Making It Work // Surviving a Spouse’s Unemployment

By Leah Reichberg

While the designation “unemployed” is typically defined in financial terms, its ramifications are far more wide-ranging. Financial concerns are undeniably one significant impact, but the emotional toll can be even more challenging.
Four women share their experiences of spousal unemployment with Ami. How do Ithey survive­—and perhaps even thrive—during this trying situation?

Age: 27
Location: Antwerp, Belgium
Length of spouse’s unemployment: Two years,
still unemployed

Perfect childhood, straightforward marriage, three lovely children, nice apartment, satisfying job. All the boxes were neatly checked, and I felt I had it all.
Then my husband left his first job after just eight months. It was a dead-end position with long hours, and he’d hated every minute of it. I supported his decision as I saw how irritable, stressed and unhappy it was making him. I was also confident that with his capability and personable nature, he’d soon find the right job. As the weeks wore on, though, it dawned on me that the situation could no longer be considered temporary, but I didn’t realize back then what lay ahead. I was in for a rough ride.
I held down two part-time jobs, but our finances were stretched thin. We had practically no savings as we’d unwisely invested it all in a small venture just before my husband left his job. Then we had to travel abroad, and the considerable airfare expense really drained us.

I undertook a third job, then freelanced at a fourth. I was now working all day, all evening, and too big a chunk of the night as well.

At the same time, my husband was increasingly miserable. He was unfulfilled and felt inferior. The job search was demeaning, repetitive and fruitless. He took shelter under his covers, escaping from his reality. I was left to juggle it all. Our relationship suffered immensely. He felt like a failure. He felt incapable, unproductive and discouraged, and I was bitter and frustrated.

He didn’t even step up to help more around the house and with the children. He would lie in his bed, staring at the ceiling or obstinately facing the wall, while the kids fought and my phone beeped constantly with work-related reminders and deadlines. Sometimes I gritted my teeth and forced myself not to say anything; all too often it spilled out in angry tirades.

“If you’re not working, do something else with your day—learn, do some chesed, go to the gym. Just get up!” His silence enraged me. I felt ignored and mistreated. He wasn’t being proactive enough in his job search. It was irritating to have to remind him constantly to follow up on leads, and I was angry at him for prolonging our situation.
He had very specific criteria for his next job. It could not be a dead-end position. He wanted to learn a skill, gain transferable experience, or make valuable contacts, and he wanted a decent wage, flexibility, and limited hours. I believed his expectations were unrealistic and that it had come to a point where he just had to take the best job available. He countered that taking something temporary only to fill the gap would earn him a reputation as a job-hopper.

Our endless disagreements wore our emotional resilience dangerously thin. I was battling an endless to-do list, indescribable exhaustion, and an emotional overload. I was resentful about working almost around the clock and still not being able to afford any extras. I was angry that the pleasure of occasionally treating myself to something small quickly sucked me into a vortex of guilt, self-doubt and anxiety. I was hugely disappointed to realize how important material items were to me, and how deprived I felt now that I was unable to buy new things.

Despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep restfully. I lost my appetite for healthy food and turned to alarming quantities of junk food instead. My weight fluctuated, my skin rebelled, I felt sluggish, and I hated myself for being unable to control my self-destructive behaviors.

I was hurtling at full speed on a path toward collapse. Things simply could not go on like this. I narrowed down my work life to two jobs out of four, despite my concern about the loss of income. I was living to work instead of working to live, and there was no physical or emotional energy left for my family and my well-being. My helpless children absolutely did not deserve the poor mothering I was giving them.

I started seeing a mentor and found I could vent freely without worrying about being judged or fearing the information would be repeated to others. I’d always kept up the appearance of being a superwoman. It was a blow to my pride to seek a mentor’s help, but a relief to have a designated time every week to talk, to cry. My concern for our children’s privacy was the biggest impetus, but we all ended up benefiting greatly from the mentor.

At the same time, my husband also started seeing a therapist, and it helped him immensely. His therapist’s conversations with me helped me understand the magnitude of his pain, which was worsened by our crumbling relationship. The therapist coaxed me to see beyond my own needs, and coached us both to better understand and support each other.

I remember my husband asking me if I’d respect him more if he was earning a generous wage. The question was a painful slap in the face at the time, but today I am grateful that he asked it. I spent a long time dissecting the implications of his question. With help from my mentor and my husband’s therapist, I came to realize that his unemployment was not self-inflicted and that he was not to blame for the situation.

To read more, subscribe to Ami