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October 23, 2012

Honey, I'm Home!

When your guy loses his job, what it means to be the man of the house changes.

man on couch

Photo Credit: Michael Rubin/Gallerystock.com

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THE HONEYMOON WAS OVER. After their June 2010 wedding in San Francisco followed by two weeks in the bucolic Irish countryside, Joyce and Mike returned home to New York City, where they happily settled into newlywed life. For 12 days. Then Mike was laid off from his job at a film archive. "I thought, Oh, God, what have I gotten myself into?" Joyce says. "Now he's unemployed and I'm stuck. I thought marriage meant not having to stress about money. I never thought I would marry a banker, but I did want an equal partner."

That sense of dread is familiar to many women who've gotten the same news during the punishing economy of the past several years. An expanding series of glib neologisms try to encapsulate the nation's financial situation — the "Man-cession" (that hit the predominantly male-dominated construction industry), the "She-conomy" (with more middle-class women as breadwinners), and the "He-covery" (which has more men rejoining the workforce) — but they hardly tell the full story. Or describe what it's like at home when a couple deals with unemployment.

"These terms can be misleading because there are still fewer women in the labor force, and women lost jobs, too," says Kristen Myers, Ph.D., director of women's studies at Northern Illinois University and coauthor of a study on how male joblessness affects gender dynamics at home. "We found that unemployed men weren't defensive about financially depending on women — very surprising — but it did uncover all this emotional stuff. During the interviews, men would cry, which made us feel horrible." Indeed, male unemployment is a mélange of money matters, sexual politics, and romantic dynamics (essentially, a volatile cocktail of every topic polite society strains to avoid). As such, for many women, talking about it feels like a betrayal of their guy — to such a degree that interviewees shared only their first names and none would comment on their sex lives.

"Shame and guilt accompany job loss," says personal finance expert Manisha Thakor, coauthor of Get Financially Naked. The best way to avoid the stress it brings to a relationship, she says, "is getting in front of the money issue." After that initial, jarring "I got canned" conversation, Thakor says to "take a few days to process, then discuss how to adjust your finances. It will make you stop feeling powerless. The longer you spend money as if nothing has happened, the deeper the chasm becomes." The aim, of course, is to have that six-month cushion that financial planners always suggest. But beware of thinking that minor cuts (eliminating HBO) will enable you to maintain your schmancier habits (laundry service at the gym, private-school tuition). "Tear off the Band-Aid quickly," Thakor says.

When Mike first lost his job, Joyce says, "I fired our cleaning person, I gave up acupuncture and my personal trainer — luckily these are First World luxuries. And immediately we noticed the boost in our finances."

Sue, a food writer in North Carolina, hasn't been financially walloped by her husband's job loss (yet) because "we didn't have debt. We owned our cars. Our mortgage is less than $1,000 a month. My father-in-law died, and we got $20,000 selling his house," she says. "That's the kind of windfall you save, and we pissed it away on living expenses." When her husband's family business dissolved three years ago, "he had two months' severance, so he took a six-week bike trip to Costa Rica," she says. "I figured his life was changing, he needed a break. But three years later he's still going back to Costa Rica and is still unemployed."

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