How do I talk with my spouse about her long term unemployment?
February 19, 2014 2:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm not sure how to talk with my wife about the issues surrounding her long term unemployment. I don't want to come across as demanding or nagging, but I do want to express some concerns that I have honestly and clearly. How have you successfully communicated about this touchy subject with your significant other?

My wife and I are in our early 30's, and our family includes an elementary school age stepson from her previous marriage. My wife has been unemployed for a little over a year now, which is just a few months less than we've been married. My salary is enough to pay for all the household expenses, but with virtually nothing left over for savings or investing. (We have made significant spending cuts since she lost her job.) I've been holding in some worries that I have because I didn't want to come across as being too hard on her during a difficult time. As of now, I simply never bring up the subject of her unemployment. I don't ask her about a job search, discuss how her situation is making things very tight financially, or talk about my worries that our important plans for the next couple of years (buying a house, having a second child) seem to be on indefinite hiatus.

Here's the hard part: I'm sure my wife knows that her unemployment is making both our lives harder, causing us to put off future plans, etc. Is there a way to talk to her about my own feelings without coming across as nagging or kicking her while she's down? I'd like to break my own bad habit of dealing with uncomfortable subject by just avoiding them. How have you successfully talked about long term unemployment with your own spouse?
posted by Chuck Barris to Human Relations (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
What you don't mention, and don't seem to talk to your wife about, is what sort of effort she is making to find a job. I think there's a big difference in how you would approach her about this depending on what she's been doing to find work. Has she been aggressively job-hunting? Or watching tv all day? If it's the former, than I don't know I there's much point to the conversation. If you don't know, you need to find out from her before anything else.
posted by amro at 2:53 PM on February 19, 2014 [11 favorites]

There are a lot of tough subjects in a relationship, and here's what generally seems to work best for dealing with them (which is almost always preferable to not doing so):

1. Talk about your feelings up front. For example, in this case, because I gather this is how you feel, tell her you are feeling really worried about the inability right now to save or invest, and your sense that there is a lack of a security net for your family. If you've been getting some heart burn about worrying what will happen if you get sick or lose your job, tell her about those feelings.

2. Ask her how she is feeling these days. Is she worried about this too or is it just you?

3. Tell her that you are also concerned about whether she feels sufficiently supported. Is there anything she has been wishing you could/would do to help her? Specifically, in this instance, you may want to ask her if she wants to go back to work and if so, what you could do to help her with that.

I'd just add that these days, unemployment is really not a choice for a lot of people, but a situation that becomes more locked in the longer it goes on. Be careful, very careful, to remember that. To use an analogy -- if your wife were seriously sick or injured, that would make your lives harder too, but she might have an equal lack of ability to fix the problem.
posted by bearwife at 2:55 PM on February 19, 2014 [14 favorites]

I don't [...] discuss how her situation is making things very tight financially

do you discuss the bills at all? like - does she concretely know how much you bring in and how much is left over. she's not working, so is she doing grocery shopping and such? do you guys have a budget? as the non-working half of a one income family, i'm intimately aware of our finances and budgets which keeps us on the same page. a good part of being on the same page is that when my husband said that to buy a house in the next few years i'll probably be looking for part time work soon there was no drama because i've been part of the money talks all along.
posted by nadawi at 3:06 PM on February 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd start with basic financial discussions. Do you all have a budget? What are your shared financial goals? What kind of savings do you have? What kind of debt? How do you handle your day-to-day spending?

On the employment front, how much were you contributing prior to your marriage to retirement funds? Part of your discussion should be getting back to that level. How much are you contributing to retirement funds in her name or jointly? That should be a shared goal.

Is she getting parental support for her child? How does that factor in to your household income/expenses as it relates to childcare and expenses?

Then, lastly, once you've had some open and honest discussions you can tackle whether you can cut expenses more in order to work toward your shared financial goals or whether you can increase your income. Ideally, you do both! (I know, right?)

Can your job bring in more money? When's the last time you had a raise? Can she help in some way to make your life easier so that you can pursue more income generation? What kind of opportunities is she seeing in her prior field? If it just has no movement, time to think holistically about what she can do.

I was underemployed for the last three years. I managed to land a very lucky gig working part-time from my house and had a baby during that time. My income produced a bit more than childcare expenses but allowed me to keep my head in the game, have adult interaction and bring in just enough buffer income that we were able to manage. But, we didn't really do any saving during this time. Finally had to get really holistic about my life goals and turn away from this career -- not only was the pay in the field pretty low, it's not family friendly. I was able to get back into a prior industry and that's where I'm at now. We are saving as much as we can now to make up for lost time.

