Male breadwinners have lost their jobs at a greater clip than women during this recession—or "he-cession," as some call it. Roughly 74 percent of the approximately 6 million jobs lost since the recession began in December 2007 have been men's, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And more than a few therapists say they're seeing an uptick in relationship problems as a result. It's not so much that laid-off traditionalists are resentful of their breadwinning wives. Resentment, they're noting, often flows from the other side.
"Almost every one of the women in my practice understands that these are difficult times," says John W. Jacobs, a psychiatrist who does couples therapy in New York City. "No one is blaming the guy directly." But the shift in family dynamics—and a guy's behavior—may significantly change the way wives feel about their situations: more burdened, more responsible, and less admiring of their other halves, whom many women still expect (even if only subconsciously) to be the primary wage earner. Some of Jacobs's female clients have become openly critical of their husbands: "It's just so annoying to see him moping around the house all day."
What tends to raise wives' ire is how men manage their predicament, says Jacobs. If men manage by remaining optimistic, relationship problems are less likely to ensue, he says; if they become self-critical, pessimistic, and despondent, that's when wives become less tolerant. But given that the capacity to earn a living remains one of the central struts of male self-esteem, "there's certainly data to demonstrate that unemployed men may not cope with [job loss] very well," says Jessica G. Schairer, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles. "They tend to get more depressed." And withdrawn, despondent, and irritable, she adds. Women often misinterpret the signs of depression as anger towards them, which can make it very hard, if not impossible, to respond with what Schairer says their husbands actually need: "more love, compassion, and support—even if they're behaving like they're going to reject it."
Here are some tips for wives in this bind:
1. Encourage him. "We're going to work together and make every effort to work this out," you might offer. Or, "It's bad now, but we're going to get through it." Root for your partner, advises Howard Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver and a couples therapist and couples researcher. Cheerlead.
2. Don't push. Emotional support means listening, not prying. "This is a big mistake women make in relationships," says Markman. "They really try to push a guy to talk" and, when he resists, assume he doesn't care for them. "That's a wrong interpretation," Markman says. This isn't the time to raise a relationship issue by saying things like, "You never want to talk to me." Think of job loss as trauma, Markman suggests. Let him know you're there to listen, and do just that.
3. Be there. If he's watching TV, sit beside him and just hang out. It shows that you're available to him if he does want to talk, says Markman.
4. Offer physical support. "No matter what's going on in your relationship, this is really the time to put aside resentments, thoughts of divorce, and not being in love," Markman recommends. The best way to convey support is through affectionate physical contact.
5. Remove any blame. "One of the great things about marriage, if you have a good one, is that when times get tough, you hold together, don't fall apart, and appreciate each other," Jacobs says. Think of how you would behave should a parent die, a child get sick, or a hurricane destroy your house, he advises. "I do think both men and women have to remind themselves on a regular basis that this is not their doing."