Marriage & Relationships During Unemployment

5 years ago

The day my husband unexpectedly lost his job, I remembered the advice of one of my friends, whose husband lost his job last year: "All that you'll remember after is how you treated each other."

There are few things that can rock a marriage harder than fear.

Credit Image: Ed Yourdon on Flickr

Money is one of my biggest anxiety triggers. I have no idea why. I have always gone straight from zero to we're-out-on-the-street when it comes to lost jobs, unexpected health expenses, wrecked cars, you name it. If I can, I hoard money. When I get anxious, I restrict spending. And so you can imagine the bells and whistles going off inside my body when my husband said, "as of 4:45 pm, I no longer work there."

I knew what I said next was going to set the tone for the duration, so I said something to the effect of "Are you okay?" I don't remember my exact words, but I tried very hard to make my response be compassionate and not angry, even though I was pretty much vibrating with anxiety at his words. From September 28 until December 21, we lived in the limbo of unexpected unemployment, and if anything, this time it brought us closer. I say "this time" because there have been other times that I have not handled things well and ended up driving us apart. Here's what I've learned.

Take Care of Yourself Physically

Get enough sleep. Try to eat right. Take deep breaths. Exercise. You may not feel like doing any of it, but do it anyway, and encourage your partner to do so, too. After we recovered from the shock, we told each other we had no idea how long this would last, and we were really going to focus by not letting everything go to hell any more than it had to -- that meant getting up, making the bed, cleaning the house, cooking good food, napping on the weekends, going for jogs, all of it. Unemployment is so tough pychologically on both partners -- you don't need the malaise of eating popcorn for dinner six nights in a row and staying up till two a.m. watching old movies to add to the funk.

Don't Ask Too Many Questions

It was tempting to ask every day. How many jobs did you apply for? How's your resume coming? What do you think? What do you think? WHAT DO YOU THINK? The last time my husband was looking for a job, he asked me to forward leads from LinkedIn, so I asked him if he wanted me to do that again or if that would be annoying. He wanted all the help he could get, so I forwarded them every weekday for all those weeks, but I didn't ask too many follow-up questions. It's crucial to be supportive and friendly but also to let your partner know you believe in them, that you know it will work out, because this is not a time that your partner needs to feel judged by you. Being peppered with questions can make them feel judged, like you don't have the confidence they can handle it themselves.

Seek Out the Funny

Watch comedy (we don't have cable and we still manage to find it). Watch funny animal videos on YouTube. Point out ridiculous news stories. Email bad jokes you hear at work. Laugh, and laugh together.

Get on the Same Page About Budget Cuts

If you start out on the same page, the resentment over one partner making an unexpected purchase will just cease to exist. Money is something couples fight about even when there isn't unexpected unemployment, so treat this issue like the total minefield it is and just talk about it from day one.


Your partner may nor may not be feeling his or her oats when it comes to the bedroom, but human touch is very comforting. A touch on the arm, a squeeze of the knee, spooning in bed -- all of that is good stuff and probably is needed more now than ever. Try not to take it too personally if your partner isn't feeling up to your usual romps. Pressure to perform on top of pressure to find a job might be just too damn much pressure.

Avoid a Honey-Do List

Even though your partner is home and should absolutely continue to help around the house and maybe even take over cooking or cleaning out of the need to feel productive, don't expect this will be the time when the gutters get replaced or the garage gets reorganized. Finding a job is a full-time job, and your partner should be spending as much time as possible looking for a job, networking, updating a resume, brushing up on job skills and thinking about the next step.

Get Out of the House

Whether your partner is job-hunting at home or -- like my husband -- chooses to put in the time in a library or other public place, he or she is going to be home more than usual, unless the previous job was work-from-home. The walls, they will close in. And you'll get stressed out, because you'll realize almost everything fun costs money and you're trying to save money by eating every meal from home, watching movies at home, etc. etc. While it's true a good lot of entertainment costs money, not everything does. Look on the website of every place you like to go -- you'll be amazed at how many buy-one-get-one-free deals there are out there, unadvertised. Look for festivals and other local goings on that are interesting but free. Use any memberships you already have to zoos or museums. Go over to your friends' houses. Go to the park. Just get out of the house, and go together, and have fun.

I'm not saying I never got upset, or felt helpless or hopeless during these past three months. I did. But I really did try to talk to my friends about it instead of my husband. Finding a job is such a mental game, and it's hard to present yourself with confidence when you're feeling like hell. If you choose to view this time as a temporary challenge the two of you can handle by working together, it goes by a lot faster, trust me.

Do you have unemployment stories or tips?

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for

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