Bond through life passages — 10 November 2003
When your partner is laid off, depression can set in for both

With the recent downturn of the economy, many highly qualified employees lost their jobs. The stress produced for these individuals and their families has been immense.

Major layoffs of professionals shatter the beliefs that education, training and skill-building are ways to ensure a stable and financially rewarding employment.

Despite the fact that it is clear to the laid-off individuals that the job loss is not a reflection of their lack of competence, the blow to their self-esteem is still profound. It left them with grief, self-doubt, emptiness, financial worries and the need to market themselves at a time of great personal crisis.

Grieving for the loss of their professional status, activities, surroundings and collegial appreciation is the first emotional experience laid-off people report after a very short period of emotional relief.

They speak of the personal loss and the state of disbelief about not returning to work. They report feeling angry with themselves about assuming that earnings would always support the high lifestyle and that the security of employment is guaranteed.

The process of finding a new job is tedious, prolonged and frustrating. Some people describe spending eight hours a day, sometimes for months on end searching for jobs, filing applications and following up on job interviews.

Since the market is flooded with very qualified people and fewer jobs, the search is tedious and demoralizing. Most job applications are not responded to, and they leave the applicant feeling abandoned and unworthy. Depression and hopelessness are common for frustrated long-term job seekers.

Compounding the difficulties felt by the unemployed person is the impact it has on the family. The spouse who initially treated the traumatized partner with compassion and encouragement may have become frustrated as well. The annoyance may turn into impatience, disappointment and even criticism.

The partner of the laid-off individual goes through his or her own set of emotional adjustments. It is initially expected that the period of unemployment will be brief. During this period the partner is supportive, empathic, understanding and encouraging. However, as time passes without new work in sight, the mate’s expectations are altered and annoyance is born.

The wife of a laid-off man may begin to resent her partner’s presence in the home. She ascribes to the notion that if her mate is not working outside the home, he needs to contribute more energy to tasks within the home.

The husband is not only oblivious to her expectations, but sees his primary undertaking solely as seeking employment. Since the man sees himself as a temporarily unemployed worker, not one seeking a changed career, being retired, or in search of a new role definition, he may not understand why he is expected to do anything else but look for a job? This view prevents him from accepting more responsibilities at home.

At the same time, the unemployed and disempowered partner unknowingly attempts to regain some control by giving unsolicited advice to his mate, who has previously managed quite well without this guidance. Thus begin a cycle of agitated exchanges of two very frustrated individuals.

“He is driving me crazy by watching me all the time and criticizing whatever I do.” “I am not used to having her home all the time messing up my schedule.” These people complain about the infringement upon their space, autonomy and freedom of choices or competency.

A concern about finances is another shared burden couples have when one partner is no longer employed. Fear propels them to obsessively worry about mounting bills, about the future survival of the family and about their fate, should the situation not change.

Each partner worries silently. The laid-off person may feel responsible for the distress to the family and fears loss of the partner’s confidence. The partner may blame the unemployed mate for creating this situation and may feel helpless to resolve it.

Couples who do not share their concerns end up creating a major rift in their connection. What they complain about is task sharing or interference in their routine, but at the core of it are much deeper and more devastating emotions relating to survival and personal worth.

Some partners lose sight of the fact that the loss of one job is not an individual problem but a couple’s problem. They need to talk about their fears and create a plan of action should the situation last longer than desired. When they feel irritated about present annoying behaviors, they are wise to ask themselves about the roots of their true fears.

If you are a partner of a laid off mate:

  • Be aware of the shame, grief, fear and responsibility your partner feels.
  • Be supportive of his or her emotions while negotiating a new role division that includes job seeking as part of it.
  • Stay focused on the fact that it is a family crisis beyond your personal inconvenience.
  • Realize that the daily annoyances mask deeper survival issues.
  • Open a dialogue with your mate about feelings and options. Refer to the situation as “our” current difficulty.
  • Stay optimistic and affirm your mate’s abilities and talents. This will empower your partner to be creative in options for future employment.

If you are the laid off individual:

  • Be aware that while you are going through a painful and confusing time, so does your mate.
  • Spend time seeking employment and offer greater help to balance task sharing.
  • Inform your spouse about all hopeful prospects toward regaining employment. It keeps the spouse involved and supportive.
  • Avoid using your painful emotions of fear, doubt and discouragement as justifications for being short with your spouse and children.
  • Plan with your spouse for other options should finding a job become a lengthy process.
  • Stay optimistic about gaining employment. Positive energy facilitates results.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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