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Sticking It Out

“For richer or poorer” is a common marriage vow. Dealing with unemployment can put that vow to the test. The economic downturn over the past several years has resulted in many couples facing long-term unemployment for one or both partners.

Statistics about the unemployment rate and resulting effect on savings, retirement and foreclosures is front and center in the news. Less often discussed is the toll unemployment takes on a relationship. The financial costs of cutting back, draining savings accounts and borrowing are accompanied by emotional tolls. Stress and worry contribute to communication breaking down just when it’s needed most. Disagreements about spending and budgets flare into all-out battles as both partners feel panicked about how to make ends meet.

Unemployment can be devastating to a person’s self-esteem. In our culture, a person’s line of work plays a large part in identity. “What do you do?” is one of the first questions asked when meeting someone new. The loss of that identity can be difficult. Watching your family struggle financially while you are unable to find work creates feelings of guilt, shame and depression. The working partner feels increased pressure and responsibility and, as unemployment continues, may feel a partner isn’t doing enough to try to find work or taking on responsibilities around the house.

Here are a few suggestions on how to cope with the stress of unemployment on a marriage.

Discuss boundaries. Agreeing on what will remain private and what is OK to talk about with family and friends is important. Realize you probably have different comfort levels on sharing details. You may have to balance one partner’s need for privacy with the other’s need to talk to friends and family for support.

Think beyond the current situation in establishing those boundaries. Once unemployment is over, will you be comfortable with the amount of information shared? The people who know? Choose a few people you trust and keep discussions about the particulars confined to these relationships. Also, keeping certain details exclusively within the marriage helps strengthen feelings of partnership and loyalty.

Acknowledge feelings and have a plan. Listening to and acknowledging each other’s feelings goes a long way toward reducing stress. You may have different fears than your spouse, but you can relate to what it’s like to worry.

Talking about fears and worries can help establish a financial plan. Financial experts recommend making a list of possible financial threats. Include what’s likely to happen and also what’s not likely but is still a worry. Then list what expenses can be controlled (eating out, daily stops to the coffee shop), what can be managed (switching to a lower-interest credit card, deferring student loan payments) and what can be monitored (keeping track of money coming in each month). Having a plan gives a sense of direction and control, further reducing stress.

Focus on positives and give compliments. Keeping your chin up during prolonged unemployment for you or your partner can be challenging. Finding positives can be difficult but well worth the effort. Research has shown that what we think about has a large impact on how we feel. Think about and talk about what is going well. What “silver linings” can you find? What are some good things in your life unaffected by the current situation?

Self-esteem can take a real nose dive during unemployment. Working spouses can reassure their unemployed partners they are valued and loved. Notice and praise qualities unrelated to their job: “Thanks for fixing the computer. You’ve always been good with technology.” “I need your sense of humor to help me turn my day around—it’s been brutal.”

Unemployed partners can notice and appreciate what the working spouse is doing. When in a stressful situation, it’s easy to get caught up in your own emotions and lose track of those around you. Look for ways to ease your partner’s day and give compliments: “I know you’ve been picking up extra shifts, so how about I take the kids to the park and you stay home and relax?” “I was telling my cousin how thankful I am to have you.”

Couples dealing with emotional and financial strains due to unemployment do not have to allow their relationship to dissolve in the process. Focus on communication and work at thinking about and talking about positives. Be sensitive and responsive to your partner’s emotions and remember, unemployment too shall pass.    p

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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