Unemployment is stressful for a family, and for a marriage. When a spouse is unemployed, conflict and resentment can easily find its way into even the strongest marriage. What happens when both spouses are unemployed? Liz Alterman tells the story of the impact of unemployment on her marriage.
I’ll probably never be able to explain why, when the phone rang in my otherwise-quiet suburban kitchen on a crisp November day in 2013, I experienced a sickening sense of unease. And yet, there it was, along with its accomplices: the galloping heart rate, sleeves of goosebumps, and instant Velcro tongue.
Working from home as a writer who frequently focuses on food and restaurants, I tell time in relation to meals. It was after breakfast but before lunch when I heard the seemingly-innocuous electronic bleating that signaled my life was about to change. My husband’s cell phone number flickered in the caller ID window.
“Why isn’t he calling from his desk?” I wondered casually before issuing my standard, “Hey, what’s up?”
“Hey!” he said, winded yet keyed up like a post-race marathon runner. “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news.”
When someone tells you this, typically both pieces of news are pretty lousy. What they should say is: “I’ve got some awful news and some mildly terrible news.” Or they could just come out with it and spare you the suspense.
“I’ve. Been. Laid. Off.”
My husband’s words spooled out long and slow and I felt them spread over me hot and itchy like a sudden allergic rash. “Are you there?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m here,” I managed, my tongue lazy and slow to form this simple sentence.
“Listen. Everything is going to be fine,” he assured me. “They’ve given me a generous severance package and we’ll have health care coverage for the next year.”
Ah, the good news: health care coverage. I pictured our three children — all boys, ages 11, 8, and 6 at the time— always one monkey bar or trampoline accident away from a dreaded trip to the ER. I cringed as if I could hear their small bones snapping in advance.
“Where are you?” I asked, picturing him standing on the corner of 59th and Lexington holding a cardboard box that contained the contents of his career, a silver-framed photo of our boys in their most recent Halloween costumes poking up from the corner.
“Penn Station,” he said, his voice evening out and taking on a decidedly upbeat tone that immediately plunged me into despair. “I’m going to grab some pizza and I’ll be on the next train.”
Irrationally, my first thought was: “Now is not the time to splurge on overpriced slices of Sicilian. You’re unemployed!”
He hadn’t been happy at his job in a long time and lay-offs had become as insidious as the corporate jargon with which those proverbial pink slips were delivered. Still, we hadn’t seen this coming. Nor did I expect him to appear as elated as a frat boy en route to spring break when I picked him up from the train station an hour later.
In the days that followed, he was euphoric. A bear sprung from a trap, delighted by his newfound freedom. I was panicked. A deer during hunting season.
My own job as the editor of a local news website had been dangling over a precipice for months. I’d watched as talented colleagues were picked off sometimes en masse and, on other occasions, in tiny clusters akin to a reality show-style culling.
Six weeks after my husband was let go, I, too, lost my job via an impersonal group conference call in which all those who dialed in were dismissed.
Struggling to absorb the shock, my husband and I stared at each other in disbelief.
How did we end up here?
The old “I married you for better or worse but not for lunch!” had come decades early for us. I wanted to believe that if we’d been younger, we’d have rented out our home, traveled the world, and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. I pictured us sampling Saganaki in Santorini, Flamenco dancing in Barcelona, dozing under the stars, aglow with the lack of responsibility.
But, in reality, we had children, a mortgage, and our next career moves to consider. We couldn’t afford the luxury of a respite from real life.
So, rather than falling deeper in love gazing into each other’s eyes as we cruised the Greek Isles, we started sleeping back to back, staring at opposing walls, a squall of terrible “what if”s swirling between us. And so we began the slow, awkward dance of reinventing ourselves in our mid-40s.
Unlike the ease we experienced when selecting a sofa or agreeing on an appetizer, we were of two very different mindsets when it came to job hunting. I believed it was a numbers game and applied to every possible opening.
My husband, on the other hand, needed to be coaxed into even reading a position’s requirements before ultimately deciding it wasn’t a “good fit.” His severance package lulled him into a false sense of security. I feared we were destined for the same fate as professional athletes and lottery winners who squander their windfalls only to look back in horror at their carelessness.
Neither of us was accustomed to the “new” job market where applications requested that you include your personal theme song along with your resume. We weren’t prepared to “wow” anyone in 140 characters or less merely to score a phone interview.
I was willing to play along to avoid packing up and moving the five of us into my parents’ home where we’d be forced to cram inside my childhood bedroom, a sad, impromptu slumber party. But my husband, with almost two decades of impressive experience at a major financial news organization, was not as game. And that was when our previously amicable relationship began to grow tense and surface-y.
Our mutual unemployment — and the way we intended to address it — created a constant unspoken divide, one that grew wider by the day.
We grieved our losses in different ways. I accepted every freelance gig that came my way, writing like a poor man’s Jack Kerouac on a Benzedrine binge, while my husband folded laundry and told me he’d think about looking for a job “later.” His heavy sighing became the unpleasant soundtrack to my days, as jarring and irritating as microphone feedback.
I’d heard people say that the secret to not getting divorced is never falling out of love simultaneously. But here’s a loophole: It’s actually OK to fall out of love at the same time as long as neither of you has any other prospects and nowhere else to go.
As weeks slipped into months, I grew certain there were times when we despised each other as our situation brought to the surface all the things we secretly hated about each other and ourselves.
I was impatient; he was apathetic.
I needed to talk things through; he chose to brood in sullen silence. I was frugal; he was a spendthrift. Previously, no matter what came our way in 13 years of marriage — sewage pipes backing up into our basement, eccentric aging parents, middle of the night trips to the ER when the kids awoke with croup that couldn’t be helped by that old steam shower trick — we’d always been a team. This was breaking us. Yet, we felt tremendously unlovable, so it seemed imperative that we find our way back to each other. We were all we had.
On good days, we consoled one another as our phones pinged, indicating more rejection emails. On bad ones, we had terse disagreements while the kids were at school in which I nagged him to complete more applications while he barked back that he was “networking,” a euphemism for falling down Facebook’s rabbit hole.
Six months into my search, I found a job. It seemed like a great opportunity and my husband was thrilled for me. When it turned out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch situation — but one that I was stuck in until something better came along — he comforted me and corralled the kids, my very own cheerleading squad, as I wept fountains of hopelessness in my laptop at our dining room table.
It took eight additional months before he landed in a new position. Things felt hopeful for the first time in 16 months. It seemed somehow our sinking ship had righted itself and corrected course. Yet we were still tentative around each other, weathered from the storm.
As we found our way back to each other, we learned that love and romance have nothing to do with a fresh bouquet of tulips “just because” or a bottle of wine shared over a pricey meal. It is found in showing up during the rough patches that gut you and make you ugly and mean. It is rooted in not walking away when, in fact, you feel like running. It is hidden in swallowing the snarky comment or expletive on the tip of your tongue, knowing it can’t be unspoken. It lies in small gestures on bad days, a cup of coffee and a kind word on a difficult afternoon.
Almost a year to the day after he started his new job, my husband was let go in yet another reorganization. We have been thrown back into the sea of uncertainty and forced to wade through it again. “This is the new economy,” we are told. Restructuring is the new armband tattoo.
But we have been here before and we will survive it once more, hopefully, stronger for the experience.
Liz Alterman has been writing in print and online for 20 years, covering an array of topics from real estate and the royal family to personal finance and parenting for outlets such as CNBC.com and The New York Times. She recently completed a memoir chronicling her adventures in unemployment. She maintains a blog, On the Balls of Our A$$ets, where you can follow her forays in underachieving.