Erivan K. Haub School of Business

Finding Work Without Losing Heart ~ William J. Byron, S.J

Chapter Two: Spousal Support
Leave the advice-giving to others outside the
relationship; it may be perceived as criticism.
View the crisis as an opportunity to be vulnerable
with your spouse and thus strengthen the relationship.
--Unemployed Construction Executive

Most readers will come to this chapter with an understandable, but undetected bias. Some will presume that the issue of spousal support throughout a period of unemployment relates exclusively to emotional affirmation from wife to husband, from female to male, even though females also lose jobs and, like their male counterparts, need unquestioning support from a spouse or close friend. Many presume the typical case-- married male job-seekers--to be the norm, forgetting the many female victims of corporate downsizing and the many divorced persons, male or female, who are out of work and in need of help, not to mention the never-married career men and women who lose jobs and can lose heart just as readily as anyone else.

An often unexamined presupposition, in these days of widespread agreement that men and women are equal, is the mistaken conclusion that men and women are identical. They are not, of course, and there are emotional and psychological differences that require attention on the part of job-seekers and those closest to them who want to be supportive through a stressful and often extended transition period.

The Paradigm

I begin with the construction of a paradigm--a theory, or frame of reference, intended to sharpen the reader's focus on this important issue. It is based on my own personal observation, pastoral experience, and extensive reading over more than three decades. I have found that in addition to the obvious physical complementarity between the sexes, there is a little-noticed and seldom-reflected-upon psychological complementarity. Both men and women at all stages of their lives experience varying degrees of discouragement and loneliness, emotions easily activated by job-loss. The male, however, is more bothered by and sensitive to discouragement, while the female tends to be more often beset with loneliness than with a feeling of failure. This is not to say women do not feel discouraged at times, or that men do not experience loneliness. They clearly do. I have observed, however, that men tend to be more achievement-oriented and women more relational in their approach to work and life. Again, this is not to say that women have no drive to achieve and men are uninterested in forging relationships.

What I am getting at is this: there appears to be a male propensity toward discouragement and a female propensity toward loneliness. Their psychological vulnerabilities differ because their psychological propensities differ. Failure to achieve can activate discouragement; a failed relationship can trigger loneliness. Whether these propensities are genetically rooted and unalterable is not my question to pursue. I simply remark that, generally speaking, different tendencies are there. And it is my experience that an awareness of the difference can enable spouses or friends to draw closer to one another by permitting their psychological complementarity to come into play. It works this way.

The male needs encouragement in the face of an abiding (it has been there all along, not just in a moment of career crisis!) sense of inadequacy, self-doubt, and a propensity toward discouragement. The female needs the presence of another, along with the conversation, consideration, and attention that the other person can bring. This provides her with emotional security--a sense of being connected--in the face of a propensity toward loneliness.

If each is attentive to the deeper psychological need of the other, each will enhance the likelihood of having his or her own psychological need met. The wife who gives encouragement, praise, and personal reassurance to her discouraged spouse, makes herself a significantly more attractive target for the attentive presence she needs and wants. (This is remarkably consistent with a principle of religious faith--"it is in giving that we receive"--that many of us admire but most of us neglect.) In stressful circumstances, like those surrounding unexpected job loss, criticism and resentment from a wife will repel the husband, deepen his sense of failure, and create a chasm rather than a union between the spouses. Similarly, if the wife is the victim of job-loss, insensitivity on the part of the husband will only aggravate the relational failure, the feeling of disconnectedness, and the concomitant loneliness.

In Toward a New Psychology of Women (Beacon Press, 1976), Jean Baker Miller writes that a woman's sense of self is "organized around being able to make and then maintain affiliations and relationships" (p. 83). Woman feels the need to connect; "affiliative" is a word that helps to describe her natural tendencies and related vulnerabilities, Obviously, it helps the relationship if the male partner is sensitive to this, particularly when a woman's employment relationship or corporate affiliation is abruptly and involuntarily severed.

When I raise the question of discouragement, I should point out that I am not talking about clinical depression. It is a well-known fact that more women than men present themselves for therapy because they are depressed. This is not due simply to the culturally-conditioned male reluctance to discuss personal problems with others. The American Psychological Association's Task Force on Women and Depression reported in 1990 that twice as many women as men are depressed in contemporary America. Factors that put women at greater risk include physical and sexual abuse, poverty, discrimination, low wages, unhappy marriages, and a tendency to focus on depressed feelings rather than take steps to overcome them. It is a gross oversimplification to suggest that the two-to-one ratio, female to male, in the statistics of clinical depression is explainable in terms of a woman's relative ease in talking about her feelings of depression. Women, however, do tend to speak more freely about depression.

Professor Maggie Scarf, a member of the APA Task Force and author of Unfinished Business: Pressure Points in the Lives of Women (Doubleday, 1980), writes of "the female's inherently interpersonal, interdependent, affiliative nature--her affectionateness and orientation toward other people--that underlies her far greater vulnerability" (p.527). These qualities, it should be noted, equip her to be particularly helpful to her spouse when he is down; they also help to explain the unique character of her pain when the unemployment axe falls on her.

I have no special competence to discuss depression. My interest throughout this study is in the more common problem of discouragement, and how dislocated job-seekers deal with it. Chapter Three, on "Dealing with Discouragement," will have more to say on that theme; the present chapter considers discouragement as one of the many variables to be managed when unemployment puts stress on the spousal relationship.

