Wives of the Unemployed

Losing a job is a family affair

Marcus was an unemployed IT professional with two kids and a wife. He told a story that many men in his situation would recognize.

“I kind of feel that I’m failing in my part to provide for my family because we’re just relying on my wife’s salary and her health care and everything,” Marcus said. “So I feel that I am failing in a sense by not having a job and providing for the family.”

Sylvia, Marcus’ wife, earned six-figures as a manager in a telecommunications company.

And Sylvia was stressed out.

“I felt the weight of the family was solely on me,” she said. “The pressure of ‘I can’t lose my job’ because… both of us can’t be unemployed. … made it stressful.”

In a full year of Marcus’ unemployment, Sylvia gain 30 pounds from “stress eating.”

After the Great Recession, sociologist Aliya Hamid Rao spoke to dozens of white-collar unemployed men and, for thirteen of them, their wives, too.

How do wives deal with their unemployed husbands?

Professor Rao, writing for Journal of Marriage and Family, sought to find out.

Bedrock of the Soul

Whether you love your job or hate it, just the fact that you have a job can be a bedrock of the soul. Losing your job, whether this loss was sought after or thrust upon you, can feel bad. It can feel really bad if you lost the job unexpectedly, without fanfare or warning. Grown men in this situation feel fear, sadness, hopelessness, and embarrassment.

To land a job you have to work. You have to network and you have to go on job interviews and sell yourself to the highest bidder. But Rao found that unemployed men who sport a breadwinner mentality can lose the confidence to look for a job.

The story goes like this:

The husband struggles to find a new job.

The wife struggles to deadlift her husband’s sagging spirits and gets him to look for a job.

“Why is Brian the greatest employee ever?”

Rao the social scientist met Brian and Emily.

Brian has been out of work for a while and feels frustrated at the job search: “[you have] to sit there in an interview and try to bullshit why is Brian the greatest employee ever? That part just for me is very probably the worst part of the whole thing,” Brian said.

Brian’s wife, Emily, sustains the family at a third of the income they once enjoyed. She loses sleep over it.

“It’s very scary,” Emily said. “I sit up in the kitchen and I think ‘We’re going to have to give up this house,’ you know, what are we going to do? We’re going to rent some shitty little apartment?” (646)

Emily understood Brian. “He doesn’t have the get-up-and-go to go do it [the job search] ’Cause he’s in such a dump,” Emily said. “So I am trying to still be very positive.” (646)

In tough situations it’s tough to be positive. And Emily is frustrated.

“But he is not a strong like a man like who just says, ‘Oh I don’t care. I’ve been fired? I don’t care. Screw them. I’ll go find another job.’” Emily said. “He is very sensitive and emotional. And he’s like a girl! Like man up!…”

Emotional Rescue

While the men were supposed to be trawling the internet for jobs, the duty of family organizer and confidence booster fell to the wives, many of whom had a steady job that could support the family, though at a lower income bracket than a dual-earner couple would make.

Some wives said that they are half of a husband-wife team — a partnership that will find a way out of their troubles. Wives made sure their husbands call and tell them about their day.

The husbands felt lost in their newly unstructured time; the wives tried to put their husbands on a schedule to look for a job. All the while, the wives hid their own stressful emotions as best they could.

Managing stress is the wives’ homework. There’s a term for it coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild: “emotional labor.” In this kind of labor, Rao writes, the wives of the unemployed draw strength and humor from wherever they can find it.

One woman compared the situation to the taming of the fox in the children’s book, The Little Prince:

“It’s kind of like taming the little creature in The Little Prince: You meet at the same time every day and you’re expected to be there,” she said. “I don’t know that I’ve tamed him or whatever [chuckles] but [the call] is something I look forward to. ’Cause I like to hear what he has to say.”

“It’s an important call for me,” she added.

A Fine Line

Taming and nagging can be a fine line that neither the wives nor the husbands want crossed.

Rao met Shannon. Shannon has a job but her husband, William, is unemployed. Shannon treads carefully.

“I always ask him, you know, ‘What’d you do today?’ or, but I don’t want it to come across like ‘Did you do anything to find a job?’…” Shannon said.

“And I’m just trying to make conversation, where I’m sure he’s thinking “Just get off my back,” Shannon said. “So, that’s been hard.”

Teamwork it is, with wives batting clean-up.


This piece is based on Aliya Hamid Rao’s “Stand By Your Man: Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment” published in the Journal of Marriage and Family (pp. 636 – 656) in 2017. Joshua K. Dubrow authored this short popularization of that article, and is solely responsible for this interpretation of Professor Rao’s work.

“I kind of feel that I’m failing…” (644)

“I felt the weight of the family…” (648)

In a full year of Marcus’ unemployment… (650)

“[you have] to sit there in an interview…” (644)

“It’s very scary…” (646)

“But he is not a strong like a man…” (646)

Though at a lower income bracket (646)

“It’s kind of like taming…” (647)

“I always ask him…” (652)

“And I’m just trying to make conversation…” (652)

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND

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