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Q&A: Helping a Laid-off Spouse

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of three New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.

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Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

My husband was terminated from his job last June because he was told it was “not a good fit.” He worked from home and I could tell that during conference calls he was usually either blamed for not getting a job done on time or was defensive about the work he did. It’s now March and still no job prospects. He is very defensive when I suggest job opportunities, networking, or re-training. I am to the point where I am shutting down because of his attitude, but finances are becoming critical. How do I talk to him about real solutions for job hunting and networking without him getting so defensive?

Regards,

Critical Situation

A Dear Critical,

Thanks for asking a tough question. The sad truth is that time doesn’t always heal all wounds. Sometimes a personal calamity such as termination, death, divorce, financial loss, etc. creates a vortex that grows with time—engulfing the person, and sucking their loved ones into a growing spiral of failure.

It sounds as if your husband is caught in this kind of vicious cycle, and it’s reaching into your relationship. Take heart. There are ways to break free, but it will take effort on your part—and some of this effort might seem counterintuitive at first.

Painful stories. Think of your husband’s termination as a powerful blow that left bruises. These bruises are painful realizations or stories your husband is now telling himself. The stories we see most often are helpless, victim, and villain stories.

Helpless Story: Your husband might be thinking: “I’m a failure,” “It’s hopeless,” or “I’ll never succeed.” These stories will undermine his mood, self-esteem, and motivation. These thoughts often become automatic, entering his head every time the topic is touched, and create humiliation and pain. They might explain why your husband is avoiding everything related to the topic.

Victim Story: Your husband might be thinking: “The system is rigged,” “It’s all political,” or “People don’t respect me.” These stories would make him feel put upon and oppressed. They might also explain why he resists your attempts to help.

Villain Story: Your husband might be thinking: “My boss wasn’t fair to me,” “The company shouldn’t have fired me,” etc. These stories would lead to ruminating on and revisiting the blow. People who tell villain stories often reactivate the personal calamity instead of grow beyond it.

Master these stories. In an ideal world, your husband will come to realize that these self-defeating stories aren’t the whole story. Sure, he might not be as skilled, as politically savvy, or as appreciated as he assumed he was, but he’s not a failure either. He will put this blow into perspective. However, if he hasn’t come to this realization on his own, then there are actions you can take to help.

• Use Direct Experience. Your husband needs proof that the self-defeating stories he’s internalized aren’t the complete truth. You can help by focusing on his successes, rather than his failures. However, words alone aren’t likely to be enough. Look for ways to use direct experience. For example, how can he help others during this time between jobs? The best way to recover from a blow to your self-esteem is to earn it back. He can do this by making a challenging and meaningful contribution to others.

Focus on the purpose, not the strategy. One of the challenges we face as family members is that we’re seen as nagging, rather than helping. The solution is to back away from the specific requests we’ve made, and focus on the broader common purpose that unites us.

• You say your husband gets defensive when you suggest jobs, networking, or re-training. Try backing away from these specific strategies. Instead, ask for your husband’s help with the broader mutual purpose: managing your family’s critical financial decisions.

Remember, respect is at risk. Your husband’s self-respect has taken a beating. He’s likely to be extra sensitive to any sign of further disrespect. In fact, he may take your well-intentioned suggestions as a sign that you don’t trust or respect him.

• Take extra care to avoid being directive or controlling during the conversation. Emphasize exploration, visioning, and personal choice and control. Remember that requests may feel like demands.

You might open this conversation with: “I’d like us to set aside a time to explore our goals together. My main goal is for us to build a happy life together. Everything else is open to change. Maybe it’s time to jump off the rat race. Or maybe it’s time to double-down. Can we set aside an hour or two to talk about what you’d like to see happen?”

Explore barriers, instead of advocating for actions. There is a common mistake most of us make when we’re in your situation. We advocate for actions we believe in instead of exploring the barriers that make these actions difficult. When we take it as our role to advocate, we force the other person to argue the other side. We argue for, they argue against, and guess who wins?

• It works better if we begin by acknowledging that the action will be difficult. This shows respect for why they are stuck. Then explore the barriers one at a time, in bite-sized chunks. Brainstorm solutions, while continuing to emphasize personal choice and control.

De-escalate your finances. My suggestions so far have focused on process—how to have the conversation. I’d like to end with a piece of substantive advice. I’ve been in your husband’s position and I recommend cutting back on expenses before you get too far into a financial hole. Find a way to reduce your predictable expenses. For example, rent a smaller apartment, sell your home, stop your cable TV subscription, etc.

Know that you are not alone. Many families are facing your situation. The news describes people dealing with this as “discouraged workers.” I hope I’ve given you some ideas for addressing this discouragement, while pulling your family closer together.

