Couples and Job Loss: When the Going Gets Tough

Bill had been on pins and needles since word first leaked of the sale of his division. He knew that if it went through, he was likely to join the ranks of the unemployed. Yet when he was officially told that his job had been eliminated, it came as a real shock. He couldn't even listen as his boss described details of the severance. He felt completely unprepared to embark on a job search and didn't know how he would tell his family. Things were stretched enough at home as it was. He decided that it would be better if they didn't know just yet. Besides, maybe he'd get something soon and he could let them know after he had an offer! So, everyday Bill got up as usual, put on his suit and tie, caught the same train to the city, and came home to dinner. He told his wife not to call him on his cell phone in case he was in an interview. Actually, he was spending his days in the library and on his cell phone trying to get an interview.

Impossible you say? You may be surprised to know that this is a true story. Bill's wife found out that something was up, soon enough that Bill hadn't fallen apart but not soon enough to prevent damaging their relationship. In trying to avoid facing one problem, Bill had created several others, not the least of which denied him an important source of support and encouragement. It should be no surprise that those early interviews were unsuccessful.

In the last few recessionary years, many families have been faced with job loss in one, or even both, wage earners. With the decreasing likelihood of two incomes, the economic impact of one spouse out of work may, or may not, result in financial hardship. Economics aside, however, job loss puts an exceptional strain on the marital relationship. How that strain is handled can make the difference between a tough time and a trauma.

In our work at Park East, we see the effects of job loss on individuals and couples. The points below reflect the understanding we have developed of how couples should deal with the stresses and strains of job search.

Tell your spouse what is happening in your career regardless of how bad the situation looks.

Bill may have been an extreme case, but there are many variations on "editing" the truth to "protect" the family. Men in particular appear to have problems "leveling" about the job search situation in all of its details. This may be an attempt to deny the truth, or just to save face, but it is inappropriate in a time of crisis. The half truths and omitted facts potentially inhibit free discussion as the job search continues and become increasingly counterproductive. Own up early on and get the process, both personal and professional, off to an unencumbered start.

Recognize and accept atypical feelings of guilt, anger, and fear.

It may seem obvious, but losing one's job means it isn't "business as usual" emotionally. Job loss has many effects, including guilt, anger, depression, even feelings of relief. However, for most people, it does represent somewhat of an emotional roller coaster; your heart is in your throat and the dips and turns are unpredictable.

The spouse out of work needs a safe place to experience these reactions. His/her partner needs to provide an interested and accepting forum for those feelings to have a voice. Never talk someone out of what they feel or act as if a feeling "doesn't make sense." Don't imply that the spouse out of work should be "over this by now." The partner may need to be aware of his/her own feelings of fear or anger to be a receptive listener. Counseling with a professional can help with this process.

Spouses should not direct each other's job search.

Just as doctors shouldn't treat their own kids, wives and husbands shouldn't direct each other's job search. Support, encouragement, ideas, and discussion are all great but setting up the calendar and the "to do" list for your spouse are not. First, it puts responsibility where it doesn't belong and can further undermine self-confidence. Second, the spousal role of providing emotional support does not fit well with acting as a supervisor. Even if a spouse is having trouble getting started, or is stuck at some point in the job search, professional career counseling resources are available to provide the appropriate push.

Make an effort to maintain the usual family routines and rituals.

In times of trouble, a healthy reaction is to spend more time together. With job loss, however, the usual schedules and routines are often disrupted. This can interfere with opportunities for closeness and sharing. What used to be taken for granted is now up for grabs and may change.

If the pattern before job loss was to have dinner together on Tuesdays and Fridays, try to maintain that pattern. If you both enjoy a bike ride on Saturday, keep it up. Sometimes, a conscious effort must be made to schedule shared activities that in the past did not require planning.

Re-examine the usual division of labor around the house.

There is something about household chores that seems to be a "lightning rod" for tension during the job search. Maybe it taps into the tension that is already there. Maybe there is a sense that the spouse who is out of work should do more around the house. Whatever the reason for the anger over chores, it certainly isn't helpful.

As an alternative, it is best if a couple can anticipate these pressures and be flexible about who handles what around the house. Sometimes, there is a tendency for the spouse out of work to go to one extreme or the other, i.e., do none of his/her usual tasks in order to concentrate on the job search, or, take over all the household responsibilities because he/she is not working anyway. Both extremes should be avoided for obvious reasons. Often for men, the middle ground may require a re-examination of existing household responsibilities and a willingness to take on more, with the understanding that the job search comes first. The most important point is that this "division of labor" can be discussed rather than becoming a wedge between the couple. With children older than 7-8, include them in age appropriate discussions about job search: Encourage questions and the expression of fear.

Most parents underestimate the extent to which their children understand what is happening around them. They are especially tuned into problems: marital conflict, illness, upset, etc. In general, it is better to explain job loss to children, in terms they can understand, rather than have them confused and frightened without knowing why. Also, by making job loss an open subject, the couple will eliminate energy wasted on keeping things secret or protecting the kids. Furthermore, children may often have suggestions for how to handle changes around the house. The one caution is that children should not assume responsibilities beyond their appropriate role, such as going without lunch to save money, or getting a job themselves, etc. Otherwise, the benefits of being open about Mom's or Dad's career far outweigh the risks.

Job loss presents every couple who experiences it with difficult choices and challenges. Keeping the above points in mind will help reduce unnecessary tension and keep the couple engaged as a team in overcoming this problem.