What are her goals? What is she doing when she's not job hunting? What are her interests?

Here's one thing to be sensitive about (and other people will think this is BS) but while I was willing, at times, to take any job, there really are not a lot of total crap jobs out there that want people who are over-qualified. While I was seeking out employment in a couple interest areas, people were not that interested in me starting at the "ground level" when they could see I had a masters degree. Plus, honestly, while waiting tables (or the like, it's always the suggestion) would bring in some income, it would have taken me further afield and that, in my opinion, can be worse. So, she's got to have something to show for her time underemployed*. I was getting pretty desperate when I landed the part-time/contract work -- and I was lining up educational and volunteer opportunities in my field just to keep relevant. So, that's something to look into. Can she take classes relevant to her field?

It's not just about the money. (I mean, unless it is.) If you have the luxury to ensure it's about shared goals and lifestyle and how money supports those things then I think you can have a productive conversation.

*And when I interviewed, I felt no need to share the amount of time that I was actually working. Nobody knew that I was only working part-time or that sometimes half the year was like crickets and the rest was gang-busters. It was just so important that I could talk about the experience. She needs to be getting experience in something right now if she is to have hopes of getting a new job.
posted by amanda at 3:32 PM on February 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think what you wrote is fine!

You could start by saying that this is a difficult thing to talk about but you love your wife and support her and you need to have a discussion about unemployment.

Ask her what her plans are, how she wants to put them into place and how you can best support her. Tell her any stress you're feeling. Just be honest!

I'm thinking that if I were your wife I'd be pretty darned happy that you spoke up. Ugh...that unspoken weirdness about unemployment and money; don't let it be a problem. You are both going to feel so relieved and so much closer when you discuss the elephant in the room.
posted by kinetic at 3:46 PM on February 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Seconding what kinetic wrote. Get it out in the open. Job market is terrible these days, she's probably keeping a lot of thoughts to herself as well. I bet she'd be happy that you want to talk about it.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 3:58 PM on February 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

My response to your question heavily depends on whether your wife is actively job searching or not. Since you're not inclined to ask and there's nothing in your question to suggest otherwise - I'll assume she's not.

Were it me, I would have a sit-down with her. If she's not aware of what's going on financially (ie: bills and the overall budget), you need to bring her up to speed. Tell her what you've told us: You're looking to make plans for the future - a house and another child, but need the reassurance that she'll continue to job hunt because those things can't happen on your salary alone. Surely, she wants the house and another child as well - and knowing she'll need a job to make that happen may kick things into gear for her - especially if she's feeling down and less-than-optimistic about the future.

Give her a heads up that you'd like to check in now and then and then and offer to provide what help you can (or are able) - does her resume need refreshing? Does she need more work-appropriate clothes for interviews? Does she need refreshers on how to handle interviews? Is she passing up opportunities because they're 'beneath' her?

Once you've broached the subject, then I'd check in every week or so - since you told her you would, she shouldn't see it as nagging so much as staying in the loop with what's going on in her life (of which job hunting should be a large part). You could approach the subject by asking if she's found any places that look cool and are hiring - you might be able to gain a little insight into what kind of jobs she may be looking for (if at all).

It's definitely a sensitive subject, but I think if you remain non-accusatory and offer up help - should she need it - it won't be a painful one to discuss.
posted by stubbehtail at 4:03 PM on February 19, 2014

I think part of the approach might depend on whether the purpose of this talk is pragmatic or more for emotional recognition/management. From your question it sounds to me as if, though there are certainly pragmatic issues involved, it's maybe more of a 'big picture' kind of talk.

If it were me, I'd basically try to communicate that I view the two of us as a team/that we're in this (like most everything else) together and then I'd basically just ask her in as open a manner as possible how she feels about things. I would just want to honestly know, before any details or practical concerns, how she was doing, what she felt, etc.

Allowing her space to talk about it and how she feels from her perspective, rather than answering specific questions or agendas may make her more comfortable opening up about it and would probably, as the conversation continues, allow you natural opportunities to address at least some of your thoughts and concerns.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 4:09 PM on February 19, 2014

The idea of talking about feelings first (or with feeling in mind) actually makes me cringe. Makes me think of walking on eggshells, when this can be a purely rational, functional series of discussions.

