch less TV?  Want to help around the house more?  Become a 19-year old sex machine?  (OK, OK, now you are going overboard)
  5. Explain the consequences of not following your dreams. Everyone processes job stress differently.  Some people have a high tolerance for staying in an unhappy or stressful work situation if it means bringing home lots of money.  Others have very low tolerance and develop health problems including depression, high blood pressure, weight problems, anxiety disorders and low energy.  Make sure your spouse understands the consequences to you if you are unhappy with your work.
  6. Expect a lot of resistance.  I have practiced change management long enough to know that even if someone perceives a change as a good thing (i.e. getting married, having a baby, getting a promotion and raise), he will still feel a certain amount of resistance.  It can be very, very scary for your spouse to think about losing his perception of stability (you know where I stand with the notion that jobs are more stable than self employment).  Don’t get angry if he doesn’t immediately support your idea.
  7. Ask lots of questions to understand the resistance.  Your spouse may say something like “If you quit your job, we will lose all financial stability!”  Make sure you really understand what he is talking about and ask “What in particular are you concerned about?  What amount of money in the bank would make you comfortable that our expenses are covered?  What is it about me being self employed makes you the most nervous?”  You may find that after asking a lot of questions that the original reasons he gave are not the real, emotionally charged reasons.  They can be things like “If you get really happy and successful, you may leave me!” or “If you do what you love, I will have to sacrifice all my happiness for you!” or “If you start your own business, you will destroy our family, just like my Dad did,” etc.
  8. Take his advice to heart! Don’t view this conversation as a one-way sales call.  Your spouse may have some very valid reasons for his resistance, and you should carefully listen to and reflect on what they are.  All of us knows a family member, neighbor or Uncle Joe who took the family savings and blew it on day trading or a hair-brained get-rich-quick scheme.  Make sure you aren’t that person.  Even if you don’t agree with all of your spouse’s concerns, acknowledge and respect them.
  9. Reciprocate.  Ask your spouse how he is feeling in his work life.  What would make him more happy and fulfilled?  What big dreams does he have?  How can you help him reach his goals?
  10. Make a plan to continue the conversation.  You will definitely not resolve all your concerns in one sitting.  Plan on spending more time discussing the issues until you both feel comfortable with the plan. (Funny note on this:  I was just on vacation with my family and my brother-in-law said while teasing my sister “I don’t understand why women need to process everything so much!”  Of course I jumped in to her defense and said “Men process ideas and emotions like simple arithmetic, while women process like advanced calculus.”  It was a juicy, sexist comment intended to inflame family banter and get my brother in law going.  But I will say there is a nugget of truth to it … as a woman, I need considerably more time to process and talk about decisions then my husband does.  It does not mean I am pessimistic or unwilling to change, I just don’t feel comfortable with a decision until I have talked through all the risks and alternatives.  My sister and Mom agreed with me, my brother-in-law rolled his eyes.)

Here is what not to say, as my friend Matthew Scott shared:

“I blew my first attempt at following my “calling” with my wife. I told her how unhappy I was in my work and something was missing in my life and headed for the coastline to “figure-it-out.” Well as you can imagine when your soon to be 40 year old husband says this you would freak out and imagine the worst. I could not understand why she was so concerned about me doing this and began to internalize my own head-trash of thinking she was ungrateful and did not want to jeopardize our “so-called” great life with my fancy title and big house. Boy was I a putz! So over-communicate in on-going conversation before you take any major action.”

Here are a few other ways NOT to have the conversation:

  1. Over the phone. This conversation needs to be live and unplugged.  You simply cannot discuss such a meaty issue unless you are face-to-face.
  2. In the middle of financial stress.  You will fan the flames of fear if you talk about leaving your job right when you are stressing out about bills or facing a huge property tax or tuition bill.  Try to pick the most stable financial time to talk about this issue.  If your financial life is continually in flux, you may want to address that issue first by reducing expenses and paying down debt as you will need a bit of wiggle room in the months you are starting up your business.
  3. In front of your kids.  Although I do think it is good to share your plans with your kids, don’t raise the topic for the first time over family dinner.  Depending on their age, your kids may get upset if they hear you and your spouse disagreeing and stressing about money.  They want to know that no matter what happens their life will be secure, so plan to have a joint conversation with your spouse once you both air your concerns and come up with a mutually acceptable plan.

What if your spouse is totally resistant and no amount of heartfelt conversation will garner his support for your dream?

This is where I must bow out and refer you to a more competent adviser like a couples counselor.  If your spouse or significant other is totally disinterested in your happiness, sounds like there may be some bigger issues in your relationship.

For those of you who have already had The Conversation, I would love to hear what worked and what didn’t.

11 Responses to “How to have the “I want to quit my job” conversation with your spouse”

  1. dani says:

    I’m the significant other in this scenario and my partner has just quit (or rather, refused to go to) his job. I feel bullied into this, i know its something he has always wanted to do but he’s just decided to dive in head first with no real business plan, no money, no clients, not even a logo yet! We were barely keeping our head above water as it is and now he’s just expecting me to pick up the slack by magically pulling a full time job out of my arse. I know he’s depressed, he has been for a while but we’re just not in a position to be able to cope. Quite frankly i’m fuming at him for being so selfish and not waiting a year or two til our daughter is at school. He’s basically kicked and screamed and thrown his toys out of his pram to get his own way.

