Published in 2001 St. Anthony Messenger
How to Survive Your Spouse's Job Loss
by Patricia Fry
"Ever since my husband was laid off, he's been horrible to live with," says Barbara, a beautician in Los Angeles, California. "We all just tiptoe around him. I don't know how to help him, especially since I'm as worried about how we're going to pay the bills as he is."
Nearly 8 million people in America are currently out of work (U.S. Department of Labor). In recent months, countless men and women, who felt secure in their jobs, have been sent home—their lives suddenly in turmoil. And it's not just the unemployed person who is affected.
"I'm really frightened," admits the wife of one man who recently lost his job. "We didn't save for that rainy day and now it's here."
John has been unemployed several times during his 24-year marriage, so he knows how it feels. But he's having trouble coping with his wife's unemployment. "I don't think she's looking hard enough for work," he says. "She resents my helpful suggestions. When I try to talk to her, we end up fighting. I feel like I'm the only one in this family who's contributing anything."
Lydia Garraway, M.S. L.P.C. & LCSW, is a counselor with Catholic Social Services in Montgomery, Alabama. She has counseled and consoled many families who are struggling through the shame, guilt and anxiety of unemployment. The fact is, when a family member is laid off their negative emotions can intrude on the well being of the family unit. Garraway explains, "When someone is terminated from a job, the whole family dynamic is affected. Many emotions erupt and the identity of ?who we are' changes."
Azriela Jaffe agrees. A couples expert and the author of ten books including, Create Your Own Luck and Let's Go Into Business Together, Jaffe says, "Once fear of financial insecurity enters the household, it brings out the worst in everyone." And she should know. Her own husband has been out of work for several months.
Jaffe describes a typical household after the primary breadwinner is laid off. "Husbands and wives fight more, the kids get clingy and scared and everyone tends to walk on eggshells around the newly laid off parent. No one knows quite what to do with the parent being home all day. When that person gets depressed or angry, the emotions expand throughout the household."
And the spouse has his or her own set of fears. Says Jaffe, "These concerns range from the more serious, ?how are we going to get the bills paid?' or ?what am I going to do to help my spouse keep his or her spirits up and to find a job?' to even the simple, ?I'm sick of this person being in my space all of the time,' and ?I don't want to have to share my computer.'"
Elise is a stay-at-home wife and the mother of four small children in Covington, Kentucky. She recently went through all of the emotions that typically plague the spouse of an unemployed man or woman. And her husband was still working. She explains, "Chad was very unhappy in his job and was conducting a serious job search while working 50 hour weeks. Every free minute he had was wrapped up in time at the computer or time changing his resume or researching companies and locations—all of this at the expense of the family."
With a stiff upper lip, she admits, "It was horribly frustrating for me to have to pick up the slack for the responsibilities he could no longer meet and also try to support him in his job search."
How does one cope with these raging emotions? "Communicate," say the experts. "It's difficult to talk through all of these feelings," says Garraway. "Yet talking is the key to helping the unemployed, the spouse and their children during this critical period."
Susan Vogt is director of the Family Ministry office at the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky. When the Comair pilots were temporarily out of work recently in her area, she worked with the spouses. Her goal was to help them defuse their fear and frustration so they could offer positive support to their spouses. A major coping tool, according to Vogt, is "Talk, talk, talk." She cautions, however, "Know what kind of talk your spouse prefers and note when he or she wants to talk."
Elise and Chad had always shared an open line of communication, but it didn't come as easily now. She says, "I tried to be there when he needed to talk, even if it was the same conversation reflecting the same fears and frustrations, over and over. Most of the time we spent together was devoted to discussing his unhappiness and the alternatives"
What can a supportive husband or wife say? What can they do? Elise admits to feeling completely helpless at times. "As things grew worse with his job, I feared he would simply quit—throwing us all into turmoil. Yet, it was so painful to see him struggle to keep up with all of the demands and pressures."
She tried to ease the pressure by letting Chad know that she was open to the possibility of relocating. But she says, "In truth, the idea scared me to death."
While Elise was trying to be her husband's rock, it was also necessary for her to find her own strength and she did so through her faith. She explains, "I cannot overstate the power of prayer. I spent a lot of time outlining my worries and putting them in God's hands. I put myself and my family on prayer chains. As much as possible, I let God handle the big stuff and I attended to the day to day details of running my life."
She also found comfort in music. "Singing with the church choir, is my way to pray when no other words will come. I'm not disciplined enough to meditate, but I can belt out a hymn and take it right to the feet of the Lord."
It's human nature to want to DO whatever is humanly possible to help your spouse through this difficult time. Our experts suggest these techniques. "Be a cheerleader instead of a nagger," says Jaffe. "Offer to help, but also accept ?no' when the help is not wanted. Sometimes the spouse needs to put his or her energy into not doing anything directly." And she suggests this: "Put your energy into taking care of yourself so that you have the emotional and psychological strength to withstand the pressure over the long term."
She also recommends, "Lots of sex for a man—to keep his mood up and, for a woman, lots of hugs and encouragement."
