When Ashlee*, 27, first learned that her partner, Tim, 38, had been fired from his job at an advertising agency, she said she was a little surprised. The company didn’t seem to be getting any new customers, but she says the news was still unexpected.
“I was just trying to stay neutral and say ‘it’s okay,'” she says.
While initially supportive, her feelings changed. The two share an apartment in Brooklyn and split rent and expenses. She didn’t know how long Tim could remain unemployed and still pay half of the bills.
“Not too long after, maybe three weeks, I started to express my concerns,” she says. “I thought, ‘What’s going to happen if you don’t find a job?’ “I feel like I have a lot of financial anxiety. Tim said this didn’t feel right. I felt like I wasn’t confident it was going to be okay.”
But as time went on, her annoyance grew.
“I think I also felt very outraged,” she says. “I was like, ‘D— I wish I couldn’t work my a– at work right now and worry about him.'”
A few months later, Ashlee was fired from her own job as an art director.
“I think my resignation changed my mind about a lot of things,” she says. “I understand how being fired can put you in a deep depression and certainly make you question your abilities and think, ‘I’m not suited for whatever my job was.’ I think he gave a lot more support than I did.”
When a partner is fired, it can be challenging to draw the line between empathetic and pragmatic, especially when it comes to finances. Losing income brings a lot of practical fears, but it can also cause more or less an identity crisis.
And how you react to the loss of your partner affects the rest of your relationship, says Lisa Bobby, psychologist and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver, Colorado.
“When people go through emotionally traumatic things, like a layoff, when your partner feels emotionally unsupportive or emotionally available, it can sever the attachment bond in ways that are hard to repair,” she says. “It can be scarring to think, ‘This was one of the worst things in my life and you weren’t there for me when I needed you.'”
Looking back, Ashlee says she would have taken a softer approach.
“I would have been less harsh on him,” she says. “I would have been less like, ‘So are you going to get a job already or what?'”
Getting fired feels different from being fired
Some situations are more sensitive than others, says Bobby. A layoff is likely to be less traumatic than a direct layoff. “It’s much easier from a self-esteem standpoint,” Bobby says of layoffs. “The primary feeling may be anger, but less of that shame-related resentment.”
And if you don’t live together, the financial issue may not even need to come up.
This all makes sense for Alex, 30, who lives in Denver. When her boyfriend Matt, also 30, called to tell her that he had lost his job at a fintech startup, she was shocked. He was only three weeks at his new gig.
“He just hated his previous job and then he found this one super exciting,” she says. “So it was a high, high and then you fall back to reality. I think we were both just silent [when he told me] and we just often said ‘what the hell’ back and forth.”
However, the short time frame made it clear to her that it was no problem with his performance.
“I said, ‘It’s going to be okay. We’ll get through this. It has nothing to do with you,'” she says. He said, “I don’t think I could have done anything else,” and I said, “No , you were only there for three weeks – there is nothing you could have done.'”
Losing a job can also hasten an inevitable transition in life, such as Tasvir, who was 64 years old when he was fired from his telecommunications job in 2017. He and his wife Gita, 62, went through a layoff together in 2008. But now that retirement was so close, the conversation was different.
“I’m someone who expresses my feelings, especially to my husband,” she says. “When He Told Me” [about being laid off], it didn’t work out. He was at retirement age and his mindset was to decide whether to start looking for a job or to retire completely and not work at all. I said, ‘You have to work. You can’t retire.'”
Although he was the sole breadwinner, her concern was less about finances and more about what he was going to do with his time. Tasvir assured her that he could keep himself busy.
“I didn’t want anything that would stress me out,” he says of retired life. ‘I didn’t want to play golf. You aim for the green, and it goes into the water and everything. Who wants that?’
Instead, he found hobbies that suited him and was able to retire with the consent of his partner. “I love gardening anyway, and I had my dog Tina.”
‘Do you still love me? Have I abandoned you?’
In the US, a country that links self-esteem and salary so closely, unemployment carries a stigma and losing a job can feel like an indictment of your character.
“The most painful thing is that they think, ‘What does this mean to me?'” says Bobby.
Your partner may project onto you the judgment they feel about themselves, she says, “People don’t say this, but this is how they feel: Do you still love me? Do you still respect me? Have I let you down left?”
3 ways to help your partner cope with redundancy
To help your partner cope with the loss of their job, you may think it’s helpful to send them offers or give them some “tough love,” but this is almost never the right answer, says Bobby. There are better ways to support them that are less judgmental.
Take care of yourself. The most important thing you can do, says Bobby, actually has nothing to do with your partner. “It’s very important to be self-aware of your own fear and manage it in a healthy way so that it doesn’t turn into whining or intimidation, but rather to have open and honest conversations and let the partner have their own process without intervening and try to get it under control,” she says.
You cannot support someone else if you are overwhelmed by your own fear.
Show empathy. When it comes to giving support, be as empathetic as you can be, says Bobby. It is not uncommon for someone to go through a ‘mini grieving process’ while dealing with job loss.
“The most important thing is that your partner feels loved, respected, and supported unconditionally and that you make room for their emotional process,” she says. “Empathy reflects their feelings, not trying to change their feelings.”
Do not try to solve the problem. If you feel like they aren’t trying to find work when they need to, voice those concerns in a way that emphasizes your stress, not their actions. “Instead of saying, ‘Did you apply for jobs today?’ talk about your own feelings. Say, “I’m starting to worry about what the plan will be for us as a couple.”
And while it’s fine to help, don’t make it your mission to find them a job, Bobby says: “As a rule, when people are anxious, it’s very easy to fall into controlling behavior and in codependent types of patterns where one person is overfunctioning in response to another underfunctioning.”
The best course of action is to let them heal at their own pace, while at the same time showing your confidence in their ability to find future work.
*Last names have been changed to protect the identity of the sources.
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