"I was laid off six months ago and feel utterly lost," said Ilene, 47, who worked as a public-relations coordinator for a large biotech company. "I know it's not personal but after working 25 years in a job I loved — well, it sure feels that way! It was so abrupt. The HR person called me to her office, said my department had lost its funding and told me to clear out my desk by 5 p.m. I was crying so hard I could barely drive home. When I told Ken he shrugged and said, 'Well, we'll have to deal with it.' No hug, no reassuring words. Financially we can get by on his salary, and I'm grateful for that. But I feel as though someone pushed the pause button on my life.
"Ken and I argue constantly. Part of the problem is Heather, his daughter, who's 23. She graduated college last year but can't find a job, so she's back home. You might think that our being in the same boat — unemployed with time on our hands — would bring us closer, but we get on each other's nerves. She was 5 when her dad and I got married. We got along okay when she was a kid, but Ken has always put her ahead of everyone else — including our son, Adam, who's 14. Heather's mom died in a car accident when Heather was 3, so Ken overcompensates. He'll watch TV with her downstairs, for example, not in the den with Adam and me.
"Yesterday I was on the phone and Heather picked up four times, slamming the receiver down when she heard me talking. We live in a rural area and her cell phone doesn't work well here, so at dinner I said, 'If you need to use the phone, just ask.' She claimed she picked up one time. I said, 'Try four.' 'Are you calling me a liar?' she screamed. Ken sided with her, asking if she wanted to go to 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee — as if she were a 6-year-old! I felt totally betrayed. I know she's anxious about not having a job, but join the club. Don't I deserve some compassion, too?
"We also fight about Adam, who's doing poorly in school. For seventh grade we transferred him to the private middle school Heather attended. She loved it but Adam is miserable. I want to switch him back to public school, but Ken cuts me off every time I bring up the topic. In fact he won't talk to me about anything. If I say I feel as if I'm wasting my days, he'll snap, 'Find a hobby!' or 'Go back to school!' Just thinking about that paralyzes me. If I go back to school, I'll be 51 by the time I graduate! Ken couldn't care less about all that, which infuriates me. I've never been a complainer, but I know I'm turning into one.
"I've only ever worked for one company. I started there right after community college. That may sound boring but I loved it. Over the years I gained more responsibility and got to know so many wonderful people. In fact, I met Ken through a colleague. He was quiet but cute and smart. After we'd been dating for a while, he told me he'd been nervous that I wouldn't like him. That was so sweet. I didn't think I was the type to make a man nervous. For our wedding we posted an invitation on our office doors inviting coworkers to stop by, and more than 200 people showed up! We barely had enough cake for everyone.
"I miss my colleagues so much. I try to keep in touch but we live far away from town, so meeting someone for lunch is not as simple as Ken seems to think. He and I never do anything together, except fight. I'm not pulling in a paycheck, so I feel guilty even suggesting a movie or dinner out. The days all blend together. I suspect our marriage is doomed, but I'm so unhappy I don't know what I think anymore."
"Ilene has changed so much," says Ken, 48, a soft-spoken administrator at a government housing agency. "It's as if she's lost her rudder. She spends most of the day watching TV and talking on the phone to her sisters.
"The old Ilene was outgoing and warm — a people person. I feel terrible about her losing her job and I've tried to help. She knows I'm not a touchy-feely kind of guy, but what she didn't say is that she ignores my advice. I suggested going back to school, perhaps to study library science or some area of healthcare. She insists schooling will take too long and she'll be an unemployable old lady when she gets out. I tell her to at least get out of the house, do volunteer work, get together with friends. She never does that, either. The truth is, I have no idea what she should do. She has to figure that one out for herself.
"What I do know is that our arguments are awful. If I didn't cut her off, she'd go on and on for hours about the same thing. It drives me nuts. When she launches into one of her tirades, I don't know how to answer her, so most of the time I don't answer her at all. That just seems to make her angrier.
"She also seems convinced that because I love my daughter I can't love her. That's crazy. My poor daughter lost her mother when she was 3 years old! Of course I bend over backward to make her feel loved! How can Ilene possibly be jealous of that? As for the phone incident, I have no idea what happened. I thought I was doing the right thing by taking Heather out of the house so they could both calm down. Ilene saw that as traitorous. Well, I'm not a traitor and I'm not a terrible father to Adam because I refuse to excuse his poor grades. Ilene coddles him. His school has a top-notch reputation and the discipline and high standards are good for him.
"I'm not used to all this fighting. My parents rarely uttered a cross word to each other. We had a quiet life in Indiana on our family farm. I went to the state university and majored in communications. After college I moved to Indianapolis, where I worked for a real estate developer for nine years. That's where I met my first wife. After she died I didn't feel like staying in Indiana anymore. It was a terrible time. When a friend told me about job openings out West, I decided to give it a try.
"I met Ilene shortly after Heather and I moved out here. We worked in the same office complex and every time I saw her she was surrounded by people, chatting and laughing. I'm pretty introverted, and her enthusiasm and joy were irresistible. I felt myself coming back to life just being around her. To this day I'm convinced that people say hello to me in the halls because I'm married to her.
"For a long time we had a good marriage. Now we go to bed angry and wake up angry. I don't know what I'm going to do if Ilene doesn't snap out of this funk."
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.