Best wishes,

David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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7 thoughts on “Q&A: Helping a Laid-off Spouse”

  1. I was in a slightly similar situation, I tried waiting it out with encouraging words and actions but it was not working. So we put together a resume and then I started putting in applications for him to jobs I thought might be a good fit. I would tell him later, Oh by the way I saw a job that I thought would fit you I sent your resume out (he was grateful for the help). It helped me because I knew for a fact that everything that could be done to pursue a job was being done. This help him because he did not feel the rejection that can often accompany job hunting. I made sure he knew what I was doing. Never go behind their backs instead ask is there anything I can do to help (buying him stamps or resume paper, taking the suit to the cleaners)? Last but most important let them know your proud to be their spouse, reminisce about prior work triumphs, remind them of how amazing they are and why you married them. Good Luck. Don’t forget your a team in this forget the old move on to bigger and better.

  2. Thank you for the very thoughtful article. I just forwarded it to a friend whose husband recently lost his job. One effective way to build self-esteem is to find a way to help others. Perhaps the unemployment provides an opportunity to volunteer in a way that was not possible while working. While this may not help dwindling finances immediately, the self-esteem might be a tangible help in preparing for another job. Also, the volunteer activity might provide a whole new set of networking contacts.

  3. Everything I suggest he just ignores no matter what. So I have just shut down and cut back on everything I can. We only have so much in savings to get us thru and then I dont know what I will do but he is not listening to any of my suggestions so I dont know if there is an answer.

  4. Very sage advice David. I too am in that situation. It is tough. My wife has struggled also. Some of the best things we did were in her words “figure out which expenses we could reduce or eliminate to give me more time to find something that I really wanted to do. “That it was my chance to get into something fulfilling for me rather than just jumping back into the rat race”. In my case a whole division was cut, so I didn’t have to go through the personal feelings of rejection etc.

    I liked Kelly’s response, of “we are in this together” which is very helpful and her words and actions of support for her husband”.

    Getting out there that Boyd and you mentioned are the healing and attracting new opportunities parts of the equation. While the first inclination is to just burrow back under the covers. There is a whole new world out there to discover but with a different set of eyes. I found a reason to be out and about and as I reached out, referrals came my way. I also found that I encountered a new level of growth. I made it a game to learn something new everyday and make at least one contact each day or 5 a week.

    Maybe her husband was not in a field that was best suited for him or was working for someone in a no-win situation. I saw an extreme example of this some years back. The individual fought hard and couldn’t do anything right. His performance was embarrassing and he was embarrassed. Many of us (from another division) agonized over how to help him. A manager in yet another division felt sorry for him and offered him a position in a totally different field. The man absolutely blossomed….I have never seen anything like it. In no time the man was at the top of his new division……and everyone was praising him and his work. Different field….Different boss or?

    The funny thing is that when I offer help to someone in my area of expertise, it has come back in spades. Have I replaced my income yet……no. Am I happier and healthier …absolutely! The income will come as long as I stay active and connected.

  5. Thanks David. I always appreciate your observations and guidance. Would you be able to share one or more “barrier” examples?

  6. Thanks everyone for your great additions. I’ll try to respond to Joyce and Terry.

    Joyce, it sounds as if you’ve done your best. Your partner has closed down, and you say you’ve shut down as well. Your current trajectory won’t get you where you want to go. I would at least consider getting professional help–maybe a marriage counselor or maybe psychological help for your husband. Perhaps a skilled third party could break through his barriers, and show him how to regain control. Kelly and Jan give great advice above–and I hope their success can help you maintain your optimism and perseverance.

    Terry, my suggestion to “explore barriers, rather than advocating action” comes from the field of Motivational Interviewing. Motivational Interviewing is an approach and a set of skills that are designed to help a person find their own motivation. It emphasizes autonomy, rather than control; and ownership, rather than obedience. It seeks to help the person take charge to help himself/herself. Here is a reference you could check out: http://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/39531/_PARENT/layout_details_cc/false

    You asked me for more “barrier” examples. Here is what I mean: Suppose you and your husband both know that it takes $35,000 to pay for your basic expenses. You could say, “I think you need to apply for every job that pays $35K or more.” This advocating could well elicit a negative reaction. Your husband might say, “A lot of these aren’t what I’m interested or trained to do.” Then you end up arguing one side, while your husband argues the other side.

    It often works better to say something like, “There are a lot of jobs that pay $35K or more–but a lot of them probably don’t fit your interests or skills. Could you go through each one, and list the pros and cons of each?” This approach acknowledges both sides of the argument, and empowers your husband to work it out.

    David

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