Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Marriage in a Time of Layoffs

Elizabeth Bernstein's title says it well: "You Drive Me Crazy: What Layoffs Do to a Marriage." Link here.

Most especially Bernstein wants to know what this kind of trauma does to a marriage and how a marriage can survive it.

A layoff is a trauma. Compared to what therapists usually call traumas, layoffs have the distinction of being no-fault traumas.

The standard therapeutic approach identifies the person who suffers a trauma as the victim of abuse. If that is true, then cure must involve the denunciation and prosecution of the abuser. In this classical view of trauma, the cure is justice.

Bernstein does not subscribe to this approach. She does not see the depression people feel when they are laid off or the marital problems that arise as functions of some hidden psychic defect or even a predisposition to neurosis.

Read her description of the effects of trauma on someone who has lost his job: "... if someone is sitting home all day with out a job, is it any wonder that he becomes stir crazy and needy? Couples dealing with this must contend with the new structure of their days-- or the lack of it. Suddenly one or both members is at home with not much to do (especially if they're not trying not to spend money) and no one to do it with. When they are talking to their friends, these pals are often still working, and therefore, busy."

To analyze the real situation that causes the psychological disruption, Bernstein emphasizes
the similarity between people who have lost their jobs and retirees.

When the husband of a stay-at-home wife retires or loses his job, his presence at home will feel disruptive and invasive.

It does not much matter what he is doing at home; his wife will feel it as an intrusion. His mere presence will disrupt her routines and make her feel that she is being surveyed and overseen.

But then, how can she explain to a man who, as often happens, has earned the money that has purchased the home, who has been living there, on nights and weekends, for decades, that his presence now feels intrusive?

For his part the husband will surely feel unwelcome. But how can he be unwelcome in his own home?

If this man finds himself hanging around the house because he has lost his job, he will additionally feel a quantity of embarrassment. This might make him withdrawn and defensive. Then he might read his wife's dissatisfaction as a judgment of his own inadequacy.

When routines are disrupted, people experience it as traumatic, even when no one is at fault.

For that reason a therapy that emphasizes finding fault will never really be able to address the underlying issue or to help craft a solution.

Or take a case Bernstein recounts. A woman who has worked all her adult life is suddenly laid off. Her husband is still working, but she is alone around the house for the entire day.

She suffers a profound social deprivation, missing the normal social interactions that accompany a job, and her status as a valuable, participating member of society.

Having worked all her adult life, she does not have a circle of friends and neighbors with whom to spend time. Since she is also somewhat embarrassed for having been laid off, she does not seek out new friends to whom she might have to explain what happened.

Alone and isolated she has a single source of human social contact: her husband. The minute he walks through the door in the evening he is met with an avalanche of questions and comments, of neediness and demands.

In sense there is nothing very abnormal in her reaction. She requires social activity; she requires a feeling of participating actively in society and business. Unfortunately, she seeks it all from a single individual, and no individual can provide it.

How can couples deal with layoffs more constructively?

First, by understanding that they are suffering and stressed through no fault of their own. The strains on a marriage under these circumstances are normal, not a sign that something is wrong with the marriage.

Second, by reorganizing their lives and creating new routines and new activities.

Two social beings have lost their moorings. They will regain what they have lost once they reconstruct their social life and regain their place in society.

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