You lose more than a paycheck when you lose a job. Whether you’re downsized or flat-out fired, the financial stress and embarrassment of being unemployed, plus the anger, worry, and lowered self-esteem that can go with it, can strain even the most solid marriage. Money’s tight. Household routines change. Expectations shift.
“Money is the most psychologically loaded topic between partners these days. It’s what sex was 50 years ago,” says psychologist Stephen Goldbart, Ph.D., founder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in Kentfield, California. “It’s resonant with power and esteem and identity.” Losing the part of yourself that brings home the bacon conjures fears about making the next mortgage payment. It can also trigger deeper doubts and discomforts about your own worth — and what you and your spouse expect from your marriage.
Job loss rocks millions of American marriages each year. The national unemployment rate was 4.6 percent at the time this book was written — relatively low by U.S. Department of Labor standards. Yet it meant 7.6 million of us were out of work. Many face the grueling prospect of long-term unemployment: Nearly one in five were jobless for over six months. The impact? In the Reader’s Digest Marriage in America Survey, 47 percent of respondents said that a layoff or job loss was a major challenge in their relationships; about half described the experience as negative. “Looking for a job is harder than having a job for most people,” Dr. Goldbart notes.
But there was also a surprising bright note: One in three said that the outcome was ultimately positive. “If you can survive a life-changing crisis such as job loss that impacts your spouse and your family and that you really can’t control, you can survive just about anything,” says Damian Birkel, founder of Professionals in Transition, a North Carolina-based national support network for downsized employees. “You learn the depth of your relationship. We’ve survived two job losses and three downsizings, and I can honestly say I’m more in love with my wife, Donna, now than when we got married 30 years ago.”
Beating the Pink-Slip Blues
Nearly three-quarters of jobless Americans say family stress is greater since they lost work, according to a survey by the New York City-based nonprofit National Employment Law Project. One in three said they interrupted their own or a family member’s education, and one in four had to move to make ends meet. Joblessness can cancel plans to start a family, delay retirement, force one spouse to work long hours, and create a host of unexpected challenges on the home front. An unemployed spouse may feel lonely or depressed; a partner may resent taking on extra hours at work or feel hemmed in by the sudden round-the-clock togetherness. The balance of power can shift. And issues like who takes the trash out and who makes dinner can become battlegrounds.
When British researchers surveyed 24,000 out-of-work women and men in several countries, they found that unemployment had a deeper effect on well-being than divorce or widowhood. “Many days, I felt that I had ‘Loser’ tattooed on my forehead and ‘Will Work for Food’ tattooed on my chest,” says Birkel. “But relatives and friends and all others couldn’t see my tattoos because they didn’t really exist!”
Your marriage can be a source of strength during unemployment. These steps can help you navigate the pitfalls, focus on the true values of your relationship, and stay close after a pink slip.
When Dr. Goldbart counsels worried couples who’ve lost jobs or fortunate pairs who are suddenly wealthy, he advises the same starting point: Step back and look at what money means to you. “Any financial transition is an opportunity for a couple to look at the core operating principles that guide their decision-making about money. It works for people with oodles of money and those who must tighten their belts. It’s very eye-opening.”
It’s also essential. “If a couple isn’t on the same page about money, they’ll be all over the map about what to do when one partner loses a job,” he says. Perhaps one of you is comfortable with short-term debt and wants to use credit cards for necessities, while the other partner will cut spending as much as possible to avoid debt and hold on to savings. Perhaps one of you feels that continuing to go out for the occasional date — even if it’s just for pizza and a second-run movie — is worth the expense, while the other thinks it should be the first budget item to cut. Maybe one of you wants to cancel the kids’ planned stay at summer camp, while the other believes that’s too important to let go.
“People think the first step is coming up with a budget to make their money last. But a budget is just a tactic,” Dr. Goldbart says. “It only works if you expect the same things from your financial decisions, if your values are similar. If you haven’t had that conversation, getting through unemployment will cause a lot more stress and conflict. Often the real stress of unemployment isn’t working with a limited budget, it’s dealing with the way it changes your life and takes away things you had expected from your marriage.” The following process can help you sort out — and agree on — common financial goals during a financial crisis.
Set aside a few uninterrupted hours. Have your conversation when you’re well rested, well fed, and you don’t expect any distractions.
Take turns talking and listening. Describe for your partner what you most want in life that money will buy — and what you most fear about losing the power to have those things. Listen without judging when your partner does the same. You might look through your checkbook or credit card statements to jog your memory. “Your partner shouldn’t try to agree
or disagree at this point,” Dr. Goldbart says. “The goal is to get everything out on the table.” Talk about what money means to you: Fun? Security? Power?
Set common goals. Assemble a list of concerns and values the two of you share strongly, plus a list of important goals that you may not share. Talk about how you’ll accomplish them with limited resources: What’s most important, such as paying the mortgage? What’s least important, such as a pricey vacation you’d been considering? What can you accomplish, in some form, without spending any money?
Come up with a budget. Don’t assume you’ll land a new, equally lucrative job within a month. Expect to be unemployed for at least six months and plan accordingly. How long will unemployment checks and, if you’re lucky, your company’s severance package last? What savings can you draw on? What emergency funds could you tap as a last resort? Look at your spending over the past few months and figure out your financial bottom line: Which of your bills are fixed costs, such as your mortgage or car payments? Which could you trim if need be, such as switching to a cheaper telephone plan or cutting the hours in your cell-phone plan? Can you negotiate with any of your creditors?
Check in with each other. End the discussion by asking each other how you feel about your decisions. Thank each other for the sacrifices you’ve committed to making, as well as the compromises you agreed to reach. Commit to a follow-up session a few weeks down the road to make sure things are progressing comfortably.