How to Cope When Someone You Love is Out of Work
The pursuit of fulfilling work and meaningful relationships are two of the main components of a happy life. Too many of us derive too much of our sense of identity from our work, which makes life hard when work stops being pleasurable, and trickier still if we lose our jobs.
Fortunately, many of us have loving relationships, too, whether a romantic partner or our family and closest friends. When work becomes challenging, we hope those people will be present during our time of need for the small and big problems. If you have been through such an experience, you know you may have closely assessed how people were present and supportive and it may well have changed how that relationship functions now. So, what can we do when those we care about struggle with work?
I want to spur on more frequent and honest conversations about work. Being supportive of someone you care about who is out of work isn’t easy. This should help.
1. It’s OK to admit: This is a bad situation for them (and you)
When I was a child, my father, whom I love dearly, lost his job. He was bewildered, and we soon started collecting newspapers by the pound to pay for the groceries. My dad was a Green Beret and has always worked as a salesman and how he acted during this time has always stayed with me. It was my initial interaction with someone I loved deeply hurting, and unsure for a prolonged period of time of what might come next. Perhaps, as a formative experience, it led to my becoming so drawn to working on and around careers?
Since then, I’ve had two partners who were deeply unhappy with their work, three siblings, several cousins, too many close friends to mention as well as having been there myself. Before you start thinking maybe I’m the common denominator, here, and that I’ve brought some kind of unemployment curse to all of these loved ones, the truth is, many Americans will find themselves under-employed or out of work, when they want to be working, at some point in their lives.
What I’m saying is: I understand how overwhelming it can feel when you really think about what you do, or don’t do, for a living. And the chances are, your loved one really needs your support as they contemplate all this, looking for work, right now. I get it. This is some heavy stuff. It isn’t selfish for you to acknowledge that this has an impact on you.
2. It’s hard, if not impossible, to “coach” a loved one
Perhaps the hardest, but most important, lesson I’ve had to learn is that offering handy career coaching tips at a time like this isn’t usually the most helpful solution! This was one of the earliest insights shared with me in my mid-20s by more senior coaches and counselors. Of course, I had to re-learn this a few time times before it stuck. And even now I occasionally creep back towards believing that perhaps this time it will be OK.
The closer you are to someone, the easier it can be to trigger negative reactions, when you are genuinely trying to be helpful. As a coach, I’ve often been asked to work with people’s family members, because the person approaching me could not get through, no matter how many ways they approached the conversation.
Put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. They’re going to be wondering whether you might have an agenda. Do you want to be proven right about something or have control? If you have watched your prospective coach have a reaction to an aggressive beaver he was certain was going towards your canoe, or cry one night at karaoke whilst belting out “Someone Like Me”, it can be difficult to afford them what we might think of as conventional professional respect. Things get too complex. It’s important to recognize the limits of your responsibility and effectiveness here, and to resist the desire to be too “helpful”. And also, to consider if perhaps you do have an agenda. (Not an accusation, just an opportunity for you to reflect!)
People may feel like they’re grieving or disoriented and not even know it. I spoke with a woman recently who had just lost a job, and honestly, couldn’t move on. She had lost a job rather suddenly at a start-up she helped launch only three weeks prior and was struggling to take on that next thing. She simply needed time and permission to process what had just happened. You may need to be more of a listener than a fixer, at this point. In fact, listener and affirmer are usually the best roles to take on, right now.
3. Be a matador
Imagine the issue is a raging bull. It is coming at you and your loved one with the potential to hurt you both greatly. You may have to nimbly let stuff pass because to confront the issue directly can create too much conflict. You don’t always have to solve it. Sometimes you just need to be there with your loved one as they try to bring the bull to ground. You also need to recognize, sometimes, that there’s going to be a force coming at you, that can be dangerous.
It is not about you. It is about a situation that has upturned their world and caused them to question who they are and what value they have.
