Layoffs can happen, and these days it’s increasingly likely that they will happen. What becomes difficult to predict, then, is how long the limbo will last and how well a marriage can weather the storm.
One of the biggest challenges a marriage can face is when a spouse is laid off from his or her job. Framed by a backdrop of financial insecurity, the situation can summon a host of emotions: humiliation, despair, suspicion and bruised egos.
But layoffs can happen, and these days it’s increasingly likely that they will happen. What becomes difficult to predict, then, is how long the limbo will last and how well a marriage can weather the storm. Experts agree on one thing: keep the entire family involved in learning to live a little bit differently for a while.
For Claire,* a mother of two, her husband’s layoff from his job at an investment bank was initially "fun." But the ensuing 18 months brought about a host of challenges: A panicked move across the country, a nine-month stint living with Claire’s parents, a second pregnancy and the discovery that their eldest child had speech problems. Keeping upbeat became very difficult.
"I was in the role of trying to be supportive and he was sinking deeper and deeper into despair," Claire recalls. "He was so desperate to provide for us that he was building up the frustration and he wasn’t appreciating us."
If faced with a similar situation again, the first thing Claire said she would do is encourage her husband to join a basketball team or take a trip – anything to puncture the monotonous chore of looking for a job or spending yet another 24 hours with the family.
"He was suffocating," she says.
While the support of a spouse is essential in bridging the emotional gap of a layoff, it can sometimes be tedious for those who are tasked with being endlessly cheery. In fact, that’s one reason why Susan Urquhart-Brown, who was bending her husband’s ear with complaints about difficult bosses and thoughts of changing professions, became a career counselor.
Look Outside the Family for Help
"My husband said, ‘I can’t listen to this anymore. Go talk to someone else,’" says Urquhart-Brown, author of The Accidental Entrepreneur: Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About
Starting a Business.
Talking to an outsider can help relieve the stress on the marriage while eliciting an objective opinion about the next step on one’s career path. Many career counselors charge $80 to $200 an hour to help clients explore personal issues involved with a change and explore other career options. Many offer sliding scales.
Involving a counselor, Urquhart-Brown says, "can be much more successful than if you just don’t deal with what happens and jump into another job, which is what the other spouse is really pushing to do because of financial concerns."
Giving each other suggestions on how the other can be supportive, creating a space in the home where a spouse can comfortably conduct a job search and allowing time for fun activities without feeling guilty – or being made to feel guilty – can help remove the personal burdens associated with a job search.
"The bottom line is keeping in communication as opposed to nagging or doing something that really bugs the other person or that puts on more stress," Urquhart-Brown says.
Both Need Support
While the role of supporter usually falls on the shoulders of the spouse who has not been laid off, it really just depends on who’s the more positive in the relationship.
Just a month after their first son was born, Anna’s* husband was laid off. During the next 14 months, they moved twice chasing opportunities. Anna endured a difficult second pregnancy and continued to work from home as a medical writer whenever possible – often until 4 a.m. – all while suffering nausea and leaning on her husband for support.
"I actually needed him," she says. "He’s very strong. I’m not as strong. I get angry."
What impressed her most about her husband is that he kept busy, using the time to make upgrades to the home they had previously purchased as an investment.
Keep Finances Realistic
Anna and her husband stressed the importance of reviewing the family’s finances immediately and making brutal cuts, "because you don’t know how long you have to wait."
Financial counselor Susan Bross agrees.
"Act now. Don’t wait until the money runs out," Bross says. "These days, honestly, if you’re working you’ll be laid off at some time."
Have a family meeting to explain the situation matter-of-factly, she advised (see "Surviving a Layoff: Ways to Save"). Also, investing in a financial counselor might be a good way to help stretch savings.
Financial counselors charge $100 to $200 an hour to help families live within their means.
Above all, Bross notes that it’s important to realize that the struggles – financial and otherwise – experienced during a layoff can still result in positive long-term habits and attitudes.
"Getting laid off is just what happens these days," she says. "The more you treat it as something that happens in an unloaded way and speak about it in that manner, your kids will see it that way, too."
Prepare for the Future
At 64, Allen Sunde has some tips to offer the younger generation fearful of layoffs, especially since he endured two of them during his 30 years in the airline industry.
Take advantage of these breathing periods, he urges, especially if they might be longer than expected – by brushing up on your education. Not only can it give you a sense of proactive control over the situation, but it can make you more marketable to an employer.
And while it can sometimes sound like a broken record, Sunde stresses the importance of saving money, even if it’s just a little at a time. When he was first laid off, Sunde was starting a new family with his wife. Fortunately, she was already working, but they incurred a lot of debt to survive.
During his second layoff in his 40s, the financial impact was less stressful, primarily because they were better prepared with a solid savings foundation.
Sunde also cautions that the older you get, the more you’ll have to compete with younger people for the same job, which can make the period after a layoff even longer. A strong savings during these times is essential.
"When times are good, that’s the time to save," he says. "So many people live for the moment."
In dealing with the emotional sting of a layoff, Sunde credits a change in attitude with helping him cope.
"I decided I was no longer working for United Airlines. I was working for myself," he says.
"It was for my own satisfaction and that really helped me. And I don’t know if it was arrogance or protection."
Hindsight may be 20-20, but most of the families we interviewed reflected on their layoff experiences as something that honed the strength of their marriage and family."It was tough at that time, but you just work through it and life goes on," says Claire. "It definitely strengthened us. I feel now that I can weather anything."
* Names changed for privacy purposes