For better or worse

When the pink slip arrives, it signals changes not only in employment, but also in a marriage.

Sometimes it's best not to count certain things.

Just ask Marilyn and Tom Middleton. They no longer tally the number of times he's been laid off when companies have merged, restructured, or failed. Nor do they keep precise track of the job-related moves they've made - 15? 16?

They're not even sure how many years they've spent working in separate cities, commuting to see each other on weekends. She thinks it's about seven. He guesses closer to 10.

What they do know with certainty is that the job losses, moves, and separate addresses have strained their marriage almost to the breaking point at times. Like many couples dealing with unemployment, they have struggled with economic and emotional challenges. They even went through bankruptcy.

"Our marriage has had such incredible highs and lows," says Mrs. Middleton. "But we've hung in there. Now we're enjoying some of the good things."

"Hanging in there" is a skill more couples are honing these days as joblessness rises. More than three-quarters of unemployed Americans say family stress has increased since they lost their job, according to a new study by the National Employment Law Project.

Last month the unemployment rate rose to 6 percent - an eight-year high. In the past three months alone, more than half a million jobs have disappeared. Nearly 2 million people have been searching for at least six months.

In the first rush of pink-slip blues, a couple's concern is typically financial: how to keep the family afloat. As they settle into routines involving résumés, interviews, and rejections, other challenges may test a marriage.

"Work is so important to men in particular that when they lose that, they lose a pretty important part of their life. It affects relationships," says Larry Flaccus of Lexington, Mass., founder of a job-search group for executives called WeWantWork-Boston.com.

'How many résumés did you send?'

At work, he explains, people get positive feedback. But during unemployment, feedback may be negative.

"It's critical for the spouse to fill in some of the feedback that might be missing and say, 'I still love you,' " Mr. Flaccus says. "But it's also difficult for them." Almost no support groups exist to let spouses talk about unemployment issues.

Those issues can include loneliness, a lack of communication, changes in the balance of power, housework, too much togetherness, and not enough money.

When the Middletons exchanged wedding vows in 1970, the promise to stay together "for richer, for poorer; for better, for worse" seemed easy enough to make. Love conquers all, right?

That's the fairy-tale version. What they hadn't counted on was unemployment. In 1987, the company where Mr. Middleton worked merged with another companyand laid off 95 percent of its staff. The couple had just bought a "dream house," and their two daughters were attending private school.

"It was devastating," he says. "You ask yourself, How am I going to provide for my family, a role I take very seriously?"

His wife remembers it as "a really rough time for us as a couple. You just don't think anything like that can ever happen to you."

For nine months Mr. Middleton looked for work. Eventually, they began an odyssey that took them from Toledo to a job in Colorado Springs. But that job disappeared before the moving van arrived from Toledo. Desperate, Mr. Middleton, a health-insurance executive, drove a taxi in Colorado Springs, while his wife worked two jobs at the mall. "We were barely making it," she says.

Family involvement

At one low point, the couple separated. But her father intervened, she recalls. "He told Tom to get his act together. He came to me and said, 'You have no business leaving.' I was mad at him for several years. But we took his advice to heart and were grateful."

Still, challenges - and moves - continued. A business partnership failed. Their daughters faced serious problems, and Mr. Middleton dealt with major illness.

How did the couple manage? Mrs. Middleton began a career as a foster-care therapist, which provided essential income. Their families and close friends gave emotional support. Their church and their faith also sustained them.

In one moment of despair, Mrs. Middleton remembers looking out the window and thinking, "You are going to make a commitment to go through this, and in the process you're going to learn to be joyful and content." She adds, "I've learned that that is not based on my husband."

Later she started a "gratitude journal," each day listing something she was thankful for.

Efforts like these paid off. After their earlier rocky patches, Mr. Middleton now calls his wife his "biggest cheerleader," explaining that she constantly reassured him that everything would be all right.

Now they are optimistic about a new chapter. Last month they moved from San Antonio to Baltimore, where he took up an executive position. They hope this job will take them to retirement.

When the wife is unemployed

For working women, unemployment brings many of the same challenges, with an added factor: domestic responsibilities. Lucille Wilson of Waltham, Mass., a software developer, was laid off 19 months ago. She has 3-year-old twins and a husband she describes as "wonderful."

Yet household tasks intrude. "Now that I have 'so much free time,' I'm given all these other jobs that need to be done," says Mrs. Wilson, who, like others in this story, was interviewed by phone. "How am I supposed to look for a job, keep my skills up, clean the house, and do all the other things on the 'honey-do' list?"

Housework also becomes an issue when a man is jobless. Monica Leahy of Los Angeles avoids asking her unemployed husband to cook or clean, even though she works full time.

"He's going through such a tough period," she says. "To add this would be much more of a burden on him than it is on me." At the same time, she appreciates the help he gives. "He has done the dishes without me asking. He's helped with the laundry. He's kept the apartment very clean."

Then there is the essential issue of communication. At a time when couples need to air concerns and consider solutions, an out-of-work husband may become defensive or silent, while a wife may pepper him with too many questions. Mrs. Leahy emphasizes the importance of avoiding an interrogating tone.

