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Supporting Your Spouse through Unemployment

Understanding a partner's emotional needs helps couples navigate difficult times

NEW YORK CITY, NY (January 29, 2009) -- Across the country and in virtually every sector, the bad news about unemployment keeps getting worse. Government figures show the U.S. economy lost 2.6 million jobs in 2008, the most since the end of World War II, and the New Year hasn't brought any relief.

Anyone who has ever lost a job knows how quickly unemployment can change your life and how the ripple effects can throw an entire household off balance. Whether you are newly unemployed or someone close to you was recently given a pink slip, having solid coping skills is essential to surviving this transition.

"Job loss is a very stressful life event, not just for the unemployed individual, but also for the spouse. There is the obvious financial stress and associated anxiety and uncertainty about the future," said Scott Wetzler, PhD, chief of the Division of Psychology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City and director of the Supporting Healthy Marriage Program at the medical center.

Losing a job often affects men and women differently, a reality that couples should be aware of. For example, along with the financial implications many men also experience job loss as a blow to their self-esteem, according to Dr. Wetzler. "The male ego is bolstered by work success and the recognition of their value as a financial provider. Loss of a job can be terribly deflating, even if it is due to factors outside of their control," he explained. "The man may tend to personalize the failure and beat himself up. For those who are predisposed, this can lead to drinking or other forms of acting out. Since many men don't deal with depression well, it is often transformed into anger which is taken out on their spouse or children."

Dr. Wetzler recommends that if this occurs, the best response a man's wife or partner can have is to understand that he may be experiencing these emotions even if he doesn't acknowledge them, and to help him focus himself in a constructive direction.

"These negative emotions -- anxiety, depression, anger -- won't disappear until the employment issue is solved. An additional problem is that the woman is likely to have her own complicated emotions about their stressful situation, and she can be anxious, sad, angry and critical herself. Two people dealing with negative emotions at the same time is a bad combination," he said, adding that these times of stress and crisis can result in fracture points in relationships. Dr. Wetzler advises spouses of the unemployed to recognize the psychological minefield that both of them are traversing. This awareness and insight will help them to contain acting out and stay focused on solutions, especially re-employment.

And what if the roles are reversed? "My advice to men supporting unemployed women is pretty similar. The only difference is that women tend to be more willing to acknowledge depression and low self-esteem than men," Dr. Wetzler explained. "Women are less likely to act out with drinking, but they can internalize and get down on themselves. A supportive husband would do well to help bolster his wife's self-esteem."

In many cases, children may be oblivious to the ramifications of a parent's unemployment. The biggest mistake a parent can make in communicating with the child is to project their own emotional concerns -- low self-esteem, anger, anxiety -- on to the child, who may not have any of these reactions.

"Children are like ‘emotional sponges' and will absorb the parent's emotional preoccupations. My advice to parents is to keep your own emotional concerns to yourself, and do the best you can to see if the child has any of their own concerns. If they have any reaction, it would most likely be anxiety, in which case the parent needs to do the best they can in reassuring the child that they will be re-employed soon," Dr. Wetzler said.

About the Supporting Health Marriage Program

Supporting Healthy Marriage is an innovative program offered to couples interested in strengthening their marriages. The purpose of the program, administered by University Behavioral Associates, the behavioral health practice at Montefiore, is to build a solid foundation for marriage and family through communication, managing stress, conflict resolution and other skills for coping with the everyday worries that can create pressure in a marriage. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. To learn more, call (718) 401-5050.

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