At some point, someone you love is probably going to face a job loss. A 2019 survey conducted by the employment website Monster showed that three in five Americans have been unemployed or had a career gap, with 37 percent experiencing a layoff. And, as though it weren't hard enough, losing a job can be detrimental not only to a person’s financial status and health, but their relationships.
A 2016 Harvard University study found job loss to be the biggest stressor contributing to divorce (though the research, which looked at over 45 years of data, focused on heterosexual marriage), and other studies have reached similar conclusions. The aftermath of a partner's layoff or firing can mean reconfiguring your plan for how you pay shared expenses—or the amount you spend on going out together or other dating-related costs—before your partner finds another job, which can be mutually stressful. And, once you get all the monetary logistics sorted out, you’ll need to make sure you’re there for them on an emotional level, which is difficult in its own right.
According to Sue Varma, a board-certified psychiatrist, couples counselor, and sex educator at NYU Langone Health, relationship issues caused by a partner’s job loss are incredibly common. “[Job loss] changes everything: a person’s self-esteem, sense of self, the basic routine and structure of the day," she said. "A community [and] a sense of meaning and belonging are also temporarily lost until they find something new to engage them again in the same way.”
When 29-year-old Stephanie Montes from Sylmar, California, got laid off from her role as a beauty director, she went from dressing up for work to “skipping showers and living in pajamas.” Montes's job had been a major part of her identity, and losing it impacted her social life, too. “I lived like a hermit for months and even blew off work-related events because I couldn't face people,” she said. Her husband helped her get through it by uplifting her and making plans for the two of them. “Jerry was always there to tell me I was beautiful (showered or not), smart, worthy, and supported,” she said, adding that he spent quality time with her and encouraged her to get out of the house, which made a huge difference in her mood. “We went on hikes in the middle of the day—his schedule allows him to leave work at 2:30—and made time to log some sunshine. Jerry taking the time to force me to get off the couch really brought me back to life.”
It’s important to keep in mind that different people have different needs, so talk to your partner directly about which is best for them. Maybe they need encouragement—or maybe they just need someone to listen. When 34-year-old Iris, whose last name has been omitted for her privacy, lost her job as an office manager, she said she didn't need grand gestures from her husband. Instead, he helped her by taking extra care with emotional support and everyday comforts. “He was there for me to talk to, to cry on, to vent to,” she said. If she wanted to take an hour-long bath, he made sure she wasn’t disturbed. If she needed wine, he got her some.
After a job loss, your partner’s mood and behavior might be different than what you’ve seen before. Iris said she and her husband had “discovered this other side” of her that they never knew existed, because she had always been steadily employed prior to her layoff. “I felt useless and insecure. I was so afraid that he would walk away from us due to the pressure of being a sole provider. It took a lot of reassurance,” Iris said—which, for her, meant understanding that he loved her whether or not she had a job, without immediately trying to fix that.
“Personality changes are to be expected," Varma said, because a job can be fundamental to so many other aspects of our lives, and to our sense of purpose. (When you take that into consideration, it’s no wonder why losing a job is in the top ten of the most stressful life events, according to the Holmes-Rahe Social Adjustment Scale.) According to Varma, "adjustment disorder" is very common after a loss or transition of any kind. This is a milder, temporary, stressor-specific version of depression where a person may feel sad or hopeless, have issues with sleeping, anxiety, loss of appetite, or low self-esteem. “Mindfulness-based stress reduction classes are very helpful,” she said. “I send couples together to do it sometimes, and they love it.” But if their mood doesn’t improve and they are exhibiting symptoms of depression that won’t go away, it might be time for your partner to consider seeing a therapist.
Sometimes a job loss can affect a person’s sex drive and sexual desire. "Their ability to engage romantically and sexually may be reduced,” Varma said. If this is the case, there are a few more immediate things you can suggest to help reignite their mood. “Distraction helps. Plan a date, some activity, or a place that reminds them that there is more to life than their job, or reminds them who they were outside,” she said, suggesting that you also encourage your partner to get back into a fitness routine or see their friends, or take a trip together. According to Varma, helping them regain a sense of control might help them feel like their old self more generally, too.
You may feel inclined to help your partner find a new job, which is tricky if they're still grieving their old one. Iris said that her husband sent her links to job openings soon after she lost her job, but she wasn’t yet mentally ready. “While I appreciated it, I really wasn’t in the right mindset for it, and they also weren’t the type of jobs that I was looking for to further my career,” she said, adding that he did motivate her to expand her side gig, which was something she had always wanted to do. “He encouraged me to pursue microblading, going so far as to helping me find supplies and materials that would help me to improve my studio setup and branding,” she said. Other supportive next steps could be assisting them with networking or gaining a skill set, improving their CV, or helping them go back to school.
It's normal to feel frustrated with your partner if they aren’t able to find a job as quickly as you expected, or are devoting less time to their job search than you think is right. Varma pointed out that, in some ways, you have become a caregiver, so it’s important to create healthy distance for yourself. “You should still maintain your routine. It’s so easy to get caught up in your partner’s issues,” she said. If it’s better for them to seek guidance from someone else, try not to be offended. “Help them find someone, like a job coach, recruiter, mentor, or former colleague that can help,” Varma said.
Patrice N. Douglas, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Empire Counseling & Consultation, said it’s best to ask your partner if they’d like you to do certain things, like checking in with them on their job search, or if they want help looking for leads. “Unless they ask for daily accountability, check in on how they are doing instead of asking if they found another job,” she said. “When it comes to a loss, we always want to give the person control of the support so it is actually productive and won’t backfire on you—pressuring them too much can end up being discouraging. You aren’t their parent, and it can cause stress and frustration [for] the other person,” she said.
“How we understand how to support our partner is by asking and practicing patience," Douglas said. “For some, it can cause the relationship to become stronger. They are able to engage with each other more often and figure out the next plans for the future." A partner's job loss can be exhausting, stressful, and sad. It can also show you how to be a better partner—and bring you closer together. The rough parts can be really trying, but they can also make clearer that you're committed to each other, regardless of less-than-ideal circumstances.
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