Crucial Skills®

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Working with an Unemployed Spouse

Dear Crucial Skills,

My husband has been out of work for nearly fourteen months, and in that time has only filled out one employment application. He has made no effort to create a resume, and seems okay with me being the breadwinner—I work full-time as a RN—while he sits at home on the couch or on his computer.

Whenever I broach the subject, he gets defensive, even angry, and accuses me of nagging him. I’m very anxious and apprehensive to talk to him because we always end up arguing, and I’m ready to seek legal counsel. How do I motivate him to act rather than react?

Ready to Talk

Dear Ready,

Your pain and your frustration are palpable. As I read your question, I felt empathy for your situation. I also thought of a number of situations that are parallel to yours in many ways. They involve different genders and roles, but the underlying causes seem similar. While I greatly desire to help you and your husband, I’m not sure I can really do anything to improve your situation—that will be up to you and him. However, I would like to share some of my thoughts and some of the principles and skills that will help you begin addressing this issue.

The first common mistake you made is that you and your husband did not discuss what would come next after a major change occurred. Let me start with a parallel situation. A few years ago, a young friend who had been married for two years faced a change in his life. Previously, after he and his wife got married, they both worked and therefore agreed they would share the domestic chores such as laundry, dishes, and cooking. Then his wife became pregnant and quit work several months before the baby was due. From the husband’s perspective, the division of responsibilities became unequal and unfair. He worked all day—sometimes long hours—and came home to do his share of the chores. Even with the change in her schedule, the husband said his wife continued to do only her share of the chores but spent her extra hours “visiting with her buddies, lounging around, shopping, and eating bon-bons for all I know.” Over a period of a couple of months, he grew frustrated and angry.

The cause of this frustration was that their previous division of labor, which happened out of necessity, had changed abruptly and they had not discussed the need for new arrangements. When he finally addressed the issue—admittedly with some disagreements—he and his wife reached a new agreement they could both be happy with. Here are a few steps you can take to reach agreement with your husband.

1. Learn How to Talk: To reach agreement about your husband’s job, the process of finding a new job, or making sure you equally contribute to the household, you need to be able to talk. In Influencer, we share how one of the world’s best researchers on relationships, Dr. Howard Markman, notes that the number one indicator of a long-lasting, happy relationship is not if we argue, but rather, how we argue. Arguing well leads to success. Arguing badly leads to bad results.

So what does this mean for you? Share with your husband your desire to talk about the change that has occurred in your relationship. If your husband declines your invitation, then ask him why he doesn’t want to talk. Is there a bigger issue or different crucial conversation the two of you are avoiding? Perhaps you’ll need to seek assistance from someone who can help you talk such as a marriage counselor or mediator. If he accepts your invitation, schedule time to talk when you’re not tired and when you can focus.

2. Make New Agreements: Life changes often have all the criteria of a crucial conversation: high-stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions. Both your example and the example of my friend deal with the issue of dividing responsibilities. But you might also face this problem with any major change such as retirement, becoming an empty nester, or a change in financial stability. When a life change occurs, talk about it. Listen to each other’s perspective and make new agreements. Don’t assume old agreements are still in effect—particularly when they were implicit in the first place—and don’t just avoid the issue and hope time cures it.

3. Explore Others’ Paths: After any change, it is important to explore the other person’s Path to Action. To determine the root causes of your husband’s behavior, ask yourself the humanizing question—”Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” Does he not care? Or does he feel unskilled or unable to confront the problem? Perhaps he struggles to fill out applications, perhaps he is struggling with a personal dilemma of how he’d like to spend the next several years of his life, or perhaps his ego was so badly wounded in the job loss that he needs time to heal. In any case, don’t pass judgment or assume he is simply unmotivated before you’ve explored all the options. Once you’ve reached a conclusion behind his apparent apathy, ask your husband if and how he sees the situation any differently from you. Does he want something very different for your future than you do?

It’s hard to find a solution until you get all the meaning into the pool. This requires a lot of effort on your part. It requires patience, asking, and listening. It requires dealing with his criticism. This effort is merited because the problem of his apathy is probably not the first instance in which you’ve been frustrated. More than likely, this problem has occurred in various forms over time. It is important to note that finding a solution to this complex problem will also take time.

With all that said, you really only have three options in this situation. You can keep the status quo and hope he will change. You can seek legal counsel. Or you can find ways to patiently and safely talk it out—even if it means finding help to do so. I encourage you to do the latter. Finally, I encourage you to ask yourself this question before you attempt to solve any problem: “Will the step I’m about to take help me move toward a solution and toward saving this valued relationship?”

Best wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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9 thoughts on “Working with an Unemployed Spouse”

  1. Tweets that mention Crucial Skills » Working with an Unemployed Spouse --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hauke Borow, Crucial Skills. Crucial Skills said: Crucial Skills: Working with an Unemployed Spouse #newsletter […]

  2. Frank Bertram

    If her description is accurate, I think it is time for directness. I think it is past the time for avoidance for sure. She let it go on too long.

  3. Jeremy

    Having been laid off of work in the past, there are a number of emotions that you go through. By not recognizing the emotions your husband may be feeling: his sense of anger, failure at his job, or failure in his ability to provide for your family, you may be ignoring the root of his defensive behavior. Depression is often a de-motivator, he may need to seek professional help in coping with where he is at. Tough love can help for some people but it can also heighten the feelings – tread lightly but don’t give up yet. Sometimes going out of the way to support your spouse, while taxing on you, can bring him/her back to reality and motivate them to get back on the horse.

  4. Karen O'Neal

    Thanks so much for giving some suggestions for those supporting people who are unemployed. There are so many people affected right now. We teach job search training and are often approached by those who care about people who are out of work. I’ll send them to your article in the future.

  5. Liz

    Al, I have come to the conclusion, after reading many of your commentaries, that you would be an excellent horse trainer! I really mean this in the most positive way!

  6. Carol

    I read this and wondered if I had been in some fugue state and written it myself. I have been the breadwinner for many years now. As an RN,I have worked hard to keep my education, skills and networks current. My husband did not. I went throught the same frustrations. He was deporessed, demoralized and frustrated with just having received his MBA and losing his job in the same week. We ended up relocating for my job and he has never truly returned to the work force. However, we came to terms with division of labor and support of my career. He is the househusband, he keeps my car repaired and the gas tanks filled, shops, cooks and cleans (ok, maybe not to my liking on the cleaning) and I still do the laundry. I have a job that requires travel to 5 states; he drives me and while I work he can play golf or work on the bookkeeping etc. When we are home he does home repairs/handyman jobs for the sinle women, elderly or handicapped in our church family. I am also a doctorate student (many a night he has woken me from my stupor at the computer). I am thankful for him and could not do what I do with out him. Do I wish I could swap places? Sometimes, but he worked for years full time while I raised kids and ran the house.
    Communication is the key, your husband probably feel like a failure right now and has lost his identity (as so many breadwinners,especially men, see themselves as their jobs). My husband ended up in counselling for his depression-it was serious. But as you can see things worked out

  7. joe maressa

    as a seasoned transition coach I would suggest you ask “Honey I know you feel I am a pest and that I haven’t been helpful but can I ask if you feel stuck and not sure about next job and career? If he is unclear you can suggest he see a career counselor. The other thing is I suggest you see a counselor re the whole situation. Good luck and a prayer to Saint Joseph the Patron saint of work if interested can’t hurt.Good luck

  8. gee

    @Frank Bertram
    women are like, everyday is a hope that the partner will change for the betterment of the relationship. I hope i could find a real nice, responsible, loving guy out there……………..


    thanks for the posts… they really help 🙂

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