Just listen

Just listen

 Sometimes simply being there is the answer for a depressed, unemployed spouse

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 10/26/2012

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Dear Patti,
My husband, Ethan, was laid off a month before our wedding (almost a year ago). We scaled down the ceremony to save costs, and I moved into his apartment instead of leasing a house, like we’d planned. He has been unemployed since then, and we’re living on my salary (less than three-quarters of what he used to make). I love Ethan and am committed to him, but I’m starting to resent him and our situation. He’s moody and defensive, especially if I ask about his progress finding work. Sometimes he can’t stop talking about his computer searches and interviews; other times he clams up and isolates from me and others. Sometimes he’s online all night; other times he sleeps way too much and seems depressed. I want to be supportive because I know he’s trying, he’s ambitious and he’s certainly not lazy, but sometimes I question if he’s doing all he can do to find a job.

Before Ethan lost his job, we’d planned on starting a family; I’d planned to quit my job and stay at home with our baby. More than anything I want to be a mother. I don’t want to blame him, but I’m 33 and my worst fear is that we’ll wait too long and I won’t be able to get pregnant. If that happened, I’m afraid I’d hold it against him.
— Tara

Dear Tara,
This is obviously difficult, because both of you, simultaneously, are in a state of serious stress and hurt. Let’s look at each of your situations and then consider your relationship.

Prolonged unemployment is having a devastating impact on Ethan, affecting his self-confidence and self-esteem, probably evoking shame/embarrassment and causing him to withdraw from friends and family after already losing contact with co-workers and professional colleagues. Social isolation contributes to depression and anxiety as well as a tendency to think of oneself as a failure. Even if he’s doing everything possible, it’s difficult to keep facing rejection — a cycle often leading to self-blame and a lack of motivation.

Your role isn’t easy, and it’s understandable that you’re sometimes unsure how to respond to him. There’s a fine line between being compassionate and understanding and becoming an enabler of inaction and self pity. If you push too much, you’ll come across as a nag; if you distance yourself, you could seem cold and unfeeling.

Be a good listener. Follow his lead. If he wants to talk, be available to listen; if he withdraws, try to give him space. Listen without giving quick solutions or pep talks and avoid catastrophizing. Just listen. Respond when he asks for your input or when it appears he’s ready and open for it. Without overdoing it, optimism can be helpful, especially when he’s lost his way. Offering help, such as proofreading a letter, is good but avoid becoming his career counselor.

Encouragement and believing in him when he’s having difficulty believing in himself could end up being lifesaving support. Show you still love him through good times and bad by doing something special for him, like making his favorite dessert. Lastly, if you ever think he’s becoming clinically depressed, insist he seek professional help, regardless of the extra financial strain.

Ethan is having a challenging time, but so are you. It’s especially devastating for unemployment to happen so early in your relationship, before stability was established and you had an opportunity to experience being taken care of or supported in your dream. It’s understandable you sometimes resent being the breadwinner, and it’s important to discuss these feelings with Ethan and let him know what he might do to lessen your load. He may never be as domestically efficient as you’d like, but make clear what you need him to do while you’re working. Most importantly, express your need to pursue the dream of having a family. You need to be able to trust he’s doing all he can to make this happen as soon as possible.

Strategize a plan together as well as a daily routine that will support your mutual needs and allow you to stay focused on your future dreams and goals. Most importantly, keep communicating about what you can do for each other in such stressful times. Remember to have fun and be affectionate like you were when you were first together. If Ethan is responsive to doing all he can to alleviate your pain, and if you’re supportive and loving, you could come through this struggle even stronger than before.


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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