When do our family interactions become toxic?
High on the list of things nobody wants to happen: you or your partner lose a job. This situation immediately supersedes everything, as all thought turns to how to survive. Unfortunately, the survival of the relationship is not often given as much thought as how to pay the bills.
“For most people, it’s an existential ‘are we going to have enough?’” says Jonathan Shippey, a Master Certified Gottman Therapist. But during a time when the two people need each other more than ever, all too often the stress can pit them against each other.
My husband recently came home with news that the next day would be his last at work. As a freelancer, my income is irregular and inadequate to meet our expenses. We’re fortunate to have some savings from the sale of our house, but a look at our budget was sobering; we can’t get by for long without two incomes. Beyond the very real fear of losing the big, old house we bought this year was the worry that we would lose connection with each other. We’ve been through job loss before, and it took a toll on our relationship.
What can we do this time to make sure we’re keeping our marriage a priority, I wondered, even as we worked on new budgets. Shippey has had great advice for me before, so I asked him to weigh in.
There are some common pitfalls to avoid, Shippey warns. First, “Some gender stuff can show up,” if it’s a man who’s lost the job, he says. “For guys especially it seems like a part of their identity to be working, providing. The longer it takes for a guy [to find a new job], he can slide into a depression. And depending how long it takes, the partner who has to pick up the slack can really feel the pressure and feel unappreciated by the partner who is no longer working.”
Issues can quickly escalate, so it’s important—for both parties—to take action quickly. And that starts when the employed partner begins listening. The listener should “really keep in their mind, ‘I want them to know they’re not alone,’” Shippey says. “Job loss is terrible, but feeling like you’re going through it alone is even worse. [Say to yourself] ‘What can I do to come alongside, to get down in there and let them know they’re not alone in the dark?’”
“There’s real power [in feeling you’re] in this together,” Shippey goes on. “When one goes through something like a job loss, you want it to become us versus the problem instead [of] the problem wedging us apart.”
To achieve this in his counseling practice, Shippey uses a stress reducing conversation technique that allows partners to take turns sharing their stress. Each person spends 10 or 15 minutes describing what’s bothering them while their partner listens and supports. This takes the form of showing interest, being an ally, providing affection and comfort—and as tempting as it may be to offer advice, zipping it for the time being.
“A lot of us feel good when we’re giving advice, and maybe we have ideas that really will help. But if you lead with that advice-giving you run the risk that your partner won’t feel listened to and cared for,” Shippey explains.
Instead, ask for details on what’s most upsetting about the situation, what your partner dislikes most. Then ask how you can support them. (“What do you need from me right now?”) Finally, ask if your partner feels understood or more supported. If so, you can move on to advice—but again, first ask if it’s wanted. If so, see if your partner has their own ideas before sharing yours.
When the first round is finished, switch out. However, Shippey warns, the working partner must avoid contributing to their partner’s stress by sharing relationship concerns right away.
If a male partner “even takes a risk and shares his feelings—because a lot of men have been taught to shield their feelings—if he does try and his partner says something like ‘how do you think that affects us as a couple?’ now he’s got the original problem and the relationship problem,” he says. “It’s no longer a stress reducing conversation.” It’s safest, at least for the first few conversations, to stick with other stressors, whether that’s your own job, the refugee crisis, or even just coming up with some New Year’s resolutions!
This sequential processing works best because trying to deal with both peoples’ problems can be overwhelming, Shippey says.
While the working partner has an important role to play in listening and supporting, it’s not all up to them. The non-working partner has responsibilities, too. “Finding ways to take care of yourself, watch the alcohol and drug consumption, make sure you’re getting adequate sleep, stay focused on job pursuit,” Shippey says. “But the most important thing is continue to share feelings. Continue to let your partner be on the journey with you.”
So even though giving advice is my first inclination, and my husband doesn’t exactly pour forth his feelings easily, we’re making an effort to follow the guidance from Shippey. I’ve learned my husband has his own great ideas and may not need my advice, and he’s learned that he can share his fears without burdening me. It’s still a scary time, but we both know that we’re in this together, and in the end, that’s what will see us through.