Amanda Petersen* was living the good life in suburban Detroit. The 40-year-old mother of two was the family breadwinner. A senior executive in a real estate development firm, Petersen’s $200K job paid a generous bonus, offered stock options and a profit-sharing plan. It meant private school for the kids and enabled her to go on special trips with her husband, a firefighter, throw parties, and lavish gifts on family and friends. Laid off last spring, Petersen felt clobbered.
While lucky enough to find a job last summer as the administrator of a non-profit organization, Petersen earns only a third of what she was making, which promptly put an end to getaways, beach houses, holiday gifts and her twice annual parties: “We would have pulled the kids out of private school if we hadn’t paid the tuition for the full year in advance.”
Sound familiar? Families like Petersen’s are grappling with similar challenges in the new economic order as one or both high-income earning spouses lose their jobs in layoffs and cutbacks. Accustomed to a certain standard of living, couples like the Petersens who have experienced job losses often suffer relationship strains as existing marital tensions are exacerbated and financial stresses spark new challenges. In high-income earning families, status-oriented activities like vacations, parties and charitable giving are pared, if not cut altogether.
“If there are already money stresses in the marriage, this is the time to resolve those issues. It almost forces the hand of the couple to solve them,” says Dr. Nancy Mramor, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based health psychologist who works couples where one or both partners has suffered a job loss.
Petersen sees the effects on her relationship: “I find myself picking fights that I never would,” she says. “I just feel like a failure, like I’m letting everyone down… I have an amazing husband and a very strong marriage, but this event has effectively changed the DNA of our relationship.”
Cheryl Stein, a Montreal-based career transition coach says she’s seen relationships fall apart over a spouse’s job loss: “It tends to flare up any problems that are just under the surface.” Stein says couples need to understand that when a person loses a job, they also suffer a loss of self-definition.
“Few people think of it in those terms. There’s an incredible amount of loss connected to that because you’re losing a piece of yourself.” And further, Stein says, “There’s an unreasonable expectation for your partner to bounce back, but there needs to be a grieving period.”
Dr. Mramor agrees: “People go through a grief reaction because the comfort level and the lifestyle they knew has been lost. This causes a problem because both the laid-off spouse and their partner are grieving, and the partner is also going through some specific emotions around the laid-off spouse. Those reactions can either be supportive or very critical.”
Stein says that networking is essential to finding a new job and for retaining a sense of normalcy. Even if it’s just going out for coffee or to the gym, the social interaction is important for the health of the marriage. “A spouse or partner can help you come up with a game plan. It’s helping a person like a coach would do. Dedicating a little time to your partner can make all the difference in the world,” Stein explains.
Dr. Mramor offered the following 10 tips for helping navigate your relationship if one or both partners has lost a job:
1. Focus on priorities, budgeting and resolving financial issues. “If there’s something deeper to begin with, then couples can get back to that. But if the marriage was too based on social status and money, then once it’s pulled out, there’s nothing there.”
2. Get outside supports. “Get as many people on your team looking for a job as possible.”
3. Try to find agreement about what should be done and establish a timeline.
4. Consult experts and find out the best ways to manage your existing resources. “Don’t be proud. Get advice. This is a time to consult people who you trust and who can guide you through this.”
5. Strengthen the family by spending time together at home and include friends. “It’s fine for kids to know that for a while, the family isn’t going to be spending as much money. Kids should really understand what their parents’ resources are.”
6. Keep up communication with your spouse. “Really listen to the other person before you fire back, then respond in a way that’s loving and respectful. You can have a loving, healthy debate with your partner as long as things are said with respect and love.” Career transitions coach Stein agrees: “Keep talking to each other. It’s not wrong to feel things, but it’s essential to really listen to one another.”
7. Reassess your wealth. “People have lots of things they don’t need. Sell the things that are valuable. Get rid of everything in your life that doesn’t have a strong value for the family and you as a couple. Only hold on to what’s sentimentally important.”
8. Understand the impact of stress on your body. “Maybe you can’t keep your gym membership but you can take a walk. Express physical affection as a source of comfort. Deep breathing is one of the most powerful ways to restore your health.”
9. Adopt an “attitude of gratitude” and live in the present moment. “Gratitude is one of the most powerful forces in people’s lives and allows you to see everything that’s good and possible. Give thanks for 10 things each day.”
10. Focus on what you have, rather than what you don’t have.
* Names in this story were changed.