My husband is serially unemployed. Over the 8 or so years we’ve been together, it’s been a cycle: 12 months employed, six months unemployed, 18 months employed, 1 year unemployed, six months underemployed freelance, on and on.
I have been fortunate to find well-paid work in my field and have no trouble staying employed full-time. In the past decade, I’ve never been away from work for more than 10 days straight.
Now, on the one hand, I am so glad I can cover the bills every time he gets laid off or fired. I think we have an above-average marriage. He’s my best friend. Of course I’m going to support him through the hard times.
On the other hand, what about me?
There are days during his unemployed periods when I really resent that he can sleep in, work on his side-dream of being a writer, play his xbox, collect unemployment and apply for jobs. He’s basically having a six-month vacation, except for an hour a day of job applications.
Even as I type that, I know it is unfair to him. He isn’t choosing to be unemployed. But my jerkbrain keeps reminding me that he has had more free time in the past two months than I have had in the past 15 years.
But I can also acknowledge that it is probably depressing as hell to keep being let go by companies.
I tell myself that I don’t want him to feel like I am punishing him for getting laid off, nor do I want him to feel like he needs to “pay” for his unemployed periods by being my personal slave when it comes to household chores. But, OK, on some level, that kind of is what I want.
I just… Would it be wrong to ask that since I do at least 8 hours of paid work a day and he does 0, maybe he could put in some extra hours of unpaid work around the house during this time to take a little stress off me? Or something else to balance the load? I feel like he owes me. He has said he feels like he owes me too. But it feels wrong on some level to want to collect on that debt.
Can you suggest some self-talk to help me stop feeling like a victim of my own success? And is there a way to bring up couples counseling to talk this through that won’t feel like I’m attacking/judging his work history?
Someone else’s safety net
Dear Someone Else’s Safety Net,
Digging into all of this with a couples counselor sounds like a good idea, so I’m going to focus this post on generating questions for those discussions.
The biggest thing that jumps out at me from your letter is that the periods of unemployment aren’t a matter of “supporting your husband through hard times.” They have started that way, and whether it’s his industry or the economy or his particular cocktail of skills and attitudes and working environments, after eight years I don’t think it’s unfair to assume that full-time employment is going to be an on-again, off-again thing for him possibly forever. If he does find success as a writer, that too will have periods of intensely working and periods of being fallow. So what happens if you both decide/admit together, without judgment, that unemployment is less a temporary crisis to be managed than a regular, repeating, predictable cycle in his professional life and in your household?
When you operate in “Crisis Mode” there’s a tendency to table big discussions or planning for the future – i.e. “Let’s just get through this and save big discussions for when things are more stable.” That can be really helpful in the short term, and really stressful over the long term when you don’t know how long things will stay the way they are and it becomes impossible to do long-term planning. Is there something you are putting off until he is working? Some professional or creative step for yourself? Any way you could work some piece of it in now?
Other questions I had when reading your letter:
- How is your savings cushion/retirement savings? Are you happy with it? Do you have a strategy for socking away money when he is employed to plan for future gaps?
- Are you able to take regular vacations or is that something you put off because of money/employment issues? For instance, would you be able to buy a plane ticket to go see some friends for a week right now, or is that not in the budget until your husband is working again? (You sound like you REALLY need a break).
- How much leisure time do you get in a week? Time to yourself and time to spend with your husband or with other friends and family? Do you get to play video games or pursue creative projects sometimes? Do you get to exercise and read and watch TV and veg out? Are your weekends hectic because they are taken up with household chores and errands? Do you ever really get a break, or are you always “on” – picking up the house, cooking, planning meals – and then going back to work?
- Does your husband write on a regular schedule and make progress towards completed, sale-able project or projects? Writing and other creative pursuits certainly don’t have to make money in order to be important, but when your husband talks about his writing dream how does he talk about it? Is he diligent and realistic about what he wants to do with writing? Does he see it as a replacement/alternative for his on-again, off-again profession? Does he finish things and send them out? Is he part of a group or class or online community?
- What are your relative social habits & connections like? It can be stressful to be “on” all day with people at work and then come home to someone who hasn’t had much human interaction who has saved up Many! Thoughts! to tell you about. Do you ever get your house to yourself for a few hours?
- Are you keeping a harmonious joint schedule of sleep & mealtimes, or is his lack of schedule throwing off your mojo right now and contributing to some of the resentment you feel? Sleeping in is nice, but maybe getting on a consistent joint schedule where you eat breakfast together every morning would be good for your partnership?
One way to figure this out, over time, is to work together to make a big list of things that have to be done routinely to keep your household running and to plot those things on a weekly or monthly grid along with time estimates (“Work & commuting back and forth to work = 50 hours/week, Cleaning bathrooms = 1.5 hours/week, Meal planning, shopping, and prep = 6-10 hours/week, “Job searching = 5 hours/week” etc.) Include prep time, planning time, getting ready time in your estimates. Label who does each thing and what is shared between you. Also include leisure time – reading, video games, napping, date night – and see how much you each get. Revise and revisit periodically. Then, instead of splitting hairs over equal economic contributions and equal household chores, try aiming for equality and fairness in giving both partners comparable amounts of leisure time.
One way this could help is that when you are both working full time, you end up dividing household tasks more equally between you (or outsourcing some household tasks if you can afford it). When you are going to work every day and he is staying home, there will still be time to write and to play video games, but he can ensure that a work break for him (even an involuntary one) is also a break for you. Together, you can decide explicitly what the culture & routine of your house will be when you switch between Everyone At Work Mode and One Person Home A Lot Mode, and you can decide that both modes have value. One thing I love about France is that many museums are free for unemployed people on the principle that when you finally have time to really enjoy them money shouldn’t be an obstacle. If he could take on some more household stuff during these breaks from working outside the home, you could have a more pleasant life during those times, too. I don’t think that is an unreasonable thing at all for you to want.
This stuff is so fraught because: gender, money, capitalism, how different kinds of labor are valued (take your pick). Not easy. Go slow, be nice to yourself and each other, don’t try to solve it all in one day.
Good luck sorting it out and happy New Year.