Your Spouse Lost Her Job? What to Expect

When your mate loses his job, you lose more than just income. Your emotional equilibirum may be upset as well. A new study reports that the stress a partner experiences from being unemployed can infect you (and your own job stress, by the way, may also increase your out-of-work partner's stress).

Surprisingly, the stronger your marriage, the more contagious your partner's stress may be.

A number of studies in the past have found that stress and depression can be contagious in marriages, either through empathizing with your partner or simply by mimicking their mannerisms and behavior-something that couples often find themselves doing.

This latest study, conducted in China and published in the January issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, looked at what happens when one person is employed but his/her spouse is jobless. The authors found that while the unemployed spouse was more stressed out, the employed spouse was stressed as well. But the spouses had different anxieties.

While the unemployed spouse typically worried about financial pressure and job-search issues, the stressors on the employed spouse were based on work conflict and work-family conflict. The employed spouse was much more likely to agree with such statements as:

  • "I have a lot of work at my job."
  • "I had an argument with a coworker."
  • "Today I came home too tired to do some of the things I'd like to do."
  • "My personal life takes up time that I'd like to spend at work."
The strength of the marriage affected how much the stress was passed from one person to the other, but it depended on which spouse was unemployed.
  • If the wife was employed, the stress "crossover" from wife to husband was stronger in more satisfied marriages than in less satisfied ones.
  • If the husband was employed, the stress crossover from husband to wife was weaker in more satisfied marriages than in less satisfied ones.
The authors attributed the different effects to differences in how men and women manage their home and work domains. They hypothesized that men tend to protect their wives from tensions they experience at work (at least when the marriage is good), whereas women tend to share their stresses with their husbands. The study also found that women tended to be more sensitive to work stressors than men.

How can unemployment stress be eased? The authors recommend:

  • Managers and organizations need to be more supportive when their employees have a spouse or partner who is unemployed.
  • Employers should implement family-friendly policies, such as flexible working hours, to help ease work-family conflicts. The authors write, "Our findings suggest that female employees may particularly benefit from these programs as they were more influenced by work stress."
  • Couples also may need to seek counseling in how to build coping strategies as well as to learn how to support each other and to be empathetic without "catching" each other's stress or depression.
Have you felt the stress of your partner's unemployment? And what did you do to alleviate it? Did your employer help--or hurt?
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Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy flickr user shanon wise