“Matt: I hate to admit it, but I’m really having a problem on the home front.  I’ve been looking for a job for a number of months now and my spouse just won’t get off my back.  She constantly tells me I’m not searching hard enough or that I’m being too picky about the types of jobs I’d consider.  What should I tell her?  I don’t think she understands how tight things are out there…”

Among all of the factors that might lead a job hunter to be more successful versus less successful in their search efforts, support from one’s family definitely plays a significant role.  While rarely talked about, out in the open, I’ve had many job hunters discuss this issue with me behind closed doors over the years.  Some of them have very positive stories to report, like the fellow I talked with the other day who said his whole family meets every Sunday night to strategize together and all pitch in around the mission of “helping Dad find a new job.”  For this family, job hunting is a team sport.  Other families, well, unfortunately many of my clients report that they are on the receiving end of relentless pressure/nagging from their spouse (or parents, or significant other) related to their lack of success at finding work.

Some of these cases can escalate to nightmare proportions.  I’ve sat with some married couples, in coaching sessions, and watched a spouse (perhaps male, perhaps female) continuously beat down and belittle their partner, accusing them of laziness, apathy, or just plain screwing things up at their last job in a way that makes them fully to blame for their current career circumstances.  I even had one person get divorced during his job search process, then ask me to serve as an expert witness in court to attest that it truly was “normal” to not land a new $250,000 job within three months, since his wife had accused him of avoiding work deliberately to try to get out of paying alimony.  Luckily, I found a way to wriggle myself out of that situation!

At the end of the day, of course, most situations fall somewhere between the two above extremes.  While I suspect most people are pretty compassionate and supportive of their out-of-work relatives, at heart, the stress of prolonged unemployment will inevitably lead to moments of tension between the various parties involved.  From a layman’s perspective, as somebody who isn’t formally trained in family counseling, it seems to me that this common occurrence reflects the fact that different family members tend to play different roles in the household  — and having mom or dad out of work, unable to play the typical “role” in question, causes a major disruption in the normal family dynamic/routine that puts people on edge.  Additionally, there’s the undeniable fact that different people tend to deal with stress in vastly different ways.  Some people worry a ton about money and about whether the bills will get paid.  Others stress out about image and how a family member’s unemployment will look to the neighbors — or their parents — or to members of their church.  And others, still, worry about health coverage and emergency medical issues.  These tendencies are probably nothing new in most families.  They’ve always been there under the surface and undoubtedly flare up from time to time, aside from the employment issue.  But when one of the family’s major income earners loses a job, it’s like throwing gas on the fire, and these patterns get exacerbated to an extreme degree.

So how can a husband, wife, and/or family manage this dynamic more effectively?  Again, I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the key (like with so many things) is communication.  Many conflicts of this kind seem to be the result of a failure to share information.  The husband or wife might be out job hunting all day, doing all the right things, but their spouse often has no way to know this.  For all they know, their significant other might have spent the day walking aimlessly in the park, surfing the web at the local coffee shop, or down at the corner bar drowning their sorrows.  So they ask an innocuous question like “how was your day?” (a passive-aggressive attempt to learn what their spouse has been working on) or “did you turn up any new leads today, dear?” (which can sound to a frustrated job hunter like “if you didn’t, you must not have tried hard enough!”)  And this dynamic gets amplified further if the job hunter’s spouse hasn’t had to look for work for many years, themselves, and doesn’t realize how drastically things have changed out there — and how slowly the wheels can turn in a modern job hunting campaign, even under ideal circumstances.

So my advice?  Communicate.  Hug.  Laugh together.  Cry together.  Talk openly about the challenge at hand and make sure everybody knows the “game plan” and pitches in somehow to help the family be successful, whether this involves sharing some of the actual job hunting tasks (e.g conducting research, networking with friends) or simply finding creative ways to cut costs until the missing income stream can be restored.  And if you’re the job hunter in question, make sure you constantly communicate with your family about the activities you’re engaging in and how hard you’re working to create leads.  Don’t “protect” your loved ones or “leave them in the dark” under some misguided attempt to be stoic, otherwise you’ll cause them to worry even more, the natural consequence that occurs from a lack of information-sharing.  Do you doubt this?  Think of how YOU felt the last time a company “went dark” for a week or two after you interviewed with them!  Pretty nerve-wracking, wasn’t it?

Unfortunately, given the shorter employment tenures that now characterize today’s world of work, dealing with job loss will become a common type of adversity that every family will likely go through, at some point, if they haven’t already.  So if you can find a way to circle the wagons and tackle this scary, uncertain time together, as a cohesive unit, you’re guaranteed to be more successful — and to spare yourselves a lot of counterproductive drama!