Nancy K. Schlossberg Nancy K. Schlossberg

After the shock of being laid off from an advertising company, Allen's life fell apart. He had always been sought after; therefore, he had every expectation that history would repeat itself. Instead, he has been without a job for nine months. During this period, his depression enveloped him. His wife asked for a separation. The love he felt for his two pre-teen children kept him going.

Tales of growing tension among couples after one retires as a result of forced layoffs are common. One man said, "Being together 24/7 feels like torture. It's bad enough that I have lost my job, but now I am subject to nagging all day long." One woman told her husband, "I don't want to see your eyeballs from after breakfast until dinner." And another man complained, "We used to treasure being together on weekends. Now we are together all the time and my wife wants to get away as much as she can."

Why does job loss pull people apart instead of making them closer?

1. Coping with the unexpected is daunting.

When the unexpected or dreaded happens to you, you feel out of control, helpless, passive, angry, and depressed — in waves, and in no particular order. The unexpected job loss can jolt your relationship as you are catapulted into a new way of being together. In our study of forced job loss with all the men whose jobs were eliminated at the Goddard NASA Space Flight Center in the early 80's, we discovered that the men did not immediately tell their wives. In fact, they dressed and pretended to go to work. When they finally confessed and began staying home, life changed dramatically.

2. Any major change, expected or unexpected, alters life in unimaginable ways.

Losing your job and staying home with your spouse is BIG. You have lost your role as worker and co-provider. Your routines are totally changed — the structure of your day including when you get up, how you dress, when you eat and with whom. Your assumptions about your world have crashed. You no longer have a secure place and future; and your relationships with colleagues, friends, and especially your spouse are in flux. When your role, routine, and assumptions are fractured, you know your relationships will change.

Like Humpty Dumpty, You Can Put Things Back Together

Initiate an Expectation Exchange.

This is the time to discuss your relationship and how it is being affected by your job loss. In one case, the person without a job felt very guilty, and despite what she read she blamed herself for losing her job. Her spouse, whose income was not enough to carry the load of house payments, day care, etc., was disappointed in his wife. They needed to discuss what was going on. In another instance one wife said with anger, "I come home after a day at work and have to pick up his ego and retype his resume." If you cannot discuss the situation openly it might be helpful to meet with a counselor, therapist, psychologist, social worker — someone who can bring underlying feelings out into the open and help the couple resolve the tensions.

Cope by Keeping Hope Alive.

Sociologists Leonard Pearlin and Carmi Schooler studied how thousands of people coped with all kinds of life experiences. They categorized hundreds of strategies into four major groups:

  1. Strategies that help you change the situation like brainstorming, negotiating, even legal action
  2. Those that help you reframe the situation by keeping hope alive, or seeing the positives in the situation
  3. Those that help you manage stress like walking swimming, yoga, meditating
  4. Those that enable you to do nothing and sit tight for the time being

You and your partner or spouse can review what is going on and ask yourselves, can we change how we are reacting to the job loss, can we try to hang together rather than pull apart, can we start managing our stress by walking, swimming or exercising together, can we just hang in there?

It is important to keep hope alive that you will get another job and your marriage or romance will survive. I was inspired by Diane Sawyer's interview with Jaycee Duggard. A young girl, kidnapped at age 11, kept in a shed in the pedophile and his wife's back yard for 18 years, gave birth to two of his children in her early teens. She survived and never gave up hope that one day she would be free. Diane Sawyer kept asking how she was able to survive. She said, "You do what you have to do." Whenever she could see the moon (finally they let her see out the window) she would remember how she and her mother used to look at the moon and this kept up her hope that she would once again be with her mother. In the interview she came across as an amazingly resilient person who is now looking to the future.

Jaycee can inspire us to keep hope alive. And remember today is not forever.

Blog reposted from Dr. Schlossberg’s Psychology Today blog series Transitions Through Life. Dr. Schlossberg also co-authored the Springer Publishing Company title: Counseling Adults in Transition, Fourth Edition: Linking Schlossberg’s Theory With Practice in a Diverse World.