Honest communication

Her husband, she says, "was appreciative that I wasn't badgering him each day or asking him, 'Did anyone call? Do you have any interviews?' If he does, he'll let me know. I know how hard he works to find a job. I would never question that."

In the networking groups Flaccus leads, members complain about pressure at home. "Spouses say, 'Why don't you just go get a job?' There seems to be a difficulty in understanding that when there are no jobs available, you can't just go get a job."

Communication is a two-way street, of course. "You have to be able to vent your feelings, telling him once in a while, 'I'm scared, I'm upset,' " says Donna Birkel of Winston-Salem, N.C., whose husband, Damian, has been out of work twice.

Mr. Birkel, now the author of "Career Bounce-Back!" suggests that couples meet weekly to update their situation, rather than face daily grilling. He also urges them to focus on abundance wherever they can, instead of scarcity.

Sometimes dual-career couples find themselves sending résumés and reading want ads at the same time. A couple in Lee, N.H., who wish to be identified only as Elizabeth and Patrick, lost their jobs in quality assurance at separate companies a year and a half ago. Now both are "totally reinventing" themselves, trying to start new businesses.

With three children, money is tight. "Sometimes we sit there and think, 'If only you would find a job. Why aren't you looking for a job at this very moment?' " she says. "We don't say it, but that's the undercurrent."

To gain fresh perspectives, Elizabeth and others emphasize the value of getting out of the house regularly, enjoying free or low-cost activities. Cabin fever is not conducive to family harmony.

When Birkel was unemployed, he and his family went to the art museum on the day admission was free. They also enjoyed picnics and "one-tank" trips. The Middletons like to take walks and talk along the way. Elizabeth and Patrick often head for their networking group, which offers a change of scenery and a welcome upbeat mood.

"Trying to stay positive is really key," Elizabeth says. "If you can find people to help you stay positive, it's important."

No one pretends that staying positive is easy. But Susan and Larry Flaccus, who have been married 32 years, find that a long-term perspective helps.

"There have been better times, and you know there will be better times again," Mrs. Flaccus says. "You have faith that somehow, together, you'll work something out. Which is not to say that I don't have terrible days. It isn't easy, but it isn't all bad."

While her husband job-hunts in Boston, she runs the couple's bed and breakfast in Shelburne, Mass. She thinks the fact that her income is secondary makes her husband's unemployment easier. "He doesn't have the feeling, 'Oh, I'm not making the money, she's making the money.' "

Young couples face different challenges. Two weeks before Rachel and Billy Skinner's baby was born in 2001, Mr. Skinner lost his job in public relations in Austin, Texas. Suddenly Mrs. Skinner's plan to take 12 weeks of maternity leave changed. To bring in needed income, she returned to work when their son, Will, was 6 weeks old.

"It was very difficult," he says. "My wife obviously felt torn, as most mothers do, about going back." Yet he praises her for being supportive and encouraging during his job search, which he describes as "a real roller coaster." At 28, he was competing with experienced 45-year-olds who were willing to take a big pay cut just to get a job.

Encouraging words

For her part, Mrs. Skinner focused on "getting through each day in the most supportive way." She thought of positive things in their lives - their baby, their health, their abilities. And she reminded her husband that he is smart, confident, capable.

"Sitting home and being mean to each other isn't going to change the situation," she says.

The couple also received encouragement from their parents. "They were reminding us to love each other and continue supporting each other, and were reinforcing our abilities."

After Mr. Skinner was turned down by several employers, the couple theorized that having a job would help him get a job by imposing a routine. He took a minimum-wage post at the Gap.

"Going to my mall job and working with 18- and 20-year-olds put a lot of things in perspective for me," he says. He began interviewing for positions paying considerably less than the $50,000 he had been earning.

Eventually, he received two job offers. He now works as marketing director for an auto-leasing company in Austin.

Looking back, he reflects on how they made it. "There was lots of prayer from lots of people, and a lot of effort on my wife's part. We had to be cheerleaders for each other."

The experience has also given him a reminder: "All of us forget to be as thankful as we should be when things are good."

Humor helps couples get through jobless periods, too. "We joke about all the character-building experiences we've had," says Teri Nelsen of Fort Collins, Colo., a mother of four, explaining that her husband declared bankruptcy after a franchise failed.

She would tell him, "You're a good person, and we'll get through this." He is graduating this spring with a master's degree in family therapy, which is her field as well.

Other job-seeking families also grow philosophical. "It's a phase," Leahy says. "This isn't permanent. This, too, shall pass."

Elizabeth looks at the larger picture, saying, "This isn't the end of the world, and it shouldn't be the end of the marriage either. Keep track of what's important. You didn't marry this person just to be rich. Marriage is hard work whether you're out of work or not."

As the Middletons settle into their latest home, she calls these the "gift years," their reward for staying together. In San Antonio they even gave premarital seminars called Building a Solid Foundation at their church to help other couples avoid problems they faced.

"I would not for the world trade where we are as a couple," she says. "Is it perfect? No. Do I wish we could settle down? Yes. Life hasn't gone the way I would have chosen, but I've been blessed. Tom tells me daily that he loves me and that he's glad I'm a part of his life. We feel that if we can make it, there are few people out there who can't."

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