Three women speak candidly about how they survived their husband’s job loss and kept their marriage strong
After years of struggling with parnassah, Pessie’s husband, Shmuel, finally landed a cushy job. “The timing was incredible because we were about to have our fourth child and I quit my job to stay at home with the kids,” says Pessie.
The couple’s joy was short-lived: A few months after Pessie gave birth, her husband was fired. “There was incredible financial pressure,” Pessie remembers. But even more palpable was the emotional strain.
“Shmuel was irritated, depressed, and reeling from the blow,” says Pessie. He spent hours every day at the dining room table searching online for jobs, and was getting wearier and more frustrated by the day.
“I felt bad for Shmuel, but I also felt bad for myself,” Pessie admits. “He saw how much I was struggling with a newborn and three little boys running around our tiny apartment, but whenever I asked for help, he’d get irritated.
“I was super-sensitive because I was postpartum and adjusting to being a stay-at-home mother, and he was vulnerable because of the job loss. You can imagine the kind of tension there was in our home.”
Because the nisayon of unemployment affects each spouse on so many levels, it often brings out issues in the relationship that might have otherwise laid dormant.
Michal, whose husband was laid off a number of times, recalls begging her kids’ principal to let her children come to class even though she hadn’t paid tuition. She had to explain to her kids why the school didn’t give out their report cards at the end of the year (no tuition, no report cards).
“Inside, I blamed my husband for not being able to hold down a job,” says Michal. “At the same time, I thought he was angry at me all the time, and I couldn’t understand why.”
“Unemployment is never easy on a marriage,” says Tamar, whose husband lost his job after their first child was born. Money was so tight that Tamar couldn’t quit her part-time job, even though she was struggling with postpartum depression and dealing with a colicky baby who didn’t sleep for more than half an hour at a time. “I desperately needed extra cleaning help and babysitting, but there was no way we could afford it,” says Tamar, who didn’t even have the luxury of buying fruit unless they were on sale.
For Tamar, being financially strapped brought up feelings of confinement and helplessness — and anger toward her husband. “I was mad at him for not helping more in the house to make up for the lack of household help, especially because he was more available,” says Tamar.
The financial pressure that unemployment puts on a marriage is usually just the first domino to fall, setting off a string of other dominoes — depression, despair, anger, resentment — that can threaten to capsize an otherwise healthy relationship.
It takes patience and skill for couples to walk the tightrope of unemployment together and make it to the other side, their marriage unscathed.
“I remember when my husband dropped the bomb that he’d been let go,” Pessie says. “My father was visiting at the time, so Shmuel discreetly pulled me aside to tell me the news. I was in such shock that I couldn’t even offer him any sincere support. I confess I felt this wave of embarrassment — I was afraid my father might think less of my husband for not being able to hold down a job and support his family.”
For the first few months of her husband’s unemployment, Pessie was so consumed by her own feelings that she wasn’t emotionally available to help Shmuel work through his. This is a common scenario, says dating and relationship coach Sheila Segal. Unemployment can unleash strong, intense emotions in each spouse, making it difficult for them to support each other.
Men typically respond to unemployment by becoming short-tempered, impatient, and irritable. A husband might also retreat into himself, effectively distancing himself from his wife, or become inactive and irresponsible. Sheila adds that a man can experience a tremendous sense of loss when he loses his primary role as breadwinner of the family. If he strongly identified with his career, he can lose his sense of identity, and even become depressed.
Michal’s husband, Yakov, echoes this idea: “A man’s identity is attached to his role as supporter of the family and his particular job. If he loses his income, he feels like a failure.” Yakov still blames himself for his job loss, and says that his feelings of guilt and self-directed anger were somewhat justified.
“I admit I’m not perfect and that I projected those feelings of guilt and anger onto my wife and children,” says Yakov. “Every time my wife expressed disappointment or irritation, she reminded me that I was the source of her pain. That only compounded my feelings of anger and guilt.”
Michal only saw Yakov’s anger and irritability. She didn’t know it was masking feelings of self-doubt and low self-worth. “When I reached out to our family rav to discuss my husband’s behavior, the rav explained that I shouldn’t take it personally,” Michal remembers. “My husband’s anger was really self-directed; being laid off was a huge blow to his self-esteem.”
