By: Virginia K. and David E. Gordon
Everyone knows how much executives suffer emotionally after a job loss, but what about their spouses or life partners?
One woman was petrified when her husband, a senior vice president with a New York communications company, told her he had lost his job. Since she only worked part time, the family depended on his income. She feared that their savings would be depleted and that they’d lose everything during his unemployment. Yet while she knew her husband had the same fears, she kept her feelings to herself, crying frequently during the day.
When we intertwine our lives with another, we also interrelate our decision-making, behavior and general sense of well-being. Losing a job, therefore, causes both partners to feel a loss of security and predictability.
Job hunters, however, take steps to address their fears, by actively searching for new positions. And they often rely on their spouse’s support to maintain their self-esteem. This leaves spouses balancing two burdens — anxiety about the future and the need to support the job hunter.
Being in the cheering section but not in the game itself causes a unique sense of helplessness. While a job hunter’s decisions and actions have a direct effect on the problem of finding employment, a spouse’s ability to influence decisions that affect his or her well-being is limited. Regardless of how much of the job-search process you share with your spouse, your partner isn’t doing the researching, networking or interviewing. He or she has many of your same concerns, but none of the power.
“Spouses have worries about their spending habits, financial commitments and lifestyles,” says Rich Feller, professor of counseling and career development at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, Colo. “Meanwhile, they know they need to show empathy and support.”
If the job hunter starts to withdraw from or take a partner’s support for granted, stress can build. The spouse’s life has been negatively changed, which impacts communications and has a trickle-down effect on family, personal intimacy, laughter, fun and general stability.
When Couples Clam Up
The key to reducing stress at home is to identify and discuss fears that inhibit communications. The following examples of job hunters and partners who weren’t able to talk with each other illustrate the pitfalls of not keeping the lines of communication open.
When Michael’s wife lost her job as a research technician for a Midwest consumer-products company, she kept to herself and didn’t want to talk about what was bothering her (her job search and feelings about being unemployed). For the first time since he had known her, Michael didn’t know how to help. Everything he did seemed to cause friction.
When Ellen’s husband quit his job as vice president with an Eastern manufacturer after 15 years to go into business for himself, she was delighted. But after a year, Ted’s business wasn’t generating enough income and he started looking for another job. Since he didn’t know how to proceed with his search, Ellen became frightened. She wondered if he would ever find another position.
Barbara was a homemaker who devoted her time to caring for her children and performing civic activities in her suburban community. When her husband lost his position as marketing director for a Midwest manufacturer, she became extremely fearful. She didn’t share her fears with her husband, but stayed awake nights worrying about whether they’d lose their home and what to tell their children if they had to alter their lifestyle.
Jane’s husband persuaded her to quit her management position in the human-resources department of a Fortune 500 company so that he could return to school in another city for an advanced degree. They dipped into their savings to send him to school while Jane supported the family. After Steve graduated, it took him a year to find work. While he listened to her ideas about his search, he tended to discount them and blamed his lack of success on the few suggestions of hers that he followed. Jane felt she was being degraded when she should’ve been profusely thanked.
Lori’s job as a teacher involved constant conversation. Therefore, she enjoyed having an hour of silence at home to regroup. When her husband lost his job as a retail salesman, he began spending his days at home, losing his normal daily interactions. When Lori arrived at home, he badly needed to talk. This drove her nuts and she went into overload, literally shutting him out.
How to Reduce Tension
Each of these situations contains seeds of severe family tension. When we feel stressed or frightened, we often clam up when talking about our feelings would be better. Inner thoughts — such as feeling embarrassed, out of control, afraid of the unknown or of running out of money, concerned that the job hunter isn’t pushing hard enough, or that we aren’t providing enough support — often block communication and intensify stress.
If you and your spouse are having trouble communicating about your feelings regarding your job lossand subsequent search, the six steps that follow can help reduce family stress that arises:
Step 1: Plan progress meetings.
