Honey, I'm Home!

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

man playing a video game from a couch with a beer bottle on a table
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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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The larger toll for Sue has been on the relationship: "It's completely crushed our bond. While driving to a concert recently, I asked about his job search and he replied, 'I have no ideas. I got nothing.' Which is what he always says. Then he got silent and the trip was ruined. My friends send him leads on jobs that he doesn't follow up on, and that burns bridges and embarrasses me," she says. (And when he tells her, "You don't know what it's like to look for a job," she actually does. She lost a publishing position in 2010 and had a new job within six weeks.) "I have rage because he won't activate himself, that he's putting his pride over his family."

Attendant to her anger, though, comes sympathy. It's frustrating to watch your partner's feckless job hunt when you have utter faith in his talent and sleep next to him at night. As Sue puts it, "I either want to kick him or hug him." Which is similar to the "I have to laugh or I'll cry" situation that Beth, a teacher from Virginia, finds herself in: "My husband has been unemployed for two years. He has a master's degree — and delivers pizza three nights a week." Their fights are over how he spends his days. How many hours can a man realistically be expected to sit at a computer, waiting for a receipt-of-résumé e-mail from some phantom HR department? "In the winter, he might go snowboarding midweek," Beth says. "In the summer, he'll sit outside at a bar and post photos of beer on Facebook."

To avoid that argument, she says, "I leave him 'honey-do' lists, and he usually fulfills them." (Sue, for her part, sets e-mail networking goals for her husband and asks to be BCC'd on each one.) These lists serve a higher purpose than nagging: It seems men are hardwired to provide for women, and if they're not producing a paycheck, let them at least restock the dwindling Diet Coke supply and do the laundry.

"The thing we kept hearing in our study was that these men like helping their wives," says Myers. "A truck driver said he was excited to get up each morning to make his wife coffee because she likes it, but also because she supports the family. Or guys were dropping their kids off at school. Many jobs don't allow men to do that. If they had to take their kids to dance class, their bosses would laugh at them."

The transformation is akin to "accidental feminism," Myers says. "Men would never choose this situation; it was put on them. But instead of saying, 'I'm a great man because I'm a breadwinner,' they think, I'm still a great man because I'm putting my family first. They have changed what 'providing for your family' means."

And that can work for women, too: Before her husband lost his advertising job, Monica, a business strategist in Wichita, would spend up to half an hour per day job-hunting for him. They bickered about how much sports he watched, how late he slept, how much the lawn needed mowing. But since he was laid off two years ago, he does housework, tends to the pets, drives their daughter to school, and helps Monica with her expanding consulting business. "I decided to take our life to the next stage," she recalls. "And as soon as I started working more and expecting him to deal with things at home, I stopped resenting him." Plus, they argued more about money when he was actually making some: After his layoff, they instituted weekly "status reports" on their finances. (She manages on a macro level with investments, and he manages on a micro level paying the bills.) "Now I'd be heartbroken if he got a job," she says. "I feel like I'm being spoiled."

Which Joyce could say, too, despite her initial panic. "Mike does everything — makes sure I'm eating, sleeping, not stressing out. I think he doesn't allow himself to wallow in self-pity as a protective measure," she says. "He drives me to work just to spend time with me and reminds me to take my vitamins. He shows me that there's more to 'being taken care of' than money."