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Emotional Withdrawal Following Job Loss

QUESTION: My husband and I have been married for 15 years. During the last two years we have been under stress from his unemployment. We never play, take time from work, or have sex anymore, even though I have told him how important it is to maintain some pleasure in our relationship. He has also neglected the small traditions, such as acknowledging birthdays and anniversaries, and I have let him know how hurtful this is to me. Our fighting has made me turn numb and I no longer feel as if I am in love with him. I am frightened for our marriage and have considered separation.

ANSWER: Marriage requires commitment and attention to another person. If your spouse wants the benefits of marriage, but lacks the energy to give anything back, then he really is freeloading! However, unemployment can put tremendous stress on the couples' relationship, and feelings evoked by unemployment crisis need to be talked through so that your emotional connection does not suffer. Your husband's behavior may be masking a deeper depression. This could be based on his resentment that you are financially "saving" him, particularly if he has felt you have been disparaging towards him about his unemployment.

Neglecting the relationship in such a blatant manner causes serious damage to a marriage. Failing to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries borders on punitive behavior on his part. But for what reason is he punishing you? It is necessary for the viability of your marriage that he identify what the emotional meaning underlying his behavior is and speak directly to what is eating him. Or he may find himself not only without a job, but without a wife!

The good news may be that this present situation is more the result of intense stress which has your husband suffering feelings of low self-esteem based upon his recent employment difficulties. Men, more than women, can suffer from a severe sense of personal failure if they are unable to provide financially. He may be feeling unworthy to you, but instead of expressing his true feelings he is taking it out on you. This could be an unconscious form of resentment on his part, or it could be self-sabotaging behavior if he feels deep down that he is not worthy of your love. Withdrawing from you in this way harms the marriage and completes a self-fulfilling prophecy that he is worthless and unlovable due to his recent employment failure. Is he trying to get you to separate from him by pushing you away in this manner? Ask him if he is trying to damage the marriage or if he is simply becoming so depressed with his work problems that he is not allowing the marriage to be a source of comfort to him. Suggest he seek professional help to treat his depression, if necessary.

Be aware that your partner's emotional withdrawal is likely to elicit angry attacks on your part. Likewise, angry attacks are likely to trigger withdrawal. It may be that the two of you have been entangled in this or some other destructive cycle of action and reaction for long enough by now, that you have become numb. It would be beneficial to understand your part in this cycle, before you decide to leave your husband, so that you will not suffer regrets later. Separation itself can be experienced as a retaliation and can cause irreparable damage to a marriage. The recent crisis may be exacerbating other relationship issues that have remained dormant until now. Seek to understand what has happened to cause this breakdown in intimacy in the relationship before you gather up all your marbles and leave.

It is very important to your mental health and emotional well-being that you are able to recover your previous marriage traditions and take time for pleasure together if your marriage is not to become a casualty of your husband's unemployment. And it is critical that your partner's behavior communicates to you that you are a valuable and special person to him. Otherwise you are likely to become seriously depressed yourself.

If your husband is unwilling to create time for pleasure with you, or return to your marriage traditions, suggest counseling to save the marriage. If he is unwilling to go for outside help, seek it for yourself. You are obviously suffering from the effects of living in a relationship which does not reflect your entitlement to even a birthday card. It is natural that you would want to separate from this pattern of neglect and devaluation of yourself as a person. Continuing to "make demands" in this situation will lead only to further negative feelings about yourself. Instead, require that these things change. But simultaneously open up avenues for communication. Ask your husband whether you have done anything to cause him to feel that you do not value him. Be curious and open to the possibility that during this period of stress you may have resented him for not providing financially. Ask him to share any feelings that he might believe you harbor due to his unemployment.

Marriage is a relationship that holds power for healing and growth through love. In times of crisis the relationship can be threatened. But at these times more than ever, you must each feel respected and valued by the other. This is your buffer against the trials and tribulations of life. It does not mean that you "know", intellectually that you are loved or that your partner merely says he appreciates you. It means that you can feel the love and appreciation in the atmosphere between you. And it does not mean that you feel the love only when all is going well. The test of any relationship is whether you can feel love and respect from your partner even in the down times. Crisis can bring you closer, or it can push you apart. Reflect with your husband on why these last two years have created distance instead of closeness.

Despite normal conflict, disagreement and stress, healthy partnerships reflect the true positive values of the other in the relationship. In your marriage, you are experiencing yourself in the relationship as a "victim" to his neglect. This does not build your self-esteem. Your partner is getting a reflection of himself (from you) as a selfish and self absorbed individual. This cannot be good for him either.

It has been the observation of some family therapists that when people remain in situations without possibility of change, that physical illness may follow upon finally "giving up" . Remaining trapped without hope creates despair. Such despair, especially when prolonged, impacts physical and emotional health. So it is important that some movement toward change occurs in your marriage.

Let your husband know that you require change to continue in the relationship. Share your feelings of numbness that have replaced anger, and your fears for the future of your marriage. But refuse bitterness! Bitterness is an indication of defeat. You are not defeated if you commit to your own growth and development, which includes a respectful and loving relationship with the man to whom you are married. If he does not have the energy to give the marriage what is required to reflect your worth and value, then tell him that nothing is wrong with his inability to treat you specially. It simply means that he does not have energy to be married. Being married means that you have to save energy to attend to your partner, even after 30 years!

If after clearly and calmly expressing your needs to him he does not wish to change, or gives you no indication of what might be going on for him to react in such a neglectful manner, then take yourself seriously and begin searching for other situations that make you feel valued. Friendships, work outside of your marriage relationship and community involvement could all provide you avenues for recovering your self esteem and value.

When you feel you have a sufficient support system and have been able to achieve an internal sense of self respect, independent of the marriage, evaluate whether you want to continue your marriage or not. By that time, you will be less desperate emotionally, having built your own independent sense of worth. You will be in a better frame of mind to separate from him if the marriage has not improved. And in the meantime, you will not be "stuck", but improving your own life whether you stay in the marriage or not. After being together for a long time, it is wise to take a little more time to explore what this recent crisis has brought up for the two of you before separating in anger. Your desire to flee is likely a reaction to your sense of powerlessness in the situation, rather than a question of right or wrong.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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