When Ashlee*, 27, first found out her partner, Tim, 38, was laid off from his job at an ad agency she says she was a bit surprised. The company didn’t seem to be getting new clients, but she says the news was still unexpected.
“I was just trying to stay neutral and say ‘it’s okay,'” she says.
Although initially supportive, her feelings did change. The two share an apartment in Brooklyn and split rent and expenses. She wasn’t sure how long Tim could go unemployed and still be able to pay his half of the bills.
“Not too long after, maybe three weeks, I did start voicing concerns,” she says. “I was like, ‘What’s going to happen if you don’t find work?’ I feel like I have a lot of financial anxiety. Tim mentioned this didn’t feel good. It felt like I didn’t have faith he’ll be okay.”
But as time went on, her aggravation grew.
“I think I also felt very resentful,” she says. “I was like, ‘D— I wish I could not be working my a– off at my job right now and worrying about him.'”
A few months later, Ashlee was laid off from her own job as an art director.
“I think getting laid off changed my mind about a lot of things,” she says. “I get how being laid off can launch you into a deep depression and definitely have you doubt your abilities and think, ‘I’m not cut out for whatever my job was.’ I think he was way more supportive than me.”
When a partner is laid off, toeing the line between being empathic and pragmatic can be challenging, especially if finances are involved. Losing income brings many practical fears to the forefront of your mind, but it can also cause, more or less, an identity crisis.
And how you respond to your partner losing their job will affect 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, if your partner does not feel emotionally supportive or emotionally available, it can rupture the attachment bond in a way that’s difficult 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 to be.'”
Looking back, Ashlee says she would have taken a softer approach.
“I would have been less harsh with him,” she says. “I would have been less like, ‘So are you going to find a job yet or what?'”
Some situations are more delicate than others, Bobby says. A layoff will probably be less traumatizing than a straight firing. “It’s much easier from a self-esteem perspective,” Bobby says of layoffs. “The primary feeling can be anger, but less of that shame-related resentment.”
And if you aren’t cohabitating, the issue of finances might not even need to be broached.
This all rings true for Alex, 30, who lives in Denver. When her boyfriend Matt, also 30, called her to tell her he lost his job at a fintech startup, she was shocked. He had only been at his new gig for three weeks.
“He really just hated his prior job and then he found this one that was super exciting,” she says. “So it was a high, high and then you’re slammed back down to reality. I think we both were just silent [when he told me] and we just said ‘what the hell’ back and forth a lot.”
However, the short time frame made it clear to her that it wasn’t a problem with his performance.
“I said, ‘It’s going to be okay. We are going to get through this. It has nothing to do with you’,” she says. “To me it just sounded like a really sh— company. He was like, ‘I don’t think I could have done anything different,’ and I was like, ‘No you were only there for three weeks — there is nothing you could have done.'”
Losing a job might also accelerate an inevitable life transition as it did for Tasvir, who was 64-years-old when he got laid off 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 am a person who voices my feelings, especially to my spouse,” she says. “When he told me [about being laid off], it didn’t go over well. He was at a retirement age and his mindset was deciding whether he should go look for a job or retire completely and not work at all. I said, ‘You have to work. You cannot retire.'”
Even though 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 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 go play golf. You aim in the green, and it goes out into the water and all that. Who wants that?”
Instead, he found hobbies that suited him and was able to retire, with his partner’s approval. “I like gardening, anyway, and I had my dog Tina.”
‘Do you still love me? Have I failed you?’
In the U.S., a country that so closely links self-worth and salary, unemployment carries a stigma, and losing a job can feel like an indictment of your character.
“The most painful part is that they think, ‘What does this mean about me?,'” Bobby says.
Your partner might project the judgement they feel about themselves onto you, 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 failed you?”
To help your partner cope with losing their job, you might think it’s helpful to send them listings or give them some “tough love,” but these are almost never the right answer, Bobby says. There are better ways to support them that feel less judgmental.
Take care of yourself. The most important thing you can do, Bobby says, actually has nothing to do with your partner. “It’s really important to be self-aware of your own anxiety and manage that in a healthy way so it doesn’t turn into nagging or harassing, but rather having open and honest conversations and allowing the partner to have their own process without stepping in and trying to control it,” she says.
You can’t be supportive of someone else if you’re overrun with your own anxiety.
Show empathy. When it comes to giving support, be as empathic as you can be, Bobby says. It isn’t uncommon for a person to go through a “mini grief process,” while coping with job loss.
“The most important thing is for your partner to feel unconditionally loved, respected, and supported and for you to make space for their emotional process,” she says. “Empathy is reflecting back their feelings, not trying to change their feelings.”
Don’t try to fix the problem. If you feel like they aren’t trying to find work when they need to be, voice those concerns in a way that emphasizes your stress, not their actions. “Instead of saying, ‘Have you applied for any jobs today?’ talk about your own feelings. Say, ‘I have been starting to feel anxious about what the plan is going to be for us as a couple.’
And, while it’s okay to offer help, don’t make it your mission to find them a job, Bobby says: “As a rule, when people feel anxious it’s really easy to fall into controlling behaviors and fall into co-dependent sorts of patterns where one person is over-functioning in response to the other under-functioning.”
The best course of action is to let them heal at their own pace, all while showing that you have faith in their ability to find future employment.
*Last names have been withheld to protect the identity of the sources.