4. If possible, reframe the issue
This is a tricky one. If your loved one was revered in their field or always spoke of their love for what they did it may sound impossible to do this. But ask: Were they really happy in the job they lost? What did they not like? Is this an opportunity for them to reconsider who they are, professionally? Might they find a better job that actually makes them happier? Most people, because we can be picky beings, have things that they would have improved about what they did last. I know it’s a revolutionary concept, but I do honestly believe people deserve work that they love, and that they can find it if they put in the work.
5. Be aware of your tone
Avoid being flippant or sarcastic. You may hear the same complaints or issues daily for some time. If you let that trigger you it will trigger them and create an awful cycle where you want them to do more and they want you to just be supportive. These are tricky waters you’re navigating, and you need to be mindful of the risks. You wouldn’t be sarcastic during a bullfight, would you?
6. It’s not about the luxury coffee, or: Try to avoid losing your shit.
I have a friend whose husband was out of work for a long period, while she was pulling in the wage to support them both. She had been very supportive and done all the right things. Then one day, in the grocery store, he picked out a $16 bag of expensive coffee for their cart. She went ballistic at him.
It wasn’t really about the coffee.
The point is, this is a situation that requires continual drawing from your well of compassion, and the truth is, sometimes your patience and compassion are going to run out. But it’s also really important to try to avoid losing your shit too often, because that won’t help solve the problem, but rather make it worse.
It is very unlikely that your loved one thought, one day, “I really want to be out of work and spend my days watching daytime TV on the couch,” or that they decided to put themselves into this situation to spite you. It’s also likely that they are feeling doubt about their standing with you as a contributor to the household. These are most often bleak times for them, often made even trickier by ‘traditional’ gender roles.
Be aware that a tendency to snap over little things in this situation will actually be playing into the fears and doubts that the other person may be having. And that if you do snap, then that’s something that’s going to linger on, way past sundown. They’ll be more fearful, you’ll be feeling guilty. It’s not a good recipe. You need to repeatedly emphasize your love and support for them. What you don’t want is for them to close down the lines of communication completely..
And, basically, just get them the luxury coffee occasionally? Put it on your credit card. Resent them, even. Whatever. Just hold it together for the smaller things that allow you to engage them in the more important issues of moving on.
7. It’s not about the money, either
They’re not worried about the dollar amount in the bank account. I mean, they are. You both are. But more than that, they’re worried they are a failure. It’s about their sense of standing in the relationship with you. Perhaps you used to know them as a big success in a certain field? Now, they’re worried they are diminished in your eyes. You need to tell them they aren’t. You need to do your very best to be convincing and repeat this aloud, often. It’s very important for the sustainability of your loving relationship.
What we know in relationships is that we all play different roles, like home repair, financial management, cleaning, cooking, etc. This is a moment to recognize and value those things. However, I have been the one in a relationship who has paid all the rent for a while which I was mostly OK with, except at odd moments when suddenly anxiety around money would overwhelm me. I too have been the guy who at moments will question a grocery store choice, and sometimes those darned words come out. I don’t expect you to be perfect. In truth, talking about how you are feeling helps. It can feel like a lose-lose: I pay for everything and I also feel guilty about it.
You are going to mess up along the way. I can mostly guarantee that. If you manage to remember these magical words, “I’m sorry”, followed by additional empathetic words, you will find that can get you through infrequent mouthiness.
8. They might feel guilty about putting more pressure on you
I try to take the long approach here. Relationships are a marathon and not a sprint. We will be in need at different times for different things. This is their moment, and you want to think that they will be there for you. If they’re tending towards a pity party every time you talk about the issue, tell them, “I have faith in you to land something that will make you fulfilled. Just do the thing(s) today that moves you close to that”. But move the conversation away from their guilt. It’s a wasted emotion and bizarrely, you’ll feel bad, after a while, for being the focus of it.