Talk about financials, talk about budget and future goals. Give her tons of opportunities to be the first one to mention her unemployment and her job search. Plan on having one general discussion about household budget and cashflow. "Hey, I want to let you know where we are with income/expenses."

Then give it a couple days before you even mention saving goals. And when you're talking about saving goals, don't make any accusations, just point out "this is the problem. We have a $400/month shortfall if we want to own a house in 5 years" or whatever. Give it a couple more days, then have another discussion. "Let's talk about possible solutions."

If saying "honey, you need to buckle down and get a job" is anywhere near the tip of your tongue, you need to back way way off and have related-but-non-judgemental conversations first.

Talk about facts and talk about your worries before you talk about her actions. And give her a lot of time to think about how she wants to contribute to the discussion/household.
posted by itesser at 4:11 PM on February 19, 2014 [11 favorites]

This is one of very few situations in which I would suggest that anyone should be burdened with protecting their spouse from full honesty, and should instead find other emotional outlets (therapy, writing, talking to a trusted friend).

While your feelings of frustration are legitimate, and it would be ideal for both partners in a marriage to feel equally free to share their experiences, I think talking about these feelings with your wife would be counterproductive.

If she is looking for work, it means additional stress -- every job application will carry that much more hope; each disappointment will weigh so much more heavily. If she isn't actively looking and is experiencing symptoms of depression and isolation, her sense of guilt might overwhelm her ability to think of creative solutions/approaches, and to actually move on them.

The end goal here is your wife finding a job. I think you can best serve that goal by keeping your wife as free from additional burdens as possible -- she already worries, trust me.

I don't ask her about a job search, discuss how her situation is making things very tight financially, or talk about my worries that our important plans for the next couple of years (buying a house, having a second child) seem to be on indefinite hiatus.

I think you're right not to ask about the first, and substituting this with Bearwife's 2) and 3) would be a good idea.

About the second, you can talk a little bit about practical adjustments you might have to make (e.g., cutting costs in some places), without making her feel guilty, ideally (e.g., "Just to give us some room, hon!").

I think you might have to accept putting buying a house and probably a second child on hold, yes, until your wife finds a job. I'm sorry, I can imagine these are dreams you've had for a while... but it's not something you can rush, unfortunately.

Please remember -- this climate is so, so discouraging. It's hard for people who've been unemployed for long periods to consistently maintain motivation to apply for jobs in the absence of feedback, or in the face of more concrete and regular rejection. There are hills and valleys, and people need extra help when they're in the valleys. Lots and lots of support for your wife right now will be better for both of you later, imo.

Best of luck to you both.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:09 PM on February 19, 2014 [8 favorites]

Your opener is as follows: "So Honey, I was looking over our budget and I wondered if we could have a conversation about where we're headed and maybe make a game plan for the next year or so."

Also: "I'm sorry I've been avoiding the subject for so long. I didn't want to make you feel pressured, but I see now that I may have seemed like I was abandoning you with the issue and that's not what I wanted to do. We're on the same team here. I want you to know that I know that."

"Is there anything I can do to support you with your job search? What would help you most?" This could be professional resume or job search help, upgrading courses etc.

It's really important that you get this kind of communication going. Good for you for recognizing that avoiding difficult discussions is not the way to go.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:37 PM on February 19, 2014 [17 favorites]

talk about my worries that our important plans for the next couple of years (buying a house, having a second child) seem to be on indefinite hiatus.

To start, when you said "long term unemployment," I thought you probably meant, like, three to five years. A year in this economy is not that unusual.

The main thing that leaps out at me is the stress it's causing you to see your important plans on hiatus. And part of that might be due to the timeline. A period of unemployment does have an impact not just on the now, but on where you'll be in a year or two or three. You probably won't be able to hit those marks on the timetable you once had. So how about sitting down and re-planning together what your next ~5 years will look like? You can do a Scenario A, Scenario B, Scenario C, with different work/income combinations. It might make you feel better to be able to at least envision a future, even if it's not as fast-tracked as you wish. A whole lot of people have seen their life timelines disrupted over the past half decade; you are certainly not alone in this. Rather than pretend it's all unchanged, how about making plans for the new reality you're in, which can help you expand if there's a windfall, or stay stable if nothing pops up soon?
posted by Miko at 5:40 PM on February 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

A close, um, friend of mine is in a similar situation.

The solution was to sit down and have an honest conversation. The preface doesn't need to be smooth; it just has to be clear that it's time to discuss this issue. My friend's tactic was to focus on the financial side of things. Here are the numbers. How should we handle X, Y, and Z? How can I support you while you transition? What are your plans?

Keeping it focused on the numbers does two things: It makes things seem concrete and communicates the weight of the situation without seeming super-personal. It also opens up the next part of the conversation my friend pursued: The cost of you remaining unemployed is that we have this much money to live on, and I request that you a) live within those means and b) don't leave me as the sole person who worries about/troubleshoots these financial issues as sole breadmaker.

Best of luck to both of you.
posted by mynameisluka at 6:40 PM on February 19, 2014

Other outlets, if at all possible.

Unless you have reason to think she's not actively looking, I wouldn't say a word, aside from asking her if there's any way you can be helpful to her (i.e. if she wants to vent her frustrations, wants help looking/editing cover letters or resumes/preparing for interviews).

You already know this, but it's rough out there. The amount of self-loathing that can come with long term unemployment is unfathomable unless you've been there. Of course it impacts you greatly, but she probably already feels like crap about the situation. Having loved ones pile on can make it harder and will probably only make her feel cornered and defensive.
posted by anad487 at 9:15 PM on February 19, 2014

The amount of self-loathing that can come with long term unemployment is unfathomable unless you've been there.

This is me and it sucks. so. bad. Still, one of the only things that keeps me from giving up and therefore screwing myself completely is that my partner is willing to stick his neck out and give me gentle, supportive but very real pressure. It's very emotional for me to talk about how my job search is going, failures in this realm are very personal (unfortunately) so when he asks how things are going it's like a 50/50 chance I'm going to end up crying. And sometimes I even resent him and get defensive. BUT the thing I love him for is that he is willing to weather the storm of these emotions and help me help us move forward together.

This is all just to say, it may be awkward and she may even react badly at first (or throughout) but I believe you deserve to have this conversation AND it might do her a world of good. (Like, it could be completely possible for her to be a great person with the best intentions and still be ignoring the problem by throwing herself into other household responsibilities and not job searching as actively as she could be because everyday finances are secure and life seemingly goes on normally.) You need to find out how she's doing, how the job search is going and how you can support her. (This is all assuming she DOES want to go back to work, you deserve to know that too.)

Has any part of the transition to being married and joining your families together affecting her ability to get work (did you move, did childcare needs increase?)? It is helpful to acknowledge sacrifices she may have made on behalf of your partnership, if they exist.

Your best bet is to say largely what you said in your question: highlighting the goals you have as a family and you think you need to, together, revisit how you're going to get there. "I want to find a way to more actively help you as you look for a job, even if it's just providing an outlet for your frustrations or find ways to help you stay motivated." It's great to acknowledge that you're sorry you haven't brought it up sooner but you didn't want to pressure her.

Otherwise, just be honest and find ways to affirm that you love her, think she's intelligent and capable, and recognize her accomplishments (during conversation and in general).
posted by dahliachewswell at 10:17 PM on February 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

My wife and I are in our early 30's, and our family includes an elementary school age stepson from her previous marriage. My wife has been unemployed for a little over a year now, which is just a few months less than we've been married. My salary is enough to pay for all the household expenses, but with virtually nothing left over for savings or investing. (We have made significant spending cuts since she lost her job.)

It kinda seems like she has absolutely NO motivation for doing anything because all her needs are met.

Give her some...or tell her that your goals and her goals don't coincide and maybe a life-change is necessary. It seems as if you know this already, and that's why you are so reluctant to bring this up with her.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:18 AM on February 20, 2014

I think it's perfectly ok to talk to your wife about the entire situation; finances, stress on you, uncertainty about the future, BUT choose your timing wisely. If she was a single working mother for a long time, she may be enjoying being a stay at home parent for a while. It's entirely possible that her feelings on things like another child or new house have changed or she's reevaluating her priorities with her lifestyle and schedule changing.

If you approach your wife at a time when your stepson is out of the house for a little while and you're both in good moods and happy with each other, the conversation could go very well. If you couch it in terms of asking her if her thoughts about future plans have changed or how she sees your family life in the future, you can segue into the financial aspect of her unemployment with a little understanding of whether she wants to go back to work or not. If that's not a lifestyle you're ok with, then you start the conversations about how to get your plans back in sync.
posted by hollygoheavy at 3:27 AM on February 20, 2014

It sounds to me like maybe she's slipped into the role of a stay-at-home mom, tending to the child and the household. This may, in fact, be a good fit for her.

There are so many variables that could be at work here. You don't say what her career/work experience was before being unemployed. Did she even like doing what she used to do? Speaking from experience, even if it's the best skillset you have, it's really, really hard to go back into a field that you now realize gave you no satisfaction and came to hate. Even more so if you are getting great satisfaction from tending to the family nest.

Jumping right into a discussion about money and unemployment will be pretty fruitless, and maybe make her more unhappy, without understanding her feelings about the sort of work she did.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:01 AM on February 20, 2014

One thing that I think contributes to long-term unemployment is that people continue to fish in the same stream.

When I was laid off from AT&T, along with 16,000 of my co-workers, I decided that the worst thing to do was to continue to seek employment in the telecommunications industry. I took a different path and although I had to take a significant cut in pay, it was temporary and now, 5 years and a recession behind me, I'm now in the same neighborhood at my old, princely sales job salary.

Judging by my LinkedIn, my cohorts did not fair so well. They went from AT&T, to Verizon, to Intercallnet to Joe's Bait Shop and Telephone company to Bob's Telephony Consulting. Basically, they've been spiraling downward, because they couldn't shift gears.

So perhaps you need to help your wife shift her gears. I like bearwife's conversation guide, and perhaps probe into the types of jobs your wife is applying for. "Sweetie, you know, the world is passing handsome cab drivers behind, it may be time to go in a different direction. Maybe you could learn Oracle or SAP or and go in that direction. What do you think about that?"

Just a thought.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:42 AM on February 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think it's really important to have the conversation, but also, figure out how to have the conversation based on some previous factors.

1. What was her first marriage like? Was she a breadwinner, or a SAHM? Has she viewed her working as something desirable, or something forced upon her by the demands of being a single mother?

2. How do you feel about your stepson? You mention him in the question, when he's largely irrelevant to the answers, which makes me think that he's been on your mind - possibly especially because your own plans for a second child are being put off right now. Do things feel uneven or unfair? Is that potentially contributing to any resentment?

3. How do you see your ideal marriage working? How does she?
posted by corb at 7:09 AM on February 20, 2014

Keep it focused on the numbers and not as a personal reflection on her. If you are nervous about discussing it directly, which I think is actually the best way, you could sidle up to the subject but having a discussion about budgets and financial goals, or even just life directions of the both of you. You could go well this is our financial position now, we'll have to cut this and this and this but when the job market picks up and you get some work we'll be able to do this and this. And then segue into the whole, soooo how's that job hunting going, how can we work together to help you find a job heading into 2014.

Make it a team effort, you and her against the job hunting market and not you going OMG you suck why don't you have a job. Which it doesn't sound like you are doing, but when you are unemployed it can be a touchy area and you can feel like everyone is judging you.
posted by wwax at 8:16 AM on February 20, 2014

Thanks to everyone for the good suggestions.

To address some of the questions that people had:

1. My wife is actively looking for work, and does want to work outside the home again as soon as possible. Being a SAHM is not a goal for her.

2. We have discussed budgeting. She knows how much I bring in every month and how much we can afford to spend in different areas. She also knows that our budget leaves us very little wiggle room every month.

3. She worked throughout her first marriage and we've both agreed that our ideal vision of the future has both of us working.
posted by Chuck Barris at 2:59 PM on February 20, 2014

This could be a hard one, or it may not. Being unemployed for a while can easily become a vicious cycle of depression, lethargy, & feelings of worthlessness.
You can help her. Be gentle, which it sounds like you are.
For this discussion I'm assuming she wants to work. (If she doesn't, you both have a bigger problem.) And I'm assuming she's not holding on to some 'freelance' dream, in which she may be trying to find freelance work but is falling way short.
SO: Just raise it: 'Let's figure out how to get you a job.'
Help her with a resume, the job boards, boost her confidence, let her know it's fine with you to apply and be rejected. Suggest she take a temp job -- they can be great! Not much money, but being around people & the workplace can quickly improve your mood and your objective prospects for further employment. And plenty of temp jobs transition to long-term jobs.
Tell us how she does. You guys can do this.
posted by LonnieK at 5:57 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

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