Human Collateral: How to Keep Unemployment from Sinking Your Marriage

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The downfall of a relationship? It's either sex or money, they say. And in rocky financial times, money and employment challenges have proven to be the downfall of many a romance.

Divorce rates during the past recession fell slightly - mimicking trends during the Great Depression. Experts attribute this to the fact that a) divorce is cost-prohibitive during down times, and b) tough economies bring people closer to their loved ones and core values. But there's little doubt that a lack of funds hurts matters at home.

Utah State University family studies professor Jeffrey Dew recently reported that couples who disagree over finances at least once a week are more than 30 percent more likely to divorce than couples who disagree about the matter a few times per month, and that couples who had no assets were 70 percent more likely to divorce than couples with $10,000 in assets.

The bottom line: a lack of dough is tough on relationships.

New Roles, New Stress

"Couples take out their anger at the situation on each other - especially when one person has lost their identity related to their job," says Susan Fletcher, a Dallas-area therapist and author of Working in the Smart Zone. "The big picture is that job loss can be the best thing that happens to a family in terms of emotional connection - or it can be the tipping point."

For Allen (not his real name), losing his job as a sales manager for a large equipment financing company, and a subsequent foray into a struggling start-up, resulted in separating from his wife of 10 years and moving out of the Charlotte-area home they shared with their two grade-school aged kids.

While his spouse continued to work in her field - also equipment financing - they suffered a tumultuous lifestyle change, changes to their roles at home, and a breakdown in their relationship when their combined annual income plummeted from $230,000 several years ago to $45,000 in 2009.

The kids were taken out of their after-school programs in an effort to save money, but that meant that all four family members were home all afternoon - Allen's wife working out of a home office, and Allen dedicated to his new company. Suddenly, there were new pressures to re-evaluate parental roles: She expected him to engage with the kids since her work made money and his didn't, while he argued that his time was an investment in future payoffs. Meanwhile, his self-esteem began to suffer after months of little success, and her work suffered from distractions.

"The lower income both created new problems and exacerbated old ones," says Allen, 38. "As the economy tanked, it created more pressure and stress to make the numbers. When the kids came home after school I wasn't always accessible to keep them quiet. Then her work started to suffer, and a one-income family can't afford to have that income suffer."

He adds: "My confidence is shaken, and it really started take a toll on me, and I became depressed and I wasn't as fun to be around. I didn't want to go on a family vacation because I wasn't paying for it."

Making the Challenges Worse

Luke (also not is his name) and his wife of seven years separated after he lost his job in November 2008. His unemployment resulted not only in a dire financial situation for the couple, who've been together for 17 years, but forced the wife to stay put in an abusive work situation and shoulder the financial burden of their New York area house.

"The rug was completely pulled out from under her," says Luke, 36, who was working as a risk manager for an asset management firm. The situation accentuated existing relationship struggles, in which Luke's wife withdrew from him during difficulties, and he turned to friends for support, he says.

"None of these issues were particularly new - they were just highlighted with an explanation point and bolded by the new stress in our lives," says Luke. He's since relocated to Virginia to live with his parents. The couple remains married so he can benefit from her employer's health insurance. "Problems are easy to cover up when you have money," he observes.

While Luke wonders about the variables that lead up to his impending divorce - had he found a job sooner, or perhaps been more aggressive about working through issues with his wife - Allen is certain his relationship will resume once his business grows legs.

"I'm still confident we'll get our marriage back together, but it is 100 percent contingent on getting my business off the ground," he says. "My pride has been shaken, but I can't fathom not finding a solution to this problem."

Survival Checklist

Therapist Susan Fletcher offers these tips for couples surviving unemployment:

- Avoid trying to soften the situation for the unemployed partner. You might be tempted to offer, "It's Okay! The kids will love you no matter what! We'll be fine!" Instead, keep it real and say, "I know this is a really scary time and you feel like you let your family down. But we have an opportunity evaluate our goals and finances so that when you do get a job we'll have better spending habits."

"There is a lot of value in letting someone work things out themselves," Fletcher says.

- All parties are allowed to be depressed and mourn the lost job - for a time. Then it's important to stay busy with a job search, networking and getting out of the house for career-related activities.

- Keep expectations reasonable. Just because one spouse is unemployed doesn't mean they are up for a total role reversal. "If the husband has never cooked dinner before, it isn't reasonable to expect him to start doing it every night," Fletcher says. Instead, suggest he take on the task one or two nights per week.

- Talk about the situation as temporary. Discuss ways to manage the house, kids and finances in the short-term and until the laid-off partner finds work.

- Keep in mind that the situation is challenging - maybe even worse - for the working spouse. This person now faces the pressure to carry the family financially, provide emotional support to the unemployed person, as well as navigate new roles around the house. "Sometimes the unemployed person gets lots of support, while the situation is worse for the person with the job," Fletcher says.

Emma Johnson is a New York based journalist who writes about money, business and finance for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Forbes, MSN Money and others. Reach her at emma@emma-johnson.net.

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