Looking back, Pessie wishes she would have been more sympathetic to her husband’s struggles. “He was so frustrated by his situation,” says Pessie. “Here he was stuck at home accruing debt when all he wanted was to succeed in the role of providing for his family.”
For women, a typical emotional response to unemployment (especially if her husband is the main breadwinner) is anxiety and worry. “The woman of the house loses her sense of security,” explains Sheila. She suddenly has no idea what her future will bring, how she’ll pay the bills, or whether she’ll be able to marry off her daughter who’s in shidduchim. “The situation can also easily cause her to lose her respect for her husband,” adds Sheila.
Wives often find themselves performing the delicate balancing act of coping with the stress of unemployment and valiantly trying to preserve the relationship. Tamar admits she vacillated from feeling compassion for her husband to feeling resentment toward him.
Still, Tamar concedes, “as much as unemployment is difficult for the wife, it’s equally or even more challenging for the husband.”
Michal agrees: “A man is also concerned about his family’s needs and how he’ll pay the bills. He has that added sense of responsibility on his shoulders.”
The lens with which we view a situation can dramatically change our reaction to it. That’s why it’s so critical to develop a healthy headspace and avoid negative emotional sinkholes, like dwelling on what other people will think about our husband getting fired.
Instead, it helps to expand our lens and look at the situation from a big-picture perspective: Unemployment is a temporary stage — it will end. Just as important is to internalize that this difficult situation does not define us, our husband, or our marriage.
Because people naturally view others in the context of the moment, it’s important to remember that unemployment shouldn’t dictate the level of respect for our spouse. “A man’s primary emotional need is respect, and sensing that he lost your respect is extremely damaging,” says Sheila. “The best thing you can do for your husband is to maintain your respect for him. Give him the message that he’s still competent, and that it’ll be okay.”
Instead of focusing on the fact that our husband is unemployed, Sheila suggests we actively focus on the whole picture of who he is as a person — he might be a great father or have other positive qualities. She suggests writing a list of your spouse’s good qualities or keeping a gratitude list, and then reading it when you need a positivity boost.
A similar strategy worked for Tamar: “Whenever I was feeling negative about my husband, I stopped to meditate and focus on every one of his positive qualities.”
Along with shifting our mindset, we have to shift expectations of our spouse. Even if one’s husband is generally proactive and responsible, he may not immediately grab the reins after the trauma of job loss. “Everyone has a different disposition, and not everyone will react the same way to unemployment,” says Sheila. “Some men will bounce back and start job hunting immediately, but not everyone has the same resiliency.”
If a spouse has a more sensitive nature, or suffered a trauma or identity loss, he may not immediately be able to pull himself back together — and we may have to contend with a husband who’s just sitting around for the time being.
“Some men need the time and space to grieve,” says Sheila. (While there’s no set deadline given for the grieving stage — and almost everyone does make a comeback — Sheila notes that if you’re concerned, you can always turn to a rav or mentor for help.)
It’s also helpful to adjust our expectations of our husband’s emotional availability. “During harder times, your husband will likely need more energy to focus on himself and have less energy for others,” says Sheila.
This was perhaps the hardest part of unemployment for Pessie: “I so wanted to share my feelings with Shmuel — about the job loss or about the stress of finances and the memories it triggered from my childhood — but he didn’t have the energy or space to hear it. That created a huge emotional chasm between us.”
So what is the wife’s role in this type of situation? Should we play the role of the stereotypical superwoman, silently shouldering the family’s troubles, while negating our own very real needs?
No one is suggesting that we should ignore our feelings; that will usually only backfire. The key to being a compassionate spouse without losing self-compassion often lies in teamwork and healthy communication.
When each partner sees himself alone in the struggle of unemployment, then resentment, misunderstandings, and conflict naturally follow.
“Adopt the mindset that you’re both in this together,” says Sheila. “Sit down and map out how you’ll get through this.” You may want to discuss how you’ll manage on your current income level. Will you have to make lifestyle changes? How will you budget? Will you start going to work, take on a second job, or cut down on certain expenses? Will you need to draw money from your savings? What will your spouse do in the meantime until he’s back on his feet? What will your new schedule look like?
“A team has shared knowledge, a shared vision, and a shared plan of action,” emphasizes Moishe Kohn, a coach trainer and supervisor for Mesila, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting financial stability in frum communities around the world. He encourages couples to lay out the cards on the table, so they’re both aware of where they stand financially and how they envision their futures. “It’s important that one spouse doesn’t hide knowledge of finances from the other.”