  2. Sury says:

    I so very much want to resign my corporate job and start my own business. I talked to my hubby regarding the same. He sounded supportive but as soon as he felt I was really serious about it, he started to backoff. I know he doesnt want to change the financially stable status of our family (we two and our son). But I can see that most of his collegues have non-working wifes and still they are able to live just the way we do. I am not sure what makes him feel so unsafe. He is well appreciated in his job and is awarded for his work performance frequently. I dont think he has any risks of loosing his job, but still he seems too worried. I tried to talk to him about it but he doesnt open up.
    I am soo unhappy with my work that I loose focus and try to make excuses for taking vacations. I just hate the way I feel now. I have been working for 10 years now and I feel I had had enough. I really want to do something more fullfilling. I just dont know how to make my husband understand.

  3. Jen says:

    I have had the conversation, and thought it went well. Then I found out that my spouse was trying to show me support, yet holding back his fears. I had to encourage him to talk about it. One thing we did was stop listening to the news (TV, Radio) for awhile. The reason simply is that these days there is so much *bad* financial news that it tends to evoke worry (even if you are not leaving your job). Also, I too have those inner demons working me over (how could I give up the money; am I stupid;why can’t I just focus;) all those negative things just make it worse. It’s important to get your finances in order, put some money aside for emergencies, and learn to live on less BEFORE you do it. Also, the more I put this off the harder it gets for me to focus on anything (my business, or my corporate job) so really if you don’t go through with it, you are going to regret it because you will be unhappy. There are many wealthy people who are unhappy because they followed the money instead of their dreams I suspect.

  4. mark says:

    I discovered your site today and added it to my rss reader. I took the leap to independence on May 1, 1997 … after 18 months of gentle discussion with my wife. We had 2 kids then, a third on the way, a mortgage, a boat payment, etc. I let her read a book during the one hour ride on the way to a friend’s house. When she finished the book, she closed it, looked over at me and said, “Why don’t you quit your job. We live in America, we won’t starve.” She is my hero.

    On my last day at the job back in 1997, she called my office to ask if I was still really confident. After hearing me say yes, she asked if it was okay to join the country club for the summer so the kids could join the swim team! WOW. What a champion! Regardless of what happens, she will always be my hero.

    Oh yeah, the book? “You can’t steal second with one foot on first”. I have no financial interest in the book, just telling a story.

    If you are the significant other of an escape planner, you have the chance to be someone’s life-long hero. This story has been told to my kids, and I am sure it will be told to their kids. My wife has earned permanent, multi-genrational hero status.

    One last thing…Ann, if you ever read this, I love you.

  5. Murali says:

    It came as a big surprise to see this post. No entrenreneur will jump on day-one on the journey towards having own business, to quit his/her job. By the time he/she decide to quit, he/she must have worked on lots of stuff towards his own business. I can not think of a situation where you are putting so much extra effort on some thing you are passionate about, and your spouse does not even know about it and you have to have a ‘conversation’ about it.


    You may be surprised to know Murali that many, many people struggle with introducing this topic for the first time with their spouse. I know because I have personally talked to hundreds of them over the years, and read lots and lots of emails from others since I started this blog. Perhaps the title threw you off. What I was really talking about was introducing the concept of self-employment to your spouse for the first time. Obviously, as you stated, by the time someone has worked on a business idea long enough to give notice at their job, their spouse better well have been informed.

    It is not just an issue of leaving a job to start a new business, it is also an issue for someone who wants to change careers. Many people are afraid of change and do not encourage their spouse to rock the boat of stability.

    All the best,

  6. Anna Farmery says:

    My partner was hugely supportive. The conversation I had was with my inner demons….you should appreciate an Exec job, people dream of being as successful, why would you give that up, its too risky, I am not good enough, etc then my dad died and I realised life is short to be putting these dreams off until tomorrow. So for me I had to say to my wonderful partner….yeah, you are right!

  7. Pam really hits on some key points with this article. She mentions in article my struggles with this conversation and I can only say I wish I had this guidance two years ago.
    My wife is great and takes my dreamer vision and applies a well-thought out transition plan. 7 months later after “figuring it out” on the Oregon coastline she prepared the financial plan and the way we would communicate to our loved ones to make my dream a reality.
    Pam I both wrote about this topic because of how important it is to build our support & accountability team within our own house.

  8. When I had the Conversation with my husband I worked up a home budget spreadsheet showing best and worst case scenarios in meeting our monthly bills. I included a list of all the areas where I could cut our monthly expenses and what we would save in my commuting expenses etc.

    Before quitting I knew exactly the minimum amount of money I needed to bring in monthly and presented a back up plan for earning that money if my new business didn’t produce a profit within 6 months. Thankfully, the business has become profitable and I haven’t had to exercise the backup plan. But it comforting to my husband to have one. Leaving cubicle nation was the best decision I ever made!

  9. robert says:

    And never ever begin this type of conversation via a mobile text.

    You will so be the loser!

  10. If you can’t get your spouse to agree to let you leave your job, then start a part time business. Once your little part time business starts earning more money than your job they’ll change their tune.

    What will happen at that point is your money problems will vanish. They’ll also respect what you’re doing.

    – Bryan

  11. Ben Fulton says:

    I haven’t had “the conversation” but I’ve thrown out feelers. She had exactly three concerns: Health insurance, health insurance, and health insurance. I suspect I won’t be leaving my job unless Hillary Clinton is elected president 🙂