How Unemployment Can Affect Marriage

By Danielle Braff
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Juggling work and family life is a struggle for many couples, but it can be a particular problem if one of the partners feels that the other isn’t contributing enough workwise.

Chicago Tribune

When they first married a decade ago, Rachel Smithfield and her husband agreed about their commitment toward their careers and their future children.

They were both motivated in their jobs, she as an IT project manager and he as a web designer, and they were happy in these roles.

But that was before kids entered the picture and everything began to unravel.

Now, the Smithfield couple, of Oak Park, Ill., have two children, ages 7 and 9. Rachel Smithfield said that since her husband was laid off five years ago and then landed a new job, he’s been both stressed out about money and unmotivated about work.

On the other hand, she said, she makes twice as much as he does and still does the majority of the child care.

“We were totally equal when we got married, we had these conversations. And as these things came up, it’s turning out to be a little different,” Rachel Smithfield said. “I’d like him to either be a more significant part of our income and really advance his career and allow me to do more of the child rearing, or I’d like for him to take on more of the child rearing.”

Juggling work and family life is a struggle for many couples, but it can be a particular problem if one of the partners feels that the other isn’t contributing enough workwise.

Rachel Smithfield said that she was always an ambitious risk taker when it came to her career, but now that she sees her husband isn’t following the same path, it’s frustrating.

“We’re having a lot of conversations, and we’re getting to the point where we’re talking about our assumptions about daily life and how we view things differently,” she said. They’re also considering counseling.

A counselor may be essential to save a marriage. A 2016 study by Harvard researchers found that men who aren’t able to be the main breadwinners in their families are more likely to get divorced than those who are able to earn more than their wives. And a 2011 Ohio State University study found that unemployed men were more likely to get divorced than employed men.

So while employment status is essentially a professional issue, it becomes a marriage issue very quickly, said Laurel Steinberg, a New York-based relationship therapist and professor of psychology at Columbia University.

“Work equals earnings, and earnings equals helping to support and sustain a family,” Steinberg said. “One partner’s lack of ability to contribute financially in a meaningful way can cause the other partner to have to scramble to work extra-long hours, which can cause resentment, or to not have emotional security if his or her own job is shaky or not the type from which she or he can even earn extra income to compensate for the partner’s lack of contribution.”

But more than that, Steinberg said, there can be a perception of laziness (though those struggling with employment may actually be suffering from depression or low self-esteem, or don’t realize they aren’t pulling their weight), which most find to be an unattractive quality.

Arguing can escalate as the stress builds in the relationship, especially if you count on the spouse’s income to pay the bills and you watch that person lose a job or make less money, said Rachel Sussman, a New York-based therapist and relationship expert.

“These are real pressing issues and thus become marriage issues that need to be addressed,” Sussman said.

While unemployment and underemployment are frustrating because they don’t seem to be within the couple’s control, they can be dealt with within a marriage, Steinberg said.

The first step is to start a dialogue.

“While long-term change in this area will only stick if a values shift has occurred within the partner, being the initiator of dialogue that yields a values shift is fine and completely relationship-supportive.”

For the talk to be productive, the partner who wants to motivate change should describe how bad it feels to be married to someone who isn’t pulling his or her weight. Then it’s important to ask how the other person wants the initiator of the dialogue to feel instead, Steinberg suggested.

“This highlights an important discrepancy and can create the values shift that is needed to foster meaningful change,” she said. “This can also stimulate dialogue, during which partners can brainstorm and develop an action plan to get things moving in the right direction.”

Finding time for good, open communication about employment, motivation and better career options should take place once a week, when both partners should examine all options, Sussman said. The key is to be open and honest.

Rachel Smithfield said this type of communication could benefit her relationship with her husband, along with his career.
“I think we don’t talk about it enough,” she said.

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