How to Support a Partner Who's Just Been Laid Off

By Carolyn E. and Clyde C. Lowstuter

"Honey, I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I'd love to meet you for lunch today, if you can make it. The bad news is that I don't have to go back to the office again... ever. I was just fired."

It's now been many years since I first heard these devastating words, but it still seems like yesterday. I couldn't believe my husband had been terminated -- after all he'd done for the organization. Our family had sacrificed tremendously to give Clyde the space to perform up to his boss's expectations (in other words, like a total workaholic!). We'd even relocated when I was eight months' pregnant, leaving behind close friends and family. Many times, I'd wished we were closer than 10 hours away to share all the newness surrounding the birth of our first son. Still, I'd graciously accepted the move, knowing that it'd be a great career opportunity for Clyde. Now, as the tears welled up, I felt desperately betrayed and remarkably angry. No courses I'd taken, no experiences I'd had prepared me for the profound sense of loss I felt.

What exactly had transpired at the office? I wanted to hear every maddening detail so I could understand how this disaster could've happened. Shell-shocked, my husband couldn't bear to discuss it, except to comment that in those last days, "My boss was such a jerk." His silence made it even harder for me to respond to insensitive remarks "friends" would make, such as, "He must've done something really wrong, because that company just doesn't fire people without cause."

Not surprisingly, we found it more comfortable to "retreat" than to face others, yet I resented the lack of social contact. Although the country was in a recession and we'd heard about other friends and relatives in similar situations, I felt very much alone.

Nevertheless, I tried to be optimistic and encouraging. Some of my natural Pollyanna personality came through, whether I really felt it or not. Meanwhile, Clyde clearly felt betrayed, used and discarded. He couldn't get focused, and seemed to be in the "ozone" many days. He talked about a hard-charging job campaign, yet I saw him wandering aimlessly around the home with our son, Nathan, or fishing or puttering on house projects. I felt like a nag, constantly on his case. I wanted to keep my faith in him and support him unconditionally, but I knew we had a long, rough road ahead. I began to doubt his talent, energy and organizational skills.

Had he deserved what he got? Could he be successful again? I pondered these questions silently, afraid of the answers I might receive if I spoke them aloud.

Nonetheless, I knew in my heart that Clyde was a talented, decent man who'd find another -- better -- job. I reached out to my loving husband, who'd suffered a greater loss than I had. As we began to put the pieces of our lives back together again, we discovered some friends in our small, northern Wisconsin community who acknowledged the event and supported us, making us feel great.

Thankfully, that difficult time is now behind us. However, some of our hard-earned insights may help you -- and your relationship -- survive the stresses of unemployment. Spouses occupy a unique place in their partner's job searches. If your mate is unemployed, you won't be making networking calls or going on interviews, but you're directly involved nonetheless. This article has been written for you, but we encourage you to share it with your spouse and discuss it candidly and supportively.


Fair-Weather Friends?

If you're very lucky, most of your friends and business acquaintances will be supportive. However, it's common to experience some distancing of your relationships. Some friends may not acknowledge that you got "zapped," while others may make you feel completely shunned.

This can be upsetting, but realize that people generally don't know how to handle grief or trauma well. When a significant loss (e.g., of a marriage, a loved one or a job) occurs to them or someone else, people typically feel awkward and self-conscious. In fact, friends, neighbors, relatives and business acquaintances who seem to be ignoring your plight are probably just trying to keep your mind off the subject.

You and your spouse need support and encouraging conversation right now. So instead of writing off old buddies and assuming that your friendships weren't as close as you'd thought, try calling them and making the following "face saving" statement:

"As you may or may not know, my husband's employer recently reorganized, and a number of positions were eliminated. Unfortunately, he was affected. He might've been able to stay on in a lesser capacity, but decided not to put his career on hold for several years. So, he's looking for a challenging opportunity with the company's full knowledge and support. I just wanted you to know that.

"While he's disappointed that his job at ABC Inc. is over, he's also looking forward to what the future holds. I hope we can count on your support. Thanks. Would it be all right to call you sometime in the future and keep you posted?"

Saying this should break the ice and alleviate the unnecessary burden of guilt or anger you and your friend might be feeling toward each other.

In the Passenger's Seat

When one part of your life seems to be in disarray, other parts tend to become strained as well. For example, when work is going great for your spouse, your personal life may seem to be richer and fuller. But if your partner hasn't had full endorsement from his boss, hasn't been working to his potential or has noticed co-workers avoiding him for some time, his personal life has probably taken a beating, too. Your spouse may wish to "clean up" some of the resulting relationship damage. But if his feelings of self-worth and professional competency have eroded too much, you may need to get the process started.

While you might not feel that you were (or are) the primary author of any upset with your spouse, you must be committed to resolving it. You're the one who owns the upset and you need to objectively consider yourself as the source of the upset and its solution (being confident and empowered). Then you can effectively take action.

Of course, feeling in control probably won't come naturally. As your partner looks for a new position, you may feel like you're in a car that's a little too close to the vehicle in front of it. There you are, sitting in the passenger seat trying to brake with the sun visor and steer with the rear-view mirror. At least your spouse -- the driver -- can diffuse his emotions by working diligently on his job search.

One spouse likened the feeling to being in the back of a long bus that's driving through a dark tunnel:

"Not only was I in the dark, but I couldn't even see where we were headed. I had no concept of where we were at any point in time. It was a very scary, fearful and disorienting time for me."

In fact, spouses often experience stronger emotions than candidates do. (If you have kids, think of how quickly you get emotionally "hooked" when your child is unfairly picked on or taken advantage of at play or school.) Partners generally experience deeper sadness, greater bitterness, more blame, more intense vindictiveness and more obvious relief regarding job-search events.

However, you and your spouse may find yourselves withholding many emotions and thoughts so as to appear strong and not disturb each other. Granted, some feelings are best left unsaid, but most should be shared. Don't withdraw from the person whose support you need most

One wife was so upset when her husband lost his job, she refused to speak to him for two weeks because every time she did, she either yelled at him or cried. She was terrified about the family's finances and their children's college fund being in jeopardy. Conversely, the husband worried that sharing his deepest concerns would set his wife off. However, she'd already experienced the blackest of emotions and thoughts already, and his silence only reinforced her greatest fears. Happily, once the couple was able to vent, laugh and cry a bit, neither of them had to "hide out" anymore and much of the fear went away. After this emotional breakthrough, the husband's campaign accelerated substantially and he won a fine opportunity in his preferred industry.

Do's and Don'ts

To keep your relationship -- and your mate's job search -- strong, heed the following advice:

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Expect the unexpected and don't read too much into emotions. They happen for a number of reasons.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Recognize that your emotional reactions may be quite different from or similar to your spouse's.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Accept each other's behavior as valid considering the circumstances, and don't call your partner's feelings "wrong" just because they seem uncomfortable or inappropriate to you.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Communicate your own fears or concerns, but balance them with your assurance that things will be OK.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Commit to your mate to do the best you can to support him in his search efforts.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Express appreciation for the support your partner has given you, acknowledging that it may've been rough for both of you.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Help your spouse assume complete responsibility for his career and life. Don't blame others for your situation. When either of you chooses to act like a "victim," consciously re-enter a powerful state in which you both feel confident and in control. It may be uncomfortable, but you must confront each other whenever you resort to blaming others.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Ask to be involved with your spouse's job-hunting efforts and demonstrate that you're confident he'll succeed.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>If finances are tight and you're not working, consider getting a job if your family circumstances permit it.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>With dual-career couples, there are the additional challenges of making career decisions that are compatible with your spouse or partner's career. This may be especially difficult in decisions of relocation. You'll need to have multiple conversations to sort through what you gain and lose in each scenario.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>You don't know where, how or when the right job will appear, so it's best to keep your options open. Even if you have a terrific job and are both committed to remaining exactly where you are, allowing your partner to interview for out-of-town jobs helps strengthen his interviewing skills and opportunities. And who knows? For the world's best opportunity, you might decide to relocate.

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Help your partner develop his or her resume and to create a job-search plan. You will add a needed perspective that others (including himself or herself) will not have.

Finally, love and accept him for who he is (not who you might like him to be) and enthusiastically reinforce his positive actions while forgiving the dysfunctional behavior that drives you crazy. Keep your options open, love and support each other, and never give up. Best of luck!

Email your comments to cjeditor@dowjones.com .

Article from CareerJournal.com Today – August 2006

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