A full-page advertisement placed by the UJA (United Jewish Appeal) Federation in The New York Times on April 15, 1992, pictured a woman staring out through the words of this printed (and timely) message: "My husband got laid off from work eight months ago. Some days are so terrible. He breaks down and tells me he's afraid he'll never find a job. He's afraid I'll stop loving him. And I tell him that's ridiculous. And then I go into the bedroom and cry because I'm not so sure anymore." At the bottom of the page, potential donors to the UJA Federation are told that they can "make it possible for thousands of people to find training, jobs, and most important, dignity."

Dignity is a central issue. Each partner to the relationship should, in the context of job-loss, consider him- or herself to be the protector of the other's dignity. And human dignity, you must always remind yourself, is rooted in who you are, not what you do. Recall the great American secular heresy: what you do is what you are. And the unfortunate corollary to this proposition, the one that causes so much grief, is the tendency on the part of those who find themselves "doing nothing" to conclude all-too-readily that they "are" nothing. No one needs to be driven deeper into that hole by an insensitive spouse. Pity the husband of the financial executive who explained to The Wall Street Journal (January 28, 1993) that she and others who shared her success, "weren't raised as women to think we were going to be married to losers."

One of my respondents, a forty-year-old vice president of a construction company, who was still unemployed when I met him, has a direct suggestion for spouses: "Leave the advice giving to others outside the immediate relationship; it may be perceived as criticism." He also acknowledged that the crisis can be viewed "as an opportunity to be vulnerable with your spouse and thus strengthen the relationship." I have seen many cases where that is exactly what happened. A woman of 48, who lost a position of executive responsibility after six years with a large insurance company, has this advice for couples in anticipation of either partner experiencing involuntary employment separation: "Talk to each other candidly. Explore all the possibilities for the future together, being sure to specify--on the table and in writing--the 'upsides' and 'downsides' of all options. Take some downtime together. Make financial plans and stay realistic. And start doing this before the severance comes; it will be helpful to the marriage even if job loss never occurs." On this point, a married woman, who has counseled hundreds of executives in transition, remarked to me that if the marriage is strong, it strengthens under this stress; if it is already weak, it can be destroyed under this pressure. Therefore, simply to be in this situation amounts to a test of the marriage.

A 54-year-old president of a publishing company had a relatively brief (three months) transition and found that "It can be a binding experience for the spouses, if shared with complete and thorough integrity. We discussed the situation most candidly and I was surprised to learn that my wife was very concerned about the amount of pressure that I was under at the time. She was fearful of heart problems, stroke, and ulcers; she was also very concerned that my alcohol consumption was on the increase." He saw this not as unwelcome interference or uninvited criticism. Instead, it translated into genuine, caring concern that reinforced his fragile ego. Another participant in the study, far less fortunate in marriage than this man, understated his own situation with the comment that "a rocky relationship will probably not get better when unemployment hits." His own marriage came apart because "uenmployment is humiliating; it reduces comfort levels, collapses day-to-day defenses, and lifts the masks in a marriage. If a relationship is not something that spouses continuously reaffirm as Number One, you can't count on it to hold up under the weight of job loss." He admitted that his 70-hour work-weeks destroyed his marriage. His wife had nothing to say when he came home jobless; it was another woman who said, "I hurt for you," words that he repeated with warm appreciation years later.

One of the women in my study, a human resources manager, divorced, and out of work at 51, explained her special circumstances. Her children are grown; she lives alone. "I think my experience is quite different from the married men who make up the majority of my support groups. Their wives work. They have income and benefits (health coverage) this way. They have someone to discuss options with. I think it is even harder doing this completely alone--your friends are not so involved, although they listen, up to a point." Another woman in my study, divorced for 15 years, agrees entirely: "This is much harder for divorced people who live alone."

You are "completely alone" when friends no longer listen, and when, despite the existence of support groups, there is no one there with whom you can review the options. The remarks about the difficulty of going it alone, prompted me to recall the comment I heard years ago, "When Adam was lonely, God didn't create for him ten friends, just one wife." The need for human understanding and support is always there on both sides, male and female, of the spousal relationship. If that relationship is working well, the need will be met and a confident, eventually successful job-campaign will be waged.

At an earlier stage in a successful career that took an unexpected detour into unemployment, one of my interviewees had authored a book. A copy, inscribed to his wife, was available for my inspection when I visited their home to talk about the issues that constitute the theme lines of this study. That inscription, written decades earlier, defined the spousal relationship that supported this fortunate husband through two subsequent transitions: "To my beloved Mary, who has helped me far more than she has ever known, or I have even admitted to myself." He needed encouragement; she never failed to provide it.

Another man I interviewed received criticism from his wife and encouragement from his daughter, a nine-year-old who came up with just the right word at just the right time. He had broken down at the dinner table one night saying he "had failed as a father-provider." His daughter smiled that one aside and said simply, "You'll be able to spend more time with us." His child "sensed the agony I was going through." His wife was "ambivalent between wanting to help me and feeling I had betrayed her" by losing not only his job, but the medical insurance that went with it and upon which she was heavily dependent. His problem pales in comparison with the situation encountered by the founder and general manager of a communications company in the midwest. He lost his stock in the company to his former wife as part of a divorce settlement and then she fired him!

Mention above of the sympathetic daughter prompts me to report that a woman who lost her job in publishing said her adolescent daughter was "supportive but annoyed that I was now at home and more aware of her activities!"

I asked everyone I interviewed to describe the spousal response to the news of job loss. In most cases anxiety was there, but so was understanding. Rarely was there overt criticism, although insensitivity in some few cases released words or actions that were read as criticism. For example, an innocent inquiry about whether or not they were going to send the kids to summer camp within a few months, was taken as criticism of his inability to provide, rather than an indication of her concern for planning ahead.

The paradigm I outlined earlier invites elaboration. Men tend to sell themselves short. They often regard themselves as failures waiting to be discovered. This applies to males at all stages and in all circumstances of life. Those men who are rising toward or holding positions on the many managerial mountaintops in contemporary society disguise, even from themselves, their inner fears that they are doing it all with smoke and mirrors, so to speak, and that sooner or later, probably sooner, they will be "found out," "put down," even "let go." Then what? That's the scary question.

This undisclosed anxiety, experienced by women as well as men, in the heady atmosphere of higher-level management stems from an honest assessment by managers of their own limits measured against the complexity of their tasks. They have insecurities based on the realization that they are not using a specific skill that is readily marketable elsewhere. Rather, they are generalists. They manage complex organizations where just about anything can go wrong. When reversals come, they are at risk of finding themselves "ousted." Defensive strategies against this unhappy personal outcome range from stacking the board with loyalists, to dictatorial dominance over subordinates. But "ousters" do occur, as readers of the business press discover every day. Once "out," the manager has to find another complex organization to run, or settle for something less, or depend on a previously negotiated financial-severance package to cushion the fall and meet future financial needs. Rarely, if ever, will a generous financial-severance arrangement repair the damage to the manager's bruised ego. Virtually all displaced executives or sidelined managers want to "run something" again, even if there is no financial necessity to do so. They want to prove themselves. They want to achieve.

This is generally true of men, young or old, in all walks of life. Men and women differ in this regard, certainly in degree, if not in kind. And husbands and wives have to understand this. Even when it is clearly a "no-fault" job loss related to legitimate restructuring, men tend to question in the quiet of their hearts their basic competency.

For a perspective on women and achievement, consider the view of Betty M. Vetter, executive director of the Scientific Manpower Commission, who spoke at Williams College in 1980, at a meeting designed to encourage more young women to follow research careers in science. She explained that men and women are not alike in their approach to scientific achievement. "A woman scientist," she said, "at the end of her life, looks back and exclaims, 'Look how far I've come.' But a man looks back and says, 'Look how many went ahead of me.'"

Robert I. Gannon, S.J., the famous orator who was president of Fordham University in the 1930s and '40s, had an engaging expression for this phenomenon. He had sympathy but no praise for "mere trailing men." The phrase, applied to Irish-American Catholic males, derives from more primitive times when hunters and gatherers of the tribe returned exhausted from their labors. In reflecting on Gannon's speeches (and the mindset behind them), Peter McDonough speaks of "the gruff masculinity of 'trailing men' whose regrets and memories of struggle were intermittently more riveting than their success." Gannon's essential message for Irish-American Catholic couples was plain enough and powerful. McDonough sums it up in these words: "Men could be chivalrous even if weak and not fully successful. The family was sacred.... Mothers and daughters were the carriers of the ideal of simultaneous sweetness and strength.... Benevolence meant compassion for the defeated and solidarity in grief, the sentimentality of tribal bravery and stoicism, not generic altruism. Failure was forgiven in the home as sins were forgiven by the church.... The all-embracing sempiternal hierarchy was the church itself that sanctified women as acolytes of endurance and that comforted and did not threaten men" (Men Astutely Trained, Free Press, 1992, p.331).

There is no Irish-Catholic monopoly on this dynamic. As I meet American men of all religious backgrounds, clinging to jobs that represent a broad range of rungs on the occupational ladder, I think of Carl Sandburg's poetic insight: "Those who order what they please/ when they choose to have it--/ can they understand the many down under/ who come home to their wives and children at night/ and night after night as yet too brave and unbroken/ to say 'I ache all over'?" These are the "trailing men" of modern times. They are showing up on the managerial mountaintop these days, as well as in positions "down under." They are also losing their jobs. "The American workforce is being downsized and atomized," reported Time magazine on March 29, 1993: "[M]illions of Americans are being evicted from the working worlds that have sustained them, the jobs that gave them not only wages and health care and pensions but also a context, a sense of self-worth, a kind of identity. Work was the tribe. There were Sears men and GM workers and Anheuser-Busch people. There still are, of course. But their world is different." And those who are no longer there, at work and in the tribe, are hurting. If married, they need support from an uncritical, affirmative, understanding spouse. If single, they need affirmation from a close friend. Do women need similar support? Of course. And as women in managerial work accommodate themselves to unisex managerial roles, the need will become more obvious. But, even then, the approach and emphasis will differ, and I will be addressing that point later in this chapter.

In a curious twist, the "trailing men" label has, in recent times, been applied not to worn-out males returning from the hunt, but to men the Wall Street Journal referred to as "Husbands in Limbo." The cascading headline on April 13, 1993 continues: "As More Men Become 'Trailing Spouses,' Firms Help Them Cope." "Many," the headline goes on to say, "Are Unable to Find Job When Wife Is Relocated: Some Pay Psychic Toll." "'Who's the Boss as Home?' asks the final line over a page-one story about "the trailing husband problem...or 'accompanying partners,' as they are also called." The story quotes an official of a Family and Work research institute as saying, "As companies get serious about moving up women, they've got to get serious about the trailing-husband issue." You will not have to tax your imagination to understand the headline hint that this rather recent phenomenon exacts a "psychic toll." The story puts it bluntly: "[M]any American men feel torn between traditional social values and some demands of modern life, but few are torn more brutally than those who are following their wives as the women ascend the managerial ladder.... Many men suffer for months over the double whammy of sex-role conflicts and extended unemployment.""

A Business Week cover story (September 12, 1988) called middle managers the "Silent Majority" of American business. "Seldom heard. Rarely seen by the brass. And hardly ever protected when the going gets rough. No golden parachutes.... Ask a middle manager about life on the frontlines of the corporation these days, and you're likely to hear a bitter story. The ranks have been so decimated by the corporate trend to 'downsize' that some middle managers feel as if they are an endangered species." No less an observer than Peter Drucker is quoted in the story: "Middle managers have become insecure, and they feel unbelievably hurt. They feel like slaves on an auction block." I'll be exploring the implications of this in Chapter Seven, "The New Corporate Contract." The point of mentioning it here is to observe that most (by no means all, but most) of these unsettled middle managers are male, many are disillusioned, and all of them would be better off if they were talking about it to their spouses. For that ongoing conversation to be productive, spouses have to understand their reciprocal relationships within the paradigm presented here.

One of America's best known executive search consultants told me of an ousted CEO who said to him, "I just wish I were female, so I could cry; but I can't let them know how much it hurts." He hadn't read Robert Bly's Iron John (Addison-Wesley, 1990) or Sam Keen's Fire in the Belly (Bantam Books, 1991). These are books about men and their struggle for identity. In the '50s, writes Bly, "man was supposed to like football, be aggressive, stick up for the United States, never cry, and always provide." But along came the '60s, and "another sort of man appeared.... As men began to examine women's history and women's sensibility, some men began to notice what was called their feminine side and pay attention to it" (p.2).

I recall hearing William Sloane Coffin, then chaplain at Yale, remark on a Sunday morning television program in the late 1960s that "the woman most in need of liberation in America is the woman inside of every man." There is a woman inside every man and a man inside every woman. (There is also inside of every older person, a younger person wondering what happened!) The influence of the feminine in the man and the masculine in the woman is noticeable now where previously there had not been a trace of one in the culturally-conditioned preserve of the other. But there are differences that remain and require respect. The sensitive spouse will want to be ready to deal with those differences.

Many men could make these words their own: "After all the hard years, you start getting a little attention. You feel like a champion. You think you are something. But your wife knows you're not. She knows you're a jerk. She saw it all. She was there." This comment by actor Brian Dennehy in Life magazine was borrowed by Chuck Conconi for his Washington Post "Personalities" column (July 24, 1990) because, said Conconi, "it could have come from any major player in Washington as well."

Perhaps it could. But the important question is how will that knowledge of the other's vulnerability be used--as a weapon, or as a reminder that the male always needs reinforcing encouragement? Men, too, have both a wand and a weapon in their hands. They can give attention or withhold it. Given, attention becomes reassuring balm; withheld, it freezes into calculated disregard.

The Turn at Fifty

The problem of personal dislocation can, of course, be influenced by chronology as well as psychology. The famous milestone birthday referred to as the big Five-O ushers in a new era of doubt and disappointment for many males. Psychologist Daniel Levinson thinks "there may be more taboo about looking at your life during the 50's than any other decade." Why? "For many there is a silent despair, a pressing fear of becoming irrelevant in work or marriage, with no real alternative in sight. And for others, who are able to make vital choices during their 50's, there is a hard time of personal struggle early in the decade" (The New York Times, February 7, 1989). Dr. Levinson's book, The Seasons of a Man's Life (Knopf, 1978) explores those struggles and acknowledges that although not universal, they are common through the decade of the 50's in a normal male lifetime.

In Connecticut, male job-seekers, typically veterans of the insurance industry, sometimes speak of the "50-50 Club." If you make more than $50,000 and are over 50 years of age, you are a likely candidate for membership in this no-dues, no-meetings, no-headquarters organization. Once there, you have a lot of time to think about the issues the Levinson analysis raises.

Given the delayed entry of females into the labor market and the lag in their rise to positions of executive influence, men and women in their 50's can have opposite attitudes toward their careers. Sociologist David Karp, quoted in the same New York Times article just cited, says, "The men are developing an exit mentality, calculating how many years are left at work. But the women of the same age are thinking about making their mark." If one such woman is married to one such man, they have some serious talking to do without delay.

Further complexity is introduced from a source that is not simply psychological nor chronological, but occupational. There are occupations that generate their own dark clouds over the workplace. Consider "professorial melancholia," a label devised by psychologist David F. Machell, who teaches justice and law administration at Western Connecticut State University. He explained to The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 1, 1989) that he sees something inherent in the professor's job and in the academic environment that has created a "crisis of low self-esteem." Faculty members tend to be perfectionists. They like recognition, but don't get it. They know their pay is less than the compensation most other professionals receive. The fact that faculty jobs are relatively unstructured can contribute to the problem. But the point to note, says Professor Machell, is this: "Professorial melancholia is a disease of intense perfectionism, The criticism, the anger, the nothing-is-ever-good-enough aspect is really at the center of this disease."

It has been said that most of Thoreau's "men" live their "lives of quiet desperation" on university faculties. Faculty wives surely have better things to do than reminding their spouses that they come up short on relative shares of professional income. Faculty husbands should know that their professionally-achieving spouses are underappreciated and late starters, for the most part, on the lower rungs of an already low faculty pay-scale.

I want to attend more directly now to the female side of the spousal-support relationship I've been constructing in this chapter. One of the books that millions of spouses have found helpful is Georgetown linguistic professor Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (Ballantine Books, 1991). The psychological underpinning for the linguistic enlightenment this book provides is instructive for spouses burdened with one or the other's job-loss. The typical male, writes Professor Tannen (pp. 24-25), engages the world as an individual in a hierarchical social order in which he was either one-up or one-down. In this world, conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can, and protect themselves from others' attempts to put them down and push them around. Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure. The typical female, on the other hand, approaches the world "as an individual in a network of connections." For women, as Dr. Tannen explains it, conversations are negotiations for closeness in which

people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus. They try to protect themselves

from others' attempts to push them away. Life, then, is a community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation. Though there are hierarchies in this

world too, they are hierarchies more of friendship than of power and accomplishment. And Deborah Tannen makes the further point that serves to remind all of us that sexual equality does not mean identity between the sexes. Men and women differ in their experience of loneliness and failure, even though men and women both experience loneliness and failure. Women are also concerned with achieving status and avoiding failure, but these are not the goals they

are focused on all the time, and they tend to pursue them in the guise of connection. And men are also concerned with achieving involvement and avoiding

isolation, but they are not focused on these goals, and they tend to pursue them in the guise of opposition.

One appreciative reader of Tannen's book told me what a bargain it was--it saved him thousands in marriage counseling fees! I would certainly recommend that it become a shared-reading project for any couple at the very beginning of the job campaign. Even before the job-loss trauma strikes, many American couples who have been married for two decades or more are lonely together in marriage. One woman put it this way for me: "We are going our separate ways together." Non-communication is not the root of the problem; non-understanding is. Inability to communicate leaves the deeper feelings, and questions, unexpressed. This results in a loneliness that is real in both partners, but more acute on the distaff side.

Job loss is typically regarded, both by women and men, as a failure of one kind or another. I was struck by the findings of Carole Hyatt and Linda Gottlieb regarding the different male and female reactions to failure. In When Smart People Fail (Penguin Books, 1988), these authors devote a chapter to "The Male/Female Difference." Here is a set of "bullets" culled from their fourth chapter (pp. 85-97), that can serve to highlight the differences and alert spouses to be on guard against misreading the way the other reacts to job loss.

  • Many women who fail consider quitting work; almost none of the men who fail regard this as an option.
  • Men returning to work after failure emphasize their "feminine" side; women returning to work after failure emphasize their "masculine" side.
  • Most women have an easier time coping with career failure than most men.
  • Success and failure are moral judgments to women and game calls to men.
  • Sex-based differences regarding success and failure are less pronounced in younger people than in older people.

The subtitle of this helpful book is "Rebuilding Yourself for Success." If that rebuilding process is to go well for you after job loss, you have not only to assume personal responsibility for your recovery and re-entry into meaningful employment, but you should be as clear as you can in disclosing to your spouse or close friend "where it hurts." Consider yourself blessed if, in response, you receive support targeted on your need and sensitive to your vulnerability.

Writing in the Personnel Journal (August, 1991), Stanlee Phelps and Marguerite Mason discuss "When Women Lose Their Jobs." And to insure that readers will not miss the message, the layout editor highlighted the following words and placed them immediately beneath the title of the article: "If there's one thing to remember when outplacing employees, it's that men and women are different." How so? In order to learn the different approaches men and women take to outplacement--the professionally-assisted process of transition from one job (lost) to another (not yet found) where the former employer pays for, but does not provide, the assistance--the writers interviewed and observed 64 executives (18 of whom were women) in a Southern California office of a national outplacement firm. They found that women often take longer than men to move through the transition, that women approach outplacement in a way that perplexes the men in their personal lives, and that older women "may opt out of the corporate track altogether, excited by the prospect of blazing more rewarding trails as entrepreneurs or consultants." What is it about the female approach that perplexes the males around them?

Phelps and Mason note that having satisfying relationships in all areas of life, including the workplace, is tied in closely to a woman's fundamental identity. "Therefore, a job loss throws her into an examination of her relationships, her career choice and the balance between the various facets of her life." Women, the authors explain, "are accustomed to working globally--integrating work, partner, kids, household, school and community. A change in one of these areas, such as a job loss, affects all the other areas. On a normal day, women may experience identity confusion because their lives are very complex. A job loss exerts even more pressure on the balance among these many responsibilities." Since work is only one of many female roles, the loss of work has less direct impact on female identity. This is not to say it doesn't hurt, only to note that the hurt is normally not part of an identity crisis.

One man I met during the course of this study, unfazed by the risk of being accused of stereotypical incorrectness on both sides of the gender divide, called women "nesters" and men "hunters." He proceeded to make the following point: "Although women now leave the nest to participate in the hunt, the tendency toward the nest is still there; so is the heart-on-the-hunt in the case of the typical male." In the interest of balance, I should note that an outplacement specialist (more on outplacement in Chapter Five) had men in mind when he told me that his New York City office had several "nesters." Paid for by their former employer, the outplacement space and support services enabled some "to set up housekeeping here. This place becomes a club. One guy was here for five years."

The male identity--unquestioned and culturally reinforced--is focused typically on achievement, on doing, on success. If you lose your job, you set out directly and immediately to "hunt" for another. Men depend on spouses or close friends for encouragement and suppport during the job search. Not only do they want no criticism, they are not inclined toward critical review of themselves and their options. They have a need to perform; they are driven toward the goal of a job, maybe not any job at all, but some job without delay.

For women, say Phelps and Mason, losing a job "opens up emotional fallout, sense of loss, grieving." They "join with other women for creative problem solving, support." They are able to "integrate job search with personal growth, friends, family and community. Women see the loss of a job "as an opportunity to take stock, shift gears;" they put the focus on 'what's my life all about?' and they see the job loss as a personal rejection." This view is affirmed by one of the female participants in my study; she told me, "Women are more resilient than men in dealing with job loss." She characterizes what she has observed in her own reaction to separation and that of other women, as "constructive anger" and "recognition of a new opportunity." "I'm not saying that it is easier for women," she explained, "just that they deal with it better."

Men, by comparison, "downplay or deny the emotional side of losing a job." They "proceed alone." Although support groups are available, "support groups for executive men are rare," say these writers, although I think this point applies only at the most senior levels. Those a notch or two down the scale--vice presidents and directors--have no difficulty finding support groups and are less reluctant to join them.

Unlike women, men tend to "compartmentalize the job search from other aspects of life" and they see the loss of a job "as a misfortune that needs to be fixed right away." They tend immediately to focus on the question "What's my job all about?" while sidestepping the antecedent question "Who am I and what's my life all about?"

Quoting other studies that show about 95 percent of senior male executives to be married and close to 90 percent of their wives not holding paying jobs, Phelps and Mason suggest that the traditional marriage can be both a plus and a minus for the job-searching male executive: "The wife may have been a support system for him during his days of career development and success, but now that he's unemployed, she may exert considerable pressure on him to get out there and get a job. At the same time she may be unwilling or unable to get a job herself."

The dynamics are different when a woman loses a high-level job. "For a woman to have attained a senior position, she had to have made her job her top priority. Men tend not to want to be a spouse in this situation, so many executive women are either divorced or never married.... Typically, these women didn't enjoy a spousal support system during their career development, nor are they subject to 'get a job' pressure from a non-working spouse." Both men and women expressed to me the opinion that women at these higher altitudes of executive responsibility are "tougher" than their male counterparts.

Respect the Differences

The point to be repeated in these pages, and both understood and acted upon by the spouse of a person looking for work, is that men and women are different in their reaction to job loss and in their approach to the job search. The search will go a whole lot better if the person trying to be supportive is also sensitive to and respectful of the differences. Moreover, the non-working spouse "has to understand that emotions run the gamut," said an ousted National Director of Real Estate Services for a major accounting firm. "Even in a person whose confidence has not been affected," he told me, "emotions cannot be 'up' all the time." He admitted to hiding his feelings from his wife on occasion simply because he didn't want to spread the gloom to her. He felt that his wife "didn't really want to know my true feelings; they would have made her afraid." His advice to others in transition: "Keep a stiff upper lip and a smile on your face when dealing with the family."

Robert Bly, in commenting on our tendency to "partially trust" rather than completely trust even those closest to us, tells readers of Iron John : "It is said that in marriage, the man and woman give each other 'his or her nethermost beast' to hold. Each holds the leash for the 'nethermost beast' of the other. It's a wonderful phrase" (pp. 76-77). The phrase is all the more wonderful for those who remember that "nethermost" means "lowest," the area all the way down at the deepest depth--not just the inner-world, but the personal netherworld, as mysterious as that region may be. Marriage partners have to know the nature of the beast whose leash they are handing to or holding for the other.

Opposites may well attract (there will always be arguments about that), but values certainly bond. Shared values, deeply held, will hold partners together through periods of job anxiety. The senior male executive who remembers Tommy Dorsey's music with Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers singing "There Are Such Things," might admit to a need deep in his own netherworld for "Someone to whisper/ 'Darling, you're my guiding star/ It's not what you own/ But just what you are.'"

Probably the most affirmative, supportive spouse I met in the course of this study is the wife of an automotive executive. "He was so strong through the whole experience," she told me, "that I wonder if we withheld some of the support we should have given him. He never complained or felt sorry for himself--and wouldn't let the children or me do so either. We were full of self pity over the loss of our on-demand transportation (no new cars in the driveway), but Tom taught us the positive side of that too--taking cars in for service and making a few repairs ourselves, something we had never done before!" Her closing comments offer a clue to the type of person she is: "Our family unity was never threatened and through the whole painful experience Tom continued to do what he does best--be a perfect husband and father. He thinks young, looks young, acts young, and everyone thinks he is. Makes it very hard for a wife who is the same age as her birth certificate!"

I asked many men and women who had moved through or were still in the job search to articulate advice they would offer to married couples in anticipation of one or other of the partners encountering the dislocation associated with job loss. Here are some examples of what I received. From a very creative sales executive who moved into television production and back to sales:

  • Don't postpone fun time together.

  • Work separately on your "Life Priority" lists and then compare them to pinpoint the incompatibles and the unrealistic expectations. Work out your mutual goals and face-up to the trade-offs you will have to make.

  • Holding is a form of communication that can be more effective than speaking, especially if you don't know what to say or if what you would like to say would be hurtful.

  • Twenty minutes of holding a day (per pair) is good for parents, children, and spouses.

A corporate tax manager acknowledged that spousal and family love was strong. Anger directed at him, not the boss who fired him, came from inside the family. It was, he said, "frequent but short-lived, but it hurt." It took this form: "Why you? What did you do wrong? What aren't you telling me? You saved them so much money; you must have done something wrong." He didn't do anything wrong. In fact, he did something heroic, but his spouse wasn't pleased. He had been asked by his superior to name two people in his department who should be let go, if cuts were mandated. He responded by pointing to the large contribution the department was making and that it was not overstaffed. He could not run a department with fewer people and still do the job. If cuts were mandated, he told those higher up, "it would be better to let me go." One month later they did. This 43-year old manager, now practicing the same specialty in another industry at twice his former salary, has this advice for spouses:

Honestly assess to what extent either one of you contributed to the job loss and deal with that failure or innocence early on. Reaffirm your love for each other, "for better or worse."

  • Once the issue of guilt is faced squarely, learn from it but drop it and focus on building each other up and achieving your objective of reestablishing your source of income.

  • A supportive spouse is very important as rejection is a frequent occurrence if you are sending out enough resumes.

  • Also, quickly establish a new budget with timetables for action.

As downsizing found its way into his Pittsburgh law firm, a 54-year old attorney lost his partnership and had to search for corporate legal work. He reports that his wife was neither understanding nor personally supportive; she was critical and anxious. His advice takes a practical tone:

  • Deal honestly with your children and spouse. Tell them how it is and don't sugarcoat the realities. Explain what must be done on expenditures (cut!). And explain the job-search strategies and techniques to the non-searching spouse. In short, plan for the worst.

The most unfocused, discouraged person in my sample is a 55-year-old male, who shows all the physical signs of a worn-out life and describes his present position in one telling word: "Adrift." He lost a job as director of communications two years earlier and was not yet successful in his efforts to reconnect. His wife worked as he searched, but he wasn't looking very hard. He needed her both emotionally and economically, "to ballast him," as a character in Ford Maddox Ford's Parade's End says, referring to another fellow's need for "a good woman's backing."

He comes as close as anyone I encountered in this study to fitting the description of a discouraged man novelist Jon Hassler provides in North of Hope (Ballantine Books, 1990):

"What are you feeding with all those calories?" [asks a therapist]. "My big leak," was Frank's reply. "I've sprung a very big leak, and my spirit is draining away."

The former director of communications, now "adrift," says he has spent a lot of time thinking about his problems in dealing with other people. "I still don't know what motivates others." His advice to any other couple anticipating job loss: "Reduce debts, avoid financial commitments, and recognize that it can happen anytime for any reason. Don't rely on an employer's goodwill, understanding, or words of reassurance." Now there is a man in need of spousal support. That support, as you will see in the next example, could come in the form of a not-so-gentle push.

In a role-reversal marriage, the breadwinning wife of an unemployed trade association president reported it was "a difficult balancing act" to locate herself somewhere "between encouragement and pushing/prodding." She explained, "I was the one who had to keep encouraging my husband and telling him that he had various skills and qualities that would make him a good candidate for a particular job. There were times when he needed a good push. It was particularly difficult as he became increasingly discouraged, especially each time after being turned down for a job for which he was very well qualified. Occasionally I even went through the Want Ads and circled jobs for him. I'm sure there were some jobs he applied for just to get me off his back. Yet we rarely fought or argued during this time. We both knew we were in this together."

She had some additional insights on how to deal with waning support over time from those outside the family. "At first, all of your friends and family are very supportive and encouraging. As time goes on and you haven't found a job, they start to give advice. Much of this is unwelcome, because you have tried all of it yourself. Pretty soon you find yourself avoiding people beause you don't want them to ask if you have found anything. When you have been in a prominent and powerful position, you have certain recognition that puts you on a par with people in similar positions. After awhile, there is nothing to say, so you avoid these people. Then you develop a cover story that you are in business for yourself. Never mind that you aren't, but at least it gives you some dignity in the eyes of others." She realized, however, that contact with close, non-judgmental friends had to be maintained. In making that point, she highlights a growing problem in America, the difficulty that friends and relatives of the unemployed have in figuring out how to be of help.

"Friends and relatives often wish there were something they could do to help. Everyone knows what to do for the family with a serious illness or death; yet no one knows how to deal with someone who has lost a job. It is a very fine line, because the unemployed are suffering from low self-esteem and do not want charity. However, some nice things friends have done for us include having us over for dinner, giving us tickets that they couldn't use for the theater or sporting events, and offering to let us use their beach house. These things were all done in the spirit of friendship; never were we made to feel that our friends were doing it because they felt sorry for us. The most important thing is to keep in contact, since the unemployed person is disconnected from the normal daily living of the working world and all the interactions that go with it."

One man in this study lost a vice presidential position in the automobile industry at age 42, and was "still looking" for the right position four years later. He was doing some consulting and his wife returned to work. "I resent having to go to a job every day," she told me; "I don't find it satisfying. I loved being home taking care of my family. I would prefer having gone to work because I wanted to and because it is the thing to do at this stage of my life--not because I have to." I asked them both to write down for me an assessment of her reaction to the severance. He gave me one word: "fright." She wrote, "The following describes my immediate and present reactions to his job loss and the resulting challenge to our life together: fear, anger, devastation, anger, helplessness, anxiety, anger, disappointment, anger, isolation, despair, an overwhelming doubt in the existence of a personal God, anger." She added that she is "grateful for a strong family that has so far survived" and indicated that "some facets of our life together have actually improved." He is now closer to the children, more involved in church and school, "things he never had time for before."

Family counselor Peggy Treadwell remarked to me, "How the spouse handles the situation has everything to do with the survival of the entire family" during the unemployment crisis. She makes the added point that typically there will be a still-employed spouse, usually the wife, who should be encouraged to take care of herself. The provision of necessary support must not become an all-consuming thing. She thinks the spousal-support relationship has to be viewed in a "family systems" perspective. Unemployment should not be narrowly perceived as "the problem," and certainly the person who is out of work must not be seen as "the problem." In fact, the spouse who has not been laid off, typically the wife, should seize the opportunity to "get so clear about herself and the future of their family, that she can emerge as an enabling leader in the family, and as a non-threatening challenger (a desirable form of support) to her husband." This is tricky terrain best negotiated, I would think, with the guidance of a skilled professional.

What Ms. Treadwell wants us all to understand is that both spouses are in it together; they must not permit preoccupation with the unwelcome visit of unemployment to their household to become a distracting camouflage, a third corner in an "emotional triangle," that prevents them from talking about other and deeper things.

Use the situation, says Peggy Treadwell, as "an occasion to see how the family is functioning." If she were invited in and asked to help, she would be inclined to focus on the spouse, not necessarily the jobless one, who is "motivated to change." And she would work to facilitate that change on the assumption that the other spouse cannot then not change. The wife, in Peggy Treadwell's example, "needs to separate herself sufficiently so that she can do some clear thinking about what is important to her. This is not to be selfish; it is simply to be appropriately supportive. If you're going to "be there" for another person, you should first locate and assemble the self that hopes to help. The best-known executive in my sample, a name immediately recognizable to even casual readers of business news, described his mood after job loss in these words: "I felt very lonely--rejected; my wife tried hard to keep up my spirits. Suddenly you have a lot of time on your hands." He was tempted, he told me, to lose confidence in himself. He credits the calm reassurance and affirmation from his wife as essential in enabling him to maintain stability.

Reflecting on her own experience after separation from the job of vice president for operations in a healthcare corporation, a married woman had this advice for the spouse of the person being let go: "Recognize the anguish and self-doubt your spouse is experiencing and cut him or her some slack! Be supportive and try to understand that this is a time when you will have to give more than receive."

Another observer told me that one of the psychological issues underlying stresses in the spousal relationship during a job transition is what he calls "male grandiosity." Men tend to forget that "when the dream dies, it dies for both husband and wife, and indeed, the wife may have sacrificed more for it."

A former president and chief operating officer of a bank said, as many others also noted, that it is important for the spouse to understand the search process. The search "will involve rejection; the spouse must recognize this, understand it, and compensate for it." He added: "She has to resist the urge to provide a list of 'things to do around the house in all your free time.'" He wished, he said, that his wife had been able to "forget 'what might have been' job-wise, and look with confidence toward the future." He subsequently found an executive vice presidency in a commercial bank.

During an eighteen-month migration from a divisional presidency in one of the nation's best-known advertising agencies to a "more fulfilling" but lesser executive responsibility in the same industry, a 50-year old executive learned this about the spousal relationship: "The same mutual support that served so well during the good times, serves even better after job loss. We were forward-looking and maintained positive attitudes. We were up-front with people about being out of work. We knew it would be counterproductive to deny the loss of employment."

Another executive, who had been through the transition twice, would want both spouses to realize that "this is a planning opportunity that few people take full advantage of." His advice:

  • Communicate with each other early and often.

  • Have a dose of reality, early!

  • Consider these factors in setting your next job goal: future life goals; the job content (of both jobs, if the spouse works or wants to work; relocation--yes or no; the quality of the life you want to lead.

Keep Communicating

Repeatedly, unemployed managers mentioned the importance of communication between the spouses during the transition. "Communicate, communicate, communicate!" was the terse response several gave to my inquiry about any words of wisdom they would have for other couples in anticipation of job-loss. Interestingly enough, it was a vice president for external communications who spoke to me, after his separation, of the importance of mutual support and understanding. He put it this way: "Be mutual; both people are going through the transition. One cannot let the external threat the transition brings harm the love that the relationship is based on."

Communication--before, during, and in those happy days after the experience--would be virtually unanimous advice for other spouses from marriage partners who had weathered the employment-separation storm. Some warned that the employed spouse can be "unintentionally insensitive" and that "specific job-seeking strategies should not be discussed unless both spouses find it useful." Many used navigational metaphors to convey the importance of mutual support in negotiating the choppy waters of a job search. A stressed job-seeker, aware of his own impatience, underscored his dependence on his wife to keep a calm atmosphere at home. One person recalled an image from childhood to point to the need to manage emotional ups and downs together: "You must try to flatten the roller coaster."

Some offered very practical advice:

  • Keep each other fully informed and involved in your finances.

  • Live well within your means and don't take too seriously your "right" to the luxuries a high income buys. >Reduce expenditures. Know the difference between discretionary and non-discretionary expenditures.

  • Pay off or restructure high-interest debts.

  • Make sacrifices to meet the requirements of a reduced budget.

  • Inform the kids of sacrifices all will have to make.

  • List goals--in writing: long-term, mid-term, short-term.

  • Choose someone other than your spouse to be a "back-up" confidant. Find both a corporate and a spiritual mentor.

  • The sooner both spouses talk to relatives and friends about the "situation" and ask for help, the quicker they will have many supportive allies to help them through

  • the process.

  • Do "free" things for entertainment; watch out forincreased consumption of alcohol.

  • Fight your desire to withdraw.

  • Assume nothing about where your spouse wants to liveand what he or she wants to do. Push for her (or his)answer.

  • Recognize that it is every bit as hard, or even harder on your spouse, who ordinarily cannot do much to solvethe problem.

  • Don't keep anything from your spouse, even if it means full disclosure of your own insecurity and doubt.

  • Avoid unstated differences in expectations during a predictably trying time when mutual support is essential.

  • No surprises.

  • Respect the need for privacy felt by the spouse whose job was lost.

  • Prepare yourself for the fact that during the transitions it is going to be tough being together so much of the time.

  • Realize that too many people stay in the denial or anger stage far longer than they should. It's old news, move forward!

  • Don't place a "hiding-it" burden on the rest of the family; agree on what will be said about "it" up front and just say it whenever appropriate.

  • Love each other and say it often.

Many of my respondents stressed, in this context of advice to spouses, the importance of accumulating savings in advance of the separation event, even if that event was considered unlikely to happen. Some spoke of this in terms of "reserves," and one person specified the need to build up in advance psychological as well as financial reserves. A sales manager, out of work at age 53, was quite specific on the financial issue: "You must have at least six-to-twelve months of salary set aside in a savings account, over and above what you may have been able to invest toward retirement. Finding a new position may take two weeks; it could easily take as long as two years."

Communication between spouses is the necessary infrastructure for both kinds of reserve endowments--psychological and financial--to support the spousal relationship during the stress of transition from a job lost to a job not yet found. Many of the managers I met in the course of this study referred to their spouses as "my best friend." That friendship strengthened the support system that sustained those partners through the ambiguities and uncertainties of the job-search. Without that support, they invariably say, they would not have been able to make it.