Careers May Falter, but Marriages Don't Have to

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chris, a 58-year-old salesman who has been out of work for about nine months, turned to his wife in bed one recent morning and told her, "Leah, I'm scared."

That wasn't easy for this normally self-confident man to admit, and Leah was so moved by her husband's honesty that she set aside her own considerable anxiety to reassure him that, somehow, they will find a way out of this crisis.

Neither of them expected to face such a long period of unemployment when Chris was laid off from his $60,000-a-year position as a regional sales manager for an electronics firm. He's made a career of job hunting ever since--"looking for anything"--but has hit only dead ends in a market in which there are far more applicants than openings.

"There are days when I'm stiff with fear," Leah, who is 49, says.

But, she adds, there are also days when she feels closer to her husband than ever before.

This Orange County couple has found a silver lining in the recession that has threatened their comfortable, middle-class life style: Their love for each other seems to be growing as their savings account dwindles.

The same is true for their longtime friends and neighbors--Roy, 51, and Gina, 48--who are also learning to live on a sharply reduced income after a recession-related layoff.

Both couples met with a reporter recently at Roy and Gina's house to talk--anonymously--about how they have managed to strengthen their marriages while facing the stress of unemployment.

"We made up our minds we weren't going to let this destroy us," says Gina, whose husband, an electronics engineer, was laid off last September from a job that paid $34,000 a year plus substantial benefits.

Roy found work after two months, but the couple is still feeling the impact of the recession because his new position--a sales job that bores him because it doesn't make use of his engineering skills--pays $8,000 less a year and doesn't provide any benefits.

Both Roy and Chris say they have found that being more intimate with their wives helps compensate for the lack of satisfaction in their careers. But they admit they had to work through recession-induced friction in their relationships before they started feeling closer to their mates.

For example, Roy says he and Gina argued after he was laid off because he felt she was blaming him for getting them into a situation over which he had no control. (She still denies that, and the look they exchange indicates this remains a sore subject.)

Leah admits she began to wonder what Chris was doing wrong when he failed to land a job after a number of interviews. Although she tries not to let Chris see her doubts and knows intellectually that her husband is a victim of the recession, she says she can't always resist the impulse to blame him for their troubles.

The emotional and physical exhaustion that comes from trying to stay afloat financially while dealing with rejection from potential employers and uncertainty about the future may also create distance between couples when they need each other most, Leah notes.

For example, she explains: "Unemployment cuts a wide swath through your sex life. You hold hands a lot, because you don't have any energy left. It takes everything you have to get through the day."

Sometimes, exhaustion leads to fights over mundane matters that would not be a source of conflict under normal circumstances. Chris recalls one argument he and Leah had recently over a set of 12 drinking glasses that she bought for $4. She was proud of finding such a bargain, but Chris was furious because, he explains, they already had plenty of glasses and this was no time to be making unnecessary purchases.

In stressful times, "it's the little things that eat away at you," Leah observes.

For the most part, however, Leah and Chris--and Gina and Roy--have managed to keep those "little things" in perspective, and to balance their economic slump with a significant upturn on the emotional side of their marital ledger.

In spite of the financial stress they've faced as a result of unemployment, they say they've enjoyed the opportunity it's given them to spend more time together and to renew their romance after seeing the last of their grown children move out.

Soon after each of these long-married couples was faced with a job layoff, they did something that others in their predicament might consider a bit reckless: They took a trip.

Leah and Chris went to Lake Tahoe, Gina and Roy to Yosemite.

"At first we said, 'We can't do this!' And then we said, 'Why not?' " Gina recalls. "It was the best weekend we ever had."

Leah says her post-layoff trip with Chris was not only romantic, but also symbolic--like the new suit he bought years ago, just after being laid off during a recession that prompted him to leave the aerospace field.

"It's a way of reinforcing the idea that you're OK," Leah explains.

She and Gina, both of whom are trying to ease the burden on their husbands by looking for jobs as temporary secretaries, say they are pleased that Chris and Roy have been able to allow their vulnerability to show as they've struggled with rejection and disappointment in the job market.

Says Leah: "Their cover is blown because they're emotionally spent. You start learning about the person you live with."

"I thought I was the only one who was insecure," says Gina, who saw her husband go from anger to tears during one uncharacteristic display of emotion after he was laid off. "I learned that he has insecurities too. He hid his feelings until the bad times hit, and then it all came out. It's made us closer."

Roy adds that he feels closer to his wife because of the way she's responded to their economic difficulties--by changing her spending habits so they can get by on a lower income.

Gina says she's a recovered "shopaholic" who used to run her department store credit cards up to the limit. Now she doesn't use them at all.

"My priorities have changed," she explains.

"She's being more realistic about where we are financially and about how to handle money," Roy says with pride.

Leah also admires the way her partner has adjusted to a difficult financial situation. "He does whatever it takes to pay the bills. I respect that," she says.

Chris even spent three months working as a sales clerk in a video store. Although the income helped, he says he felt like celebrating after his last day on that job. In a way, that's just what he and Leah did when they started talking about ways they might bail out of this crisis, perhaps by retiring early and moving to a place where the cost of living is lower.

Leah says they used to worry about whether they could handle the togetherness that would come with retirement. No more. "Now we know we like each other," Leah says, noting that her husband has mellowed considerably over the past nine months.

"He's loosening up. He's losing that structured stiffness of his," she says. "He enjoys life more. It's the neatest thing in the world to hear him laugh. He's realized that laughing is better than brooding and being angry."

After nine months of seeing jobs go to younger workers and hearing employers say "Good resume, but we're not hiring," Chris still has days when he's tempted to stay in bed till noon with the covers over his head. Especially when he remembers that the RV he and Leah loved to use for quick getaways is in storage because they can't afford insurance. And that he will have to dip into the funds he's set aside for retirement--or sell his house--if he doesn't find work soon.

When he's down, it helps to think about the retired people with whom he and Leah square dance. "They're happy on a limited income," he says.

Gina and Leah agree that being able to talk with the openness and trust of close friends is the key to keeping a marriage from becoming a casualty of the recession.

"If you just have the hots kind of love and you're not friends, it's tough," Leah says.

But couples who approach their problems as a team rather than allowing stress to turn them into adversaries can use this economic downturn as a time for making sound investments in their romantic future. As Leah puts it: "Life doesn't stop because you are out of work. It can be a very refreshing time in a couple's relationship if you don't act as if someone has died."

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