Let’s refer back to Tamar’s situation, where she had become the sole supporter of the family while simultaneously struggling to meet the household needs. Instead of seething inside, Tamar may have been able to tactfully communicate those needs. She might have respectfully said to her husband, “Since we can’t afford a cleaning lady, and I’m at work during the day, I can use an extra hand around the house. Is there anything you think you can do?” Sheila cautions not to come across as blaming, complaining, or giving orders, and only to ask for help if you feel he’ll be open to it. “The decision to pitch in should ultimately come from him.”
What if we feel that our husband should take the opportunity to learn a new skill, network for job opportunities, or talk to a friend or therapist? How should we tactfully communicate our opinion without overstepping delicate boundaries? Sheila suggests that if our spouse is open to brainstorming, we can position our opinions as an open-ended suggestion within the context of a healthy discussion so our husband is given the space to make his own decision.
For example, if you think your spouse could be taking advantage of his natural knack for computers to learn a skill and break into a new field, you might say, “Remember how you always loved dabbling in software? I wonder if you might be interested in learning more about it, now that you have the chance?”
If you think he could gain from a networking event, you could tell him, “You know, I heard there’s a big LinkedIn event next week. Do you think you might find new opportunities over there?”
While some men might be open to their wife’s input, not every husband will be. “When that’s the case, advises Sheila, “a wife may want to instead relay her suggestion to her husband’s rav or mentor —someone he’s seeking to hear from, so that it won’t come directly from her.”
Reflecting back, Tamar wishes she would have shared her feelings of frustration with her husband instead of bottling them inside. “We’re so prone to assuming our spouse understands what’s going on inside our heads,” says Tamar. Sharing your feelings for the sake of sharing — not necessarily to garner sympathy or support — both communicates that you’re in this together and opens the door to mutual understanding. That said, the level of comfortable communication you’ll experience often depends on the strength of your marriage and your spouse’s readiness to hear or share feelings.
Pessie says that communicating with her spouse on a deeper level proved to be the breakthrough they needed. “When my husband opened up about his insecurities and self-doubt, my anger and frustration was replaced by compassion and empathy. And from that vulnerable, open place, we were able to find solutions that were good for both of us,” says Pessie.
Shmuel recognized the need to map out a consistent schedule where he would learn and search for work out of the house to provide Pessie with the emotional comfort that comes along with structure. “I learned that Shmuel needed me to respect his space and give him private time to process his pain,” says Pessie. “I learned to bite my tongue until he approached me on his own to ask for my input.”
To get through any nisayon, you need outside support. This is especially the case when your spouse is emotionally unavailable. “Reach out to your support network,” advises Sheila. That might be a rav, a family member, or a close friend who’s willing to offer a healthy dose of empathy and practical advice.
Michal needed more than just emotional support from her network of friends, especially when she realized that her full-time job wasn’t enough to provide the family with basic necessities. She got help from local tzedakah funds that provided vouchers for food and clothing.
It’s never comfortable to be a recipient of tzedakah, but as Michal stresses, “lacking basic necessities for the family can wreak havoc on your marriage; do what’s in your power to help.” If you want to avoid the discomfort of directly approaching an organization, Michal suggests informing a rav or close friend that you need assistance, and let them to do the soliciting for you.
When unemployment or finances become a source of conflict for a couple, Moishe encourages them to reach out to a therapist or financial coach. “A third party can see things from an unbiased, nonjudgmental perspective,” says Moishe.
Beyond reaching out, Michal also reached up. “I know it sounds cliché, but davening and reading seforim on emunah were one of my most important coping tools,” says Michal. “When I realized that I was blaming my husband for our situation, I davened and asked Hashem to give me the right perspective and to help me understand that the nisayon is really coming from Him.” Michal found that she was able to see the difficulty as a G-d-given challenge after she davened for the right mindset.
Sheila adds that working through rough patches together can teach you a lot about your relationship. “Being there for each other through difficult times can strengthen the marriage,” says Sheila.
This proved true for Pessie and Shmuel. “When Shmuel finally landed a new job after more than six months of unemployment, we were elated,” says Pessie. “But it wasn’t just because we had financial stability again. There was this deep satisfaction in knowing we had gotten through it together. Our relationship was that much deeper and richer.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 675)