Irritable Unemployed MenJed Diamond, PhD, LCSW
...and the Women Who Love Them
Posted July 10, 2009
Dear Dr. Diamond,
Three months ago my husband lost his job. I've done my best to be understanding and supportive, but he's getting more irritable, angry, and withdrawn. I try and let him know I don't blame him, that it's the economy not something he's done wrong, but he just snaps my had off. It's hard enough not having his paycheck, but what's even worse is the strain this is putting on our relationship. I don't want our marriage to fall apart. What can I do?
As a psychotherapist, specializing in men's health, I get letters like these every day.
As the recession puts more and more men out of work, the wives increasingly feel the impact. Time magazine's Erin Davies reports on how male job loss is affecting the women. Sarah Janosek, a 47-year old hospice nurse and mother of three teenagers living in Austin, Texas, spoke about how she felt when her husband told her he had been laid off. "There was a sinking in the pit of my stomach and tears," she says. "It was just devastating. It's completely outside your power and now you're responsible for the entire family."
Often men become more irritable and angry, while the women become more anxious and worried. "You worry about losing everything. It's just overwhelmingly scary and there are no resources for spouses," Janosek says. She was fortunate in being able to increase her work hours, and her husband now has some contract work, which has helped but it hardly solves the problem. "I am still angry about it," she says.
So are many other women wives of the 4.2 million men who have been laid off since the recession began. In fact, according to recent data, it is likely that more than 2 million American women are married to someone who has been handed a pink slip during this recession. Compare that to the approximately 1.4 million women who have lost a job themselves and it appears that the majority of women may be experiencing our Great Recession's mass job losses not as a laid off worker herself but as the spouse of one.
For many women, it's a lot more difficult to deal with their husband's job loss than it is their own. "Although it hit me hard when I lost my job three years ago, says Mary Richmond, of Glendale, California, "I didn't blame myself or question my womanhood. But when my husband, Jerry, got laid off, it was like the wind was knocked out of him and he still hasn't recovered. No matter what I say he blames himself and I don't know what to do to help him."
Donna Koehn, writing in the Tampa Tribune, reports on the family stress caused by job losses in hard-hit Florida. Since losing his job in March, Colin Flood, a longtime technical writer, does odd jobs for friends. He's happy to be useful, but he longs to return to work he loves. "My family and friends have tried to be helpful, but it's devastating," Flood says. "I should be at my peak earning potential, in a stable career. Now I'm waiting on unemployment."
Even when he sought a simple restaurant employment, there were barriers for the 51 year-old Flood. "I go for a waiter job, and there's some young chickie-poo who's going to get the job instead," he says. When a man can't work to his potential and support his family it can be devastating.
"Men are used to fulfilling the masculine ideal that has been ingrained in them that if they do things the right way, they will be rewarded," says Marie Gray, a psychologist in Pennsylvania, a state that has also been hard it by unemployment. "Many of them feel at a total loss," says Gray, who specializes in trauma studies at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. "They feel powerless, stuck, useless, hopeless and many feel great shame."
Some men turn the pain inward and become listless and preoccupied. They withdraw and spend more time watching television or surfing the internet. This often compounds the problem and makes it more difficult for them to reach out for the support services that would help them find a new job. Other men turn their pain outward and blame others, particularly their spouses. They become hypersensitive and controlling. The women feel like they are walking on egg-shells and feel pummeled by his anger.
I call this behavior, "Irritable Male Syndrome," or IMS. Although it can occur at any age, it is particularly prevalent at mid-life when hormone levels are dropping and stress is on the rise. Job loss contributes greatly to the stress. But even those men who are still employed are often terrified of losing their jobs and are impacted. And one of the most unfortunate casualties of IMS is the relationship the couple has worked so hard to develop over the years. The couple can often survive the loss of a job, but cannot survive the loss of trust and love that may result when anger and blame take over the family.
I have been doing research on IMS for the last eight years and know that it can be understood and treated. I developed a questionnaire which you can access at IMSquiz.com to determine if IMS is causing problems in your relationship. Over 60,000 men have taken it, as well as several thousand women. If you feel IMS is causing your family harm, whether from job loss or any other cause, I encourage you to seek help.
Jed Diamond is director of MenAlive, a program dedicated to healing men and the women who love them. He is the author of 7 books including Male Menopause and The Irritable Male Syndrome.