During the 14 months, Chad was looking for work, Elise helped him everyway she could think of. She made sure there was food to eat and quiet times for him to work on his job search. She maintained a routine whenever possible so the household ran more smoothly and she didn't put pressure on him to socialize outside the house. She also proofread his resumes and cover letters. She says, "Being involved in the process made us both feel a bit more like partners."
There was an unexpected factor that helped Elise and Chad through their ordeal. According to Elise, "We had started a weight loss program at the beginning of his search and, being able to control that, gave me some sense of control of my own life. We both lost weight and felt better because we were eating better."
She also tried to stay organized. She explains, "I kept a detailed calendar in a central spot so we both knew at a glance what was happening. Lots of little details that seem trivial now were so huge then. Just having the laundry done, shirts pressed for appointments, phone messages organized, etc. took on a whole new importance."
Tending to the spiritual, emotional and physical health of the family is vital when a job hunt is underway. But one should not fail to address the all important financial issues. According to Garraway, "The supportive spouse must attend to the budget as soon as possible and differentiate the wants from the needs of the household. A family agreement to live on a shoestring will make everyone feel helpful and will release some of the financial strain. This is where the children can take an active part in supporting the parent. The older children can make lists of things they can do without—movies, clothes, etc.—until their parent is back to work."
She suggests challenging your family to find creative ways to pare the budget. "Find things to do and places to go that don't cost money. This is also a good time to organize family photos, to share memories and reminisce about the positive times the family has shared."
Garroway echoes Jaffe's recommendation to take good care of yourself. She says, "It takes a strong and healthy person to support a spouse who is hurting. You must take time out for your own relaxation, exercise and positive interaction with friends and family."
And there's no better time than now to bind yourselves together spiritually. Garraway counsels her clients, "Take time to appreciate each other and the many blessings you do have as a family." She says, "Some couples consciously list the things they have to be thankful for—good health, love for each other and the little income they do have coming in. One couple I worked with said they prayed a 9-day Novena to St. Joseph, the Patron Saint of workers. They felt a greater sense of faith and trust that things would work out for them and it did."
Experts also recommend that you seek out human support for yourself. "I was Chad's primary support system," says Elise. "He didn't have time to interact with anyone else. I needed support, too, but I couldn't put that demand back on him." Even though she loves her husband and wanted to help him through this crisis, she sometimes felt resentment. She admits, "I resented his inability to be happy in what I saw as a very secure position. I resented having to do all the work. I resented having to explain to the children over and over that daddy wasn't available right now."
So as not to burden her husband with her own negative feelings, she called on friends. She says, "When I needed to vent my resentment and frustration, I turned to a couple of close friends who listened without judgment." She also lightened her own load by taking leave from some of her committees and asking other parents to help with some of their children's activities. She says, "Decreasing the demands on my time made it easier to be here for the rest of the family." And she offers this advice to others in her situation. "Be aware that you will both need outside people to talk to or you both end up dumping on the person who can't really take any more dumping."
Elise started keeping a journal. One of her friends suggested pouring out her feelings in letters and then burning them—sending the resentment away with the smoke. According to Elise, "It was cathartic. It sounds a bit crazy, but it was helpful."
Nothing you do that helps you maintain an even emotional keel is crazy. As Garraway says, "If you need help—the situation is too painful, communication has broken down—ask for help. Asking for help is not a disgrace. In Ecclesiastics 2:18, we are told, ?There is a season for everything.'"
One good place to receive help whether you're the unemployed person or the supportive spouse, is Catholic Social Services. "We have a sliding scale fee," says Garraway. "Anyone can afford it."
Even when things seem out of control and overwhelming, there is one thing we know for sure. Nothing stays the same. After a long 14 months, Chad found a good job close to home. This family could get back to normal. According to Elise, that was not as easy as it sounds.
"When the nightmare was finally over, we discovered we had a new problem," says Elise. "We had become so accustomed to Chad being removed from the family life that it was hard to pull him back in. We didn't remember how to communicate on a personal level. We didn't remember how to be a big happy family. That surprised all of us. The kids were used to leaving him alone so it was difficult for them to turn to him. I had to encourage them to go to Daddy for some of their needs."
In fact, Elise and Chad would handle things differently with the children, should something like this come up for them again. Elise explains, "We involved the kids in a lot of the issues and kept them informed. But in retrospect, I feel it created a lot of stress for them. They wondered if we would move, if they would lose friends." She says that she wishes they had kept them more in the dark. "Just knowing that Dad was looking for a new job and needed to spend extra time in that project would have been enough information for them."
Chad and Elise's relationship is back on track. They've committed to teaching classes for marriage preparation groups and to mentor other couples preparing for marriage in their parish. According to Elise, "This not only gives us time together on a project, but helps us focus on our marriage." They also schedule two date nights each month.
Chad and Elise made it through this turbulent time, but only because of their commitment to one another and to the Lord. Elise advises other families who are struggling with unemployment, "Keep active in church and pray with your partner."