Set aside time each week to discuss the progress of your job search with your partner. Nothing undermines a job hunter’s self-esteem more than being asked to provide a daily progress report. On the other hand, nothing creates more anxiety than unwanted daily reports. Sharing job plans is vital; however, remember to ask your partner how he or she would like to do this, then agree on a specific time to meet each week.
Step 2: Share your general job-hunting strategy with your partner.
Many books outlining steps in the job-search process are available at local libraries. Review their suggestions to determine your general direction, then discuss your approach with your spouse. Sharing the fact that you have a plan and are following defined steps can help alleviate his or her fears that you have no direction. That you’re in charge and know what you’re doing also will be apparent to your partner.
Step 3: Assess your financial requirements early in your search.
Some job hunters feel the best way to preserve family stability is to pretend everything is “business as usual” and not change any spending patterns. This approach may be fine if you have a substantial financial cushion. In most cases, however, keeping your partner uninformed about finances puts more stress on you.
Assess your situation and revise your budget as soon as possible after your layoff — before problems set in. Determine how many months you can survive financially without a job. This will tell you how long you can hold out for an ideal position, and when you should start seeking a less desirable job to help pay the bills.
Analyzing the situation and developing a monthly budget with your spouse also makes both of you partners in the process and keeps you from taking the role of budget enforcer.
Step 4: Don’t avoid stressful topics, but do avoid the language of confrontation.
Many couples realize that their relationship would be better if they could discuss their problems during difficult times. But we often assume that if the unpleasant isn’t discussed, it doesn’t exist, or that we save our partner pain by not introducing uncomfortable topics.
Introducing your concerns or feelings about what’s occurring or may occur in the future is easier if you own your fear and begin sentences with “I,” such as “I’m worried…” or “I’m wondering about…” or “I find it hard to…” This is better than using “you,” as in “You don’t…” or “You haven’t told me about….”
“I worry about offers not coming in” is a lot less volatile than saying “Did you get any offers yet?” This may sound insignificant, but it’s often crucial to a job hunter whose ego is on the line every day. Try to keep communication between you as kind as possible. Choose words with care and don’t use each other as verbal punching bags to relieve your own emotions.
Step 5: Accentuate the positive.
Even if you aren’t a naturally upbeat person, focus on the positive aspects of daily events, especially when speaking with your partner. Forgetting to share positive experiences in your day, regardless of how incidental they may seem to you, is the same as saying nothing positive happened. The smallest bit of hope can balance concerns many times its size.
Forcing yourself to bring up at least two positive events during the past week, however small they seem to you, will give you both needed reinforcement as your job search progresses to a successful conclusion. Many couples struggle with maintaining open, honest and timely communications under the best of circumstances, but it’s critical during periods of change and uncertainty.
“The more positive encouragement people get, the more they’re able to do things for themselves. It helps keep a relationship strong and fresh,” says Robert Chope, psychologist and author of “Dancing Naked: Breaking Though the Emotional Limits that Keep You from the Job You Want” (New Harbinger Publications, 2000). Encouragement also helps confront and eliminate self-doubt. “Acknowledge what you and your spouse do day-to-day. And you don’t have to refer only to what you’ve done regarding your job search,” he says.
Step 6: Find a support person or group outside the family with which to share your feelings.
You and your spouse need to vent your feelings with others who share your concerns but aren’t drawn into the family’s emotional currents. Joining separate support groups or sharing feelings with an objective third party allows you to vent without having to cushion your words’ emotional impact on your spouse. This provides a much needed escape valve and source of support, thereby reducing stress in the home environment.
A job search can be a daunting adventure into the unknown that you’re forced into because of a reorganization or downsizing. In the process, all your skills and expectations about yourself, as well as the goals you nurtured during your career, will be challenged. Use patience, trial and error and your partner’s help to find your way through this maze of uncharted terrain, but be kind to yourself and each other in the process.