Spouse Out of Work? What to Do

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

Despite the slowly churning economic recovery, massive layoffs continue to occur with frightening frequency. For example, with 2013 barely underway, big banks across Wall Street began announcing plans for large-scale layoffs, and other industries will likely follow.

Might your spouse or partner be among those let go? It’s something that paired professionals have to worry about. Even if your own job seems secure, the loss of a partner’s position can wreak financial and emotional havoc on your household and threaten the lifestyle to which your family has become accustomed.

Business owner Lisa Adams recently lived through her husband being out of work. Though he began a new job in January, it required the couple to relocate, adding another layer of stress to an already difficult situation. Adams and her spouse found the loss of her husband’s income hard to manage as well. “We lived within a three months’ severance and no unemployment since he worked for a nonprofit,” she says. “Financially extremely challenging.”

What should professional women do—financially for their family and emotionally for their partner or children—if their spouse or partner loses their job? The Glass Hammer asked Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, for his advice. “This is one of the greatest challenges professionals and their families may ever face: unemployment and job loss,” says Cohen. “Its impact on families is enormous and the effect of long-term joblessness has yet to be fully understood or examined.”

He adds that how parents manage the stress and hardship of job loss will have a significant impact on how their children approach change and loss in their own lives. “It is a great opportunity to model the very best behaviors and to show children that it is possible to navigate change successfully and with confidence rather than fear,” says Cohen.

Cohen offers these suggestions on how spouses and significant others can provide support during a job search, for better or worse.

Back Off

Your partner has lost a job – he or she feels bad enough already. Though it may be tempting to provide tough love, Cohen says this can backfire. He describes a client who lost his job, and then had to suffer his wife (now his ex) grilling him daily on his progress in the job search by challenging his decisions, berating his lack of forcefulness in pursuing opportunities, questioning his level of activity, and minimizing his progress. This approach created more stress than it solved.

“Sometimes you need to back off even if you know that your spouse is doing it the wrong way, or – for the more enlightened among us – in a way that is different from how you would conduct a job search,” Cohen says. “And while you are at it, try not to criticize.”

Anticipate Emotional Challenges

“Guilt and fear are familiar emotional responses for the unemployed,” says Cohen. “They also take time to process – valuable time that will distract from a productive job search.” Cohen suggests remembering that the loss of work can trigger an emotional response that has the potential to immobilize even the most successful and confident job seekers – especially if it is the first time they have tripped professionally.

“It is important to provide them with some space, time, and breathing room,” says Cohen. “But at some point, if they don’t emerge from this dark place, it may be important to gently encourage psychological counseling.”

Network – Confidently

You can serve as an advocate for your spouse by actively networking among friends and family. But Cohen advises against coming off as too fearful.

“Be clear on what your spouse does professionally and how to best explain it,” he says. “Your messaging will make a difference if it is clear, concise, and not fear-based. Ask for ideas about people, companies, and/or opportunities to be referred to.”

Team Up

Whether or not you’re used to working with your partner, you no doubt have skills that might help get him or her back on their feet. Think about what you have to offer that might give your spouse a leg-up in the job market.

“Ask your spouse if it would be helpful to review together his/her job search strategy and progress on a regular basis,” says Cohen. “If you are a strong writer, offer to help with cover letters, follow-up correspondence, and other job search collateral. Don’t do the work, just help. Your spouse needs to take responsibility for managing a successful job search.”