9. Get your own support
That’s right, have an affair. Actually, I mean the opposite of that. I mean do whatever it is you need to do to be okay, too, albeit within reasonable bounds. Do not have an affair!!! This is crucial advice. But there’s no harm having lunch with a friend from the office, or a chat with your gym buddy, or even, God forbid, getting a massage, or taking a fishing trip. Just remember that you’re important, too. You’re valuable. And that by taking care of yourself outside the relationship, you’ll be better equipped to be supportive within it. And talk to your friends who have been on both sides of this for perspective. As the data above shows, this is a far too common experience, and others can equip you to be a better matador.
10. Make sure they don’t cut themselves off from others or the world
It’s very important that your loved one seeks fellowship. Friends, former work colleagues (if that’s realistic), a religious group that provides career support or an employee assistance program can all help. The tendency to isolate is natural, but you need to encourage them to avoid it. It is not just about empathy, it is also about unearthing opportunities, and the commercials between the segments before Judge Judy renders her verdict often are without employment opportunities.
People often benefit from perspective. While volunteering can have skill-building value, I like it as it requires you to step outside yourself to serve others. Late last year I coached a man in his late 60s who just had his tongue removed. Formerly a spokesperson, he needed a salary, but was very hard to understand post-surgery. I’ll bring him up at times with clients who feel their situation is impossible. We get caught in the weeds of our own life and sometimes need to see someone else’s.
11. Understand that they may not be as empathetic as you might need
You need support? They probably can’t give it right now. Deal with it.
I often think about the challenges that the partners of people in PhD programs face. They need to be the emotionally supportive ones while their spouse looks for a job anywhere. Then their partner, hopefully, gets an offer. Meanwhile, they then have to move, and find a job in a city that they may not like and where they have no friends or contacts. This isn’t a post about how impossible it is to date academics (although, you know…it is…a bit…) but about how the emotional swings and roundabouts in relationships sometimes move against you. When you need support, in the new town, they owe you one. Not that you are keeping score….
Any sustainable relationship has movement in both directions and at their emotional ebb tide you are better off lowering your expectations.
12. Give them some space
Again, do not have an affair. I’m saying they may need some space to feel their emotions, without necessarily processing them with you at all times. Don’t be all, “let’s solve your life” at every opportunity. Get a dog or something. Take up a hobby. Be cool. Be chill.
If you have the means, do silly stuff. You must still have some of the same fun things you did previously as part of your best times together. Much of that doesn’t require spending money.
13. If things have gone on for a long time, take more steps
It can take the pressure off if you give yourself a cut-off time to pivot in your approach if the situation remains unresolved after a while.
The amount of time depends on how long they were in their previous job, what the job market is like, and your financial situation. It also depends on whether they are the type to take action, or, for example, become depressed. These are people you know well so you may have prior experiences to base this on. I like to consider that some may need a bit of time to adjust to the new normal and then can get to starting to take action. I wouldn't usually wait longer than two to three months before you might turn to some entity to help your loved one develop a plan.
What I tell people is that far too often each day of the job search is deemed a failure if you don’t find a job. With a plan you can have successes each day towards that goal. Is there someone they might turn to, obviously? Perhaps, someone who has helped them in the past? A career coach, perhaps? A therapist? Are they depressed? Do they need to speak with a doctor?
Other things help: Tell them it’s okay to take something in the short term for money. We all do things to bridge lean times. Outside of that, remind them where else they might offer value, such as by cooking, additional childcare, building that deck or cleaning up the garage, planning, or doing some form of community service. And remember: Put your own support system in place and maintain it.
If you have read this far you clearly have someone in your life that you are worried about. They are fortunate to have you in their life. Even with this blip, you, too are fortunate to have them.
Our relationships define us. Ideally, they last longer than any of our jobs. Consider for a moment that this is one of its great tests. You can pass this. Feel free to cheat off my paper.
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship and a Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z & LGBTQ Influencer by LinkedIn