"I Lost My Job and He Doesn't Even Care"
The Counselor's Turn
When someone is suddenly let go from a job she's held for a long time, she feels unmoored, especially if she expected to have it until retirement," said the counselor. "Though this couple was spared dire financial consequences, Ilene's experience was typical. Her self-esteem had been bound up in her work. When she was laid off she lost not only a job that made her feel competent but also a surrogate family from whom she derived support and love. When Ken appeared indifferent to her situation and seemed to favor his daughter over her, Ilene got angry. Even so I strongly believed she and Ken still loved each other and could break the cycle by learning to communicate better.
"Ilene liked to mull over her options when she was anxious or uncertain. She became enraged when Ken responded with what felt like generic quick fixes -- or didn't respond at all. But Ken, every inch the efficient administrator, hated rambling, what-should-I-do conversations. He was helping the only way he knew how -- by making pragmatic suggestions. When Ilene rebuffed them, he withdrew.
"'For good communication, couples need equal airtime,' I said. Ilene tended to repeat herself in endless variations on the same topic. 'That's a monologue, not a dialogue,' I told her. I suggested that she pause after three sentences to allow Ken to talk. 'When Ilene speaks and you respond with silence, she feels hurt,' I told him. 'Instead, if you think out loud about what she told you, focusing first on what makes sense, she'll feel heard. This way you both will feel a sense of partnership.'
"I also pointed out the importance of tone of voice in shifting the tenor of a conversation. I encouraged Ilene to switch from complaining to a friendly conversational tone and from generalizations ('You always side with Heather') to a 'When you...then I' construction. At one session Ilene said, 'When you watch TV downstairs with Heather I feel left out.' Ken responded by telling Ilene how much he loves her and that he never meant to create the impression that Heather comes before her. Ilene melted. Ken now watches TV with Ilene and Adam and invites Heather to join them -- which she has done. Feeling more secure, Ilene undertook an 'all-out-kindness' campaign, which greatly eased the tension. Happily, Heather found a teaching job and will soon be moving into an apartment with a friend. When Ilene offered to help them pull together some inexpensive furnishings, Heather gratefully accepted.
"Ken also acknowledged that he'd been obstinate about Adam's school. After a conference with the headmaster they decided to switch their son back to public school, where he's settled in nicely.
"Losing her job was traumatic, but as her marriage improved Ilene's spirits lifted. One weekend she and Ken cleared out the den, painted the walls a cheery yellow, and spruced up the room with flea-market finds. Ken was delighted. 'Ilene did an amazing job,' he reported. 'She has a great feel for color and turned a dark, cluttered space into a wonderful family room.'
"In fact, like many burned-out job seekers Ilene has begun to think about turning her hobby (restoring furniture) into a business. 'I called a former colleague who also lost her job,' Ilene reported. 'We're going to do this together and see where it goes. We already have one commission: My sister needs her dining table refinished.'
"'I know it sounds kind of corny,' Ilene said at our last session, 'but losing my job has forced me to reinvent myself -- and my marriage.'
"Ken reached for his wife's hand. 'And the new version is making us very happy,' he said."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2009.