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.
If ever there was a time for good partnership and communication, it’s when one of you is searching for new work. Here’s how to work together in the best way possible.
Agree on the job-search parameters. If a better job becomes available in a different city or state, would the family be amenable to moving? What if a potential new job is a night shift or requires frequent travel? Is it essential that your next job provide health-care insurance? It’s best to talk about the parameters of what sort of job you should — and shouldn’t — pursue right at the start. In particular, moving your family for a new job can be traumatic if everyone isn’t in agreement that it’s the right thing to do.
Agree on whether it’s time to go solo. More and more people today are independent contractors working out of their homes. If this appeals to you, talk it through thoroughly with your spouse. Is there space in your home to set up shop? Can you earn enough to compensate for the salary and benefits you’d get working for a company (remember too that independent contractors pay much higher taxes)? Is it realistic to think that you can make it work? Is your personality suited to this type of lifestyle? Can the family handle it if you need to spend 80 hours a week getting established or traveling more frequently?
Agree on a job-search strategy. Coming home to find an out-of-work spouse curled up in front of the TV, playing computer games, or otherwise goofing off could make a working spouse feel angry or resentful. Questioning an out-of-work partner frequently about what he or she is doing, how many réamp;eacute;suméamp;eacute;s he or she is sending out, and how many phone calls he or she has made today could easily trigger the same feelings in him. The answer? Come up with a job-search strategy. Talk together about how the out-of-work partner will look for work, how much time he or she will spend on it each day, and how much time he or she will spend on other activities, such as exercise, relaxation, and household chores.
Don’t nag or interrogate. It’s easy to let rising worries about money and the future erode the good feeling between you. Couples dealing with unemployment need each other’s support and encouragement — and each other’s resourcefulness — more than ever. Yet you may instead find yourselves locked into a fruitless communication pattern, with the unemployed partner becoming more and more defensive and even depressed as the other partner badgers him or her with questions about the number of réamp;eacute;suméamp;eacute;s sent out, the number of want ads answered.
If your spouse is working hard to find work, trust him or her. If something’s getting in the way, it’s time to approach the issue with a gentle touch. Find a quiet moment and talk about what you’ve noticed: “I notice you haven’t talked about your job search lately. What’s going on?” Ask your partner how he or she is feeling. If your spouse is feeling stuck — either by lowered self-esteem or because he or she has exhausted all job-hunting prospects — it’s time to brainstorm new tactics. Maybe a part-time job, regardless of the pay. Perhaps it’s worth investing funds in a career counselor or head-hunting service.
Hold a weekly job update meeting. Birkel suggests setting aside a specified time each week to review what’s happening on the unemployment front. This frees the two of you from the grind of discussing it on a daily basis. This meeting is also a good time for both partners to talk about the household budget and about any changing emotions. Both of you need a chance to share fears, worries, anxiety and, any brainstorms you’ve had about the experience.
Hunt for the silver lining. Sometimes job loss is a real opportunity. We’re not being Pollyannaish here. Everybody knows at least one person who’s been through the test of job loss and emerged saying, “It’s one of the best things that could have happened.” Got kids? Unemployment could provide a chance to stay home with a young child or to be in the house when a teenage son or daughter gets home after school. Losing a job can also give you the time and the push you’ve needed to get out of a less-than-ideal work situation or to explore a whole new field.
Ask how you can help. An overenthusiastic offer to help may simply seem kind and practical, but an unemployed spouse may easily infer that you wish they’d just get moving. It’s sure to backfire and create tension. Instead, approach your partner as you would a friend or a colleague: Let him or her know that it’s okay to turn down your offer to pick up the réamp;eacute;suméamp;eacute;s at the copy shop. Ask what your spouse would like you to do — if anything — to help. This approach leaves your partner in control.
Maintain your optimism. Two intangibles that vanish when a job is lost: positive work feedback and a feeling of accomplishment. The spouse of a job seeker can replace some of those good feelings by staying positive about the job seeker’s prospects; reaffirming that he or she is deeply loved; and emphasizing all the enduring, nonfinancial contributions he or she makes to the marriage, the family, the household.
Join a support group. Having a place to vent and find emotional common ground with others going through the same thing can spare your marriage some emotional wear-and-tear, Birkel says. Support groups are especially good for men (and women) who hold in emotions until they reach the bursting point and for those who can’t stop talking about it. This extra support can lift a burden and give you and your spouse an opportunity to connect about things other than the classified ads and your latest job interview.
Your job and your income weren’t the only things that made your family love you — or that you and your spouse enjoyed. Fight cabin fever and reconnect with positive feelings with these tips.
Get out of the house. Staying home will only induce cabin fever. Don’t forgo all pleasures: Instead of a night out at a fancy restaurant, go for pizza — or take a picnic to a beautiful local park. Birkel recommends couples and families focus on abundance whenever possible, instead of deprivation. “I remember a Saturday while I was out of work when my family needed to get away from other problems,” he relates on his website. “We were short on cash, so we packed a picnic lunch and went to a neighborhood park. My wife, daughter, son, and I enjoyed the scenery, munched our sandwiches, and took turns flying a kite that we’d never used before. It turned out to be one of the best days I can remember.”
Count your blessings. You didn’t marry your spouse just for his or her paycheck or the status of his or her job. Take a step back and gain perspective about the good things in your life: your marriage, your kids, your home, your health, your sense of humor. Just as you don’t need money to have a good time, you don’t need it to measure a good life. Consider keeping a daily list of things you’re grateful for.
Remind yourselves that this is temporary. You will find a job. This is a short-term situation — and so are all the tensions that go with it.
Exercise more. Getting out of the house for a walk or finding some private time to lift weights or work out will release stress, boost your mood, and help you feel you’ve accomplished something.