Winter Forum: a check-up on living well

The poet Robert Browning wrote, “The Best Is Yet to Be.”

Maybe. Maybe the future will be wonderful — if we can figure out how to live well. Ted Fishman, author of the best-selling “Shock of Gray,” wrote: “And while we will likely engineer ever-longer lives, can we figure out how to fill the extra years with vitality and joy?”

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Choosing Your Retirement

Below you will find my cover story from the September issue of NARFE.


Cover Story: Choosing Your Retirement

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When the Unimaginable Happens: Unexpected Job Loss and Its Impact on Your Marriage

The following is an article posted by the University of Maryland newsdesk from September 9, 2009

By Nancy Schlossberg
Professor Emerita College of Education
University of Maryland

It was hard enough getting over the shock of losing his long-time advertising job. But he just couldn’t find another job. It had been so easy before – he was sure history would repeat itself and he’d be working again soon. Nine months later, he wasn’t so sure. Forced retirement was already taking a toll – there was the separation from his wife – and the depression. The only thing that kept him going was the love for his two children.

Tales of growing tension among couples after one retires – or is forced to retire due to layoffs – are legion these days. One man told me “Being together 24/7 feels like torture. It’s bad enough that I have lost my job but now I am subject to nagging all day long.” One woman told her husband, “I don’t want to see your eyeballs after breakfast until dinner. And another man complained, “We used to treasure being together on weekends. Now we are together 24/7 and my wife wants to get away as much as she can.”

Why Does Job Loss Pull People Apart Instead of Making Them Closer?

* Coping with the unexpected is daunting.

When the unexpected or dreaded happens to you, you feel out of control, helpless, passive, angry, and depressed – in waves and in no particular order. Unexpected job loss can jolt your relationship – catapulting you into a new way of being together. In a University of Maryland study of forced job loss at the Goddard NASA Space Flight Center in the early 80’s, Zandy Leibowitz and I discovered that the men did not immediately tell their wives. In fact, they dressed and pretended to go to work. When they finally confessed and began staying home 24/7, life changed dramatically.

* Any major change, expected or unexpected, alters life in unimaginable ways.

Losing your job and staying home with your spouse is BIG. You have lost your role as worker and co-provider. Your routines are totally changed. The structure of your day is broken – including when you get up, how you dress, when you eat and with whom. Your assumptions about your world have crashed – you no longer have a secure place and future; and your relationships with colleagues, friends, and especially your spouse are in flux. When your role, routine and assumptions are fractured, you know your relationships will change.

The Good News: You’re NOT Humpty Dumpty. You CAN Put Yourself Together Again.

Here are some things you can do on your own to reduce the tension:

* Redefine your job loss as a temporary transition and as a time to explore what you really want to do when the economy picks up.

* Identify your connectors. Let everyone know what happened and that you are well and available. A retