Help me be a good wife to my unemployed husband
January 8, 2015 7:18 AM   Subscribe

What did your spouse do when you were unemployed that was really helpful? What did you do that made a difference to your partner?

My husband, a highly specialized academic administrator, has been laid off. It's a long, awful story that I will not get into here in detail. I will say that his situation is an unusual one: He's in the unusual position of having been laid off from a fairly high-level academic admin job through no fault of his own. His area has a small national market and is a small community. He's worried about his career. He's worried about his age (early 40s).

I'm worried about his mental health (anxiety, depression, ADHD), and his physical health (he's gained weight over this long stressful period leading up to the end of his job). He has a gym membership; he has a car at home; he has a laptop he can take to cafes. The kids are at school and daycare. There's no crisis, but I want to make sure he has what he needs without bossing him around. I've been unemployed before, but I don't know that our needs are similar.

I particularly want to be helpful with his job search, the blogging that he's doing, providing support as he looks for contract work etc -- without being a nag, or trying to problem-solve excessively.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Are you home with him during the day? Regardless, but easier if you are, just ask him to go on some regular walking break with you. Chance to get some low-stress exercise, clear both your heads, and let him vent or not about the situation and the search.

I think a lot of what you're looking for depends on him. Does he feel supported when he's left alone go at the problem by himself? Does he want someone to help brainstorm ideas, do web searches?
posted by colin_l at 7:28 AM on January 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Is there the possibility that your family might have to relocate for a new job? Perhaps communicate your feelings about that.
posted by Liesl at 7:34 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sorry to hear that - it's tough for him and all of you affected. You know your husband best, and whether he'll be able to answer your question well for himself, too. If he doesn't know how you can best support him, think back to other situations where he's needed your support, and what worked best for you guys. You're definitely on the right track by encouraging him on the self-care (food, exercise, sleep).

One biggie is to just make sure he feels valued for what he does - so much of what many of us see as our "usefulness" comes primarily from our work. So if there are Small things he could do for you and/or the kids because he's got more schedule freedom, ask - and then be extra appreciative of the results.
posted by ldthomps at 7:34 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

This probably sounds nearly impossible not to do but when I was living with people and they were working and I wasn t it used to really irk me when they'd ask what I'd done that day. I know there is always stuff to do theoretically, but it can be weirdly hard to think of what when you are gripped by unemployment esp long term. Also you don't want to spend any money as it's always a worry.
posted by tanktop at 7:35 AM on January 8, 2015 [16 favorites]

Honestly, the best thing my spouse did for me when I was unemployed was to ask me every day about my job search, and kept me accountable for my mental and physical health.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:37 AM on January 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Ask him. I've been in your husband's situation (and am in it at the moment) with two different spouses. The one who badgered me about how many resumes I'd sent out and how many people I'd networked with and why don't you call this person that I met once six years ago... I'm not married to that person anymore, and that was a symptom of why. Even questions about that sort of thing can feel like judgments.

On the other hand, my current spouse will ask me, "Is it okay if I remind you to call so-and-so next week?" or simply "What did you do today?"* and let me talk about job-hunting stuff if I feel like it. That simple shift makes it feel like I'm much more in control of that aspect of the situation, and more like my spouse is helping me find a job as opposed to making me find a job (because, as you've noticed, he already knows he needs to find a job).

Of course, your husband may need to be motivated, and he may find it helpful for you to do that in some way. So just communicate with him, and keep communicating with him.
posted by Etrigan at 7:38 AM on January 8, 2015 [10 favorites]

Job hunting is difficult. There is only so much time that you can spend doing it every day. Spend more and you will fee like you are running in a circle, expecting something different to show up at the end of each lap. It is not a very rewarding task, for the most part.

You should encourage him to do things with you during the day that you would ordinarily not be able to do. Go for walks in the park, to the museums, or on little day trips to see things. Look for physical tasks like painting and landscaping that use energy and yield tangible results, and ask him to consider them.

He is likely to rethink the whole job and layoff story in his mind. This could disturb his sleep or distract him from useful tasks. I believe that this is normal, and a kind word and an embrace may help to set him right.

The 40's is not that old. He has 25 years of productive employment in his future, and much to offer the lucky employer that selects him. In the mean time, take advantage of his availability.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 7:39 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Definitely ask him what he needs, and be careful about doing things that are more for you than for him. Personally I get easily overwhelmed when people try to help me by thrusting lots of suggestions at me, no matter how well-intended they might be, so be careful about, say, doing his job search for him or asking if he's tried looking into [Company X, Y, or Z] yet.

If I were in his position, I'd just want my partner to let me know I was loved, and that I was not a fucker just because I was out of work.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:40 AM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Additionally, thinking back to my last stint of unemployment, one problem I had was that after a while being out of work was BORING. As in, 'save the trip to the gas station for later in the week so I'd have something to do' levels of boring. Would your own work schedule allow you to ask him to lunch every now and then, or take an afternoon off to go do something he enjoys with him? Could you treat him to a membership to a local museum, zoo, or other place he'd enjoy getting out to? Are there any "for fun"-type classes he might enjoy?

Overall, I think that so long as you trust that he's being responsible in his job hunt, he might appreciate it if you could encourage him to get away to do fun things in moderation, without feeling guilty or worrying about your reaction. Good luck to both of you.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:55 AM on January 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have a very strong need to feel useful to "the world" in some way. During times when I've been unemployed and looking for a new job and no one was getting back to me, what made me feel worst was that I couldn't shake the feeling I was no longer of value as a member of society, that if I suddenly disappeared it wouldn't matter (even though I had friends and family who it would've certainly mattered to- but that's depression talking). So if these thoughts haunt your husband, it might help to have little things for him to do when he's not in the middle of an application, stuff he's needed for that you can't do alone, and that when he does them he knows he's appreciated. Not in a naggy way, obviously. I lived in a city where it was very easy to volunteer just for a few hours here and there, and that helped too.

Fun little trips and activities to get out of the house were appreciated also as long as they didn't really cost money. Even walks are good.
posted by bananana at 8:11 AM on January 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

With Husbunny, I submit his applications for him. But he's okay with it and so am I. Luckily he's not been unemployed for any meaningful period and he gets jobs quickly because he's great. He's been in his current job for 8 years now.

Me, since I left the phone company, I've had periods of unemployment. I don't get bummed out, and I've suffered through 2 terrible jobs in the past year. He knows that I productively submit applications for appropriate positions and in fact, I'm waiting for the phone company to get an offer to me, so I can go back to work. In the meantime, I've cleaned the house until it sparkles, I cook nice dinners and I'm learning a new skill while I'm waiting. I am also watching WAY too much stupid TV. He knows I'm bored out of my mind.

So as the unemployed spouse, the fact that he gives me space, lets me do what I do, and enjoys the yummy low-cal meals I've been making is enough.

You can ask him what he needs from you. He might tell you.

Is he applying for jobs, talking to folks in his network and getting himself out there? If he is, then cool, let him do what needs to be done. If he seems stuck, is doing unhealthy stuff, then you might need to step in.

Jobs in academia may require selling the house and moving. Perhaps you can discuss with him the logistics of starting to do projects to get the house ready to sell. Go through your stuff and start getting rid of things in preparation for packing and moving (and staging.) Talk to a realtor to find out what you can expect from the house sale. If you're renting, you can still start culling, it make the impending move more immanent.

During the holidays I enjoyed going out to lunch and to movies with Husbunny. Just getting out of the damn house is refreshing! Encourage him to make lunch dates with colleagues and friends. And then just have it be about lunch, not about the job search.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:47 AM on January 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Right after I lost my last job, my wife started leaving the want ad section of the paper out on the kitchen counter, with jobs she thought would interest me circled. Now, I know she meant well and thought she was helping me, but, after awhile, it sort of started affecting me as if she was nagging me about getting a job (you lazy bum).

I understand a good part of that reaction was on me, but it is what it is. We talked about it, though, and moved past it.

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is, be very sensitive about how you go about helping him find work.

He's worried about his career. He's worried about his age (early 40s).

Boy, am I ever familiar with that scenario. He very well may be dealing internally with the idea of leaving his field entirely and finding something else to do, if he can. At least he's in his early 40's. Trying to change careers in your late 40's and your 50's can be a nightmare.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:14 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Remind him, every so often, that you know that he'll find something and you'll all be okay. That while, yes, it's important to find a job, you want him to find the best job for him that he can.

Because he will. You will. You do.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 9:28 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Five year veteran, here. I'm going to go against the advice I would give 99% of the time that he's a grown-ass adult etc etc.

Sit him down and ask him how up in his business he wants you to be. Personal business, not professional, for the most part. But ASK and TALK about it.

The thing that I did not grasp (I knew it, I just didn't want it to be true/my problem) for a very long time is that my husband had basically no idea how to adult, and his pre-existing mental health issues meant he basically powered off. He sat in front of his email 8 hours a day, as a punishment for not working. And he thought that's what I would want, was him being punished for not working by sitting there doing fuck-all all day.

Meanwhile, I was working, commuting an hour each way, doing all the shopping/cooking/cleaning. My car went un-smogged and unregistered for two years - even after I twice said out loud that I was pretty sure I was too busy and he should swap cars with me for a day and do it - because...honestly, I think because he's a middle-class white guy and being grateful - or beholden - to anybody was too foreign. He did nothing. He didn't learn to cook for over 4 years of this.

There's very little you can do for him professionally. Basically, the first two weeks of unemployment are when you're likely to be contacted by someone who's already hiring. After that, you're waiting for a job to come open and the rest is free time. There's not much he can do except keep his resume fresh on the job sites (takes ~7 minutes a day), carry a smart device with phone and email and answer it every time it rings. If he blogs, he might want to schedule that just for the routine, but there's not really anything you can do for that.

But if he does not know how to not be working, and if he knows he needs help, help him. Be really clear and detailed about your expectations rather than assuming he knows.

Have him tell you whenever a lead shows any promise, and then don't ask. If you do need to run through the basics, do it: join X group, Rotary Club, whatever. If you need to do a roll call of everyone you know who might be someone to contact, do it. If he's going to get paralyzed, help him through it. You might as well, right? Again, talk to him, offer him various kinds of help and let him choose what will be useful.

I drew a couple of firm lines, and one of them was that he would get on medication and keep up with the doctor side of that. But he's pretty aware of the necessity, so it's not a huge deal.

Most of this stuff would make me furious if he did it to me, but I am very different from him. If I was not working, I would be doing everything I could to get a job, and then for the other 23 hours a day I would be taking on all the domestic responsibilities since I wasn't contributing my half of the financial. He was not especially aware that there were any responsibilities except financial.

We almost didn't make it, and I almost ended up in the hospital a couple of times (but I didn't dare take the time off work, what with being solely responsible for our existence).

He's now starting over in a new career (which is fine, as the old one didn't suit him and is changing to a completely different kind of skillset now anyway) and does some stuff around the house. He would not have done that if I had not pushed him to - I'm the one who said "hey, it's time to take these interests you have and go research how people get jobs doing that professionally." I don't think he would have done it if it hadn't been me making it really clear that he had permission and maybe a little obligation to do it. He leapt on the task of learning new software and producing his own little projects with gusto (I knew he would), but he would never really ask me for resources so I had to push - do we need to find money for a better computer, do we need to move closer to the city where this job is done (I got a job there so we could).

Sometimes marriage requires the kind of teamwork that would be really obnoxious to someone else. Just be transparent, don't do weird manipulative stuff, and you can't go terribly wrong. Ask, tell, listen.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:37 AM on January 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

I was unemployed for about eight months. I made enough money from little jobs to pay my end of the bills, but just barely, and not always. My girlfriend supported me through that, buying groceries, etc. She never pressured me about work, but stayed interested in what jobs I was applying for, what ideas I had, etc. I wasn't very happy to not have a job, and it helped that she never behaved as though it was some failing on my part.

She's been out of work now for a while, and I am supporting her while she looks for work, and am trying to do the same for her -- express interest and support for whatever she does without applying pressure or behaving as though her lack of a job is somehow her fault.
posted by maxsparber at 10:53 AM on January 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Yeah, ask him. My now-husband never ever asked me how the job search was going, which I appreciated so, so much, but obviously other people disagree.

I, the unemployed partner, volunteered at my local public library for a few hours a few times a week. It seriously kept me sane to have a place to go where people were counting on me to be there and have a very small sphere of responsibility that was all mine.
posted by mchorn at 11:05 AM on January 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

"Highly specialized academic administrator" I know you didn't ask for job search help, but this phrase worries me. If he's a good administrator, he is a candidate for lots of jobs outside that specialized area. Job hunting is definitely an area where the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Back on topic, yes, talk to him about how much he wants you in his business. Don't nag.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:21 PM on January 8, 2015

Some people like talking about how their job hunt is going. Some don't. Whichever one he is, respect that. Some unemployed people like talking about what they did today. Some don't. Again, respect whichever style he is. Just because he doesn't want to talk about it doesn't mean he's not doing anything. I hate job hunting, and having to talk about it as well just makes it worse. This is especially true if talking about it is likely to lead to a lecture about what you think he should be doing.

Don't take over, unless he asks you to. Don't look for job websites or openings, again unless he asks you to. It can feel a lot like you're saying "you can't do this on your own, so I'll do it for you". Feeling like your spouse doesn't think you're competent is not a good feeling. Depending on the circumstances of the layoff and his personality, he might be struggling with feeling incompetent to begin with. You obviously do not want to add to any feelings like this that he might have.

Don't make a to-do list for him, again unless he asks you to. You can occasionally ask him to do stuff for you that is hard for you to do, but you do not want him thinking that you think he needs you to tell him what to do. He's still a grownup, even without a job.

Don't have unspoken expectations about what he'll do around the house. If you want him to do something around the house that he hasn't been doing, ask him to do it (this is different from telling him to do it), and accept that the answer might be no. You should also not critique things he does do around the house. He does them, he gets to do them his way. If his way is not good enough for you, live with it or do it yourself (unless his way is causing actual, significant damage). You don't get to delegate the task and set the standards for how it will be done. You're not his boss.

Don't pressure him to volunteer or go to events or classes. If he wants to do things like this, and asks for your help in finding them, you can help him find them. But this sort of thing might just not be his style.

He might have a different job search style than you do. You need to accept this, even if you think your style is better. This is his job hunt and not yours. He is your spouse and a grownup who you respect (I hope), not your child. Unless he asks for it, have the conversation about what you think he should be doing differently with yourself in the car (or other private space where he can't hear you).

Always remember: you are not his boss, you are not in charge of managing his career, and you are not his mother. He's still a grownup and an equal partner, with or without a job.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:19 AM on January 9, 2015

I am currently in a position very similar to your husband's and you have received a lot of great advice.

Last night I was thinking about what my partner could do to be more emotionally supportive. It's easy to feel like a burden or lacking in value when you are unemployed. I always worry if my partner is judging me-- Why doesn't she have a job yet? How come she's not getting many interviews? Is that really all she did all day?

I have a to-do list and the fact that I still haven't had a chance to call my insurance company about some claim I'm dealing with kills me. My partner and family see these individual tasks as simple little tasks, but when you're job hunting on top of having to make 10 non-employment related questions, and don't know how you're going to pay your bills next month, and are paranoid you're a bother to your partner or spouse... it gets really f'ing overwhelming.

I help out around the house. I make sure my partner's laundry is always done and nicely folded. The kitchen is always spotless. I windex, wipe down the leather and woodwork, take out the trash, tighten that loose screw in the bathroom that we've been talking about for a year. (A lot of this is stress cleaning to clear my head, FWIW.) I do these things to show my appreciation, but it feels really, really good when my work is noticed. It may just be clearing the table, calling Comcast, going downstairs to get the mail, whatever, but to me that Thank You gives me some sense of "value." Your husband might already know damn well that you support him in his efforts and appreciate all that he does, but verbally expressing your gratitude anyway doesn't hurt.

Others mentioned this, but I agree with avoiding the what did you do all day questions. Being unemployed is already a blow to your self-confidence, sense of value or purpose, overall morale. When I've been staring at a computer screen all day and my eyes are burning and I'm frustrated, an innocent what did you do today question can absolutely sound like something else to me. I have this issue with my mother, so I'm learning day by day that I have to cut off contact. One day I spent 1.5 hours on the phone with United, over an hour with our cable company, called a hospital on the other side of the company about the numerous bills I have and can't pay, started their charity program paperwork, then dealt with the ambulance company. I looked at jobs earlier that day, but I didn't apply to any because I was dealing with this other stuff that doesn't disappear when job-hunting is your top priority. When my parents were shocked that I didn't "do anything" that day, I lost it and started sobbing (background: mother never worked, father worked for a large corporation for 30 years and retired early, so neither of them know what it's like these days, my father doesn't believe that an employer asked me what I knew about his background in a recent interview-- yeah, dad, they ask those questions). The implication that you're not doing anything hurts.

"Safer" and more productive questions, ones I know I don't mind being asked, are: How was your day? Any update from that recruiter you mentioned last night? Do you need my help with anything? Feel like putting the computer away for the night and watching the season premiere of XYZ with me? And then you just drop it, or else you risk becoming the employment police, increasing stress levels, and maybe even hindering the process.

I'm sorry for rambling, but I found this thread very helpful. Your husband is lucky to have a wife who is asking this. From googling, so often I find those who are unemployed asking how they can help their other half.
posted by overyourhead at 11:26 AM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks, all -- I'm the OP and this gave me a lot to think about. Literally every response has something useful in it. No idea what the future holds, but I have trust that it will be some flavor of ok.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:51 PM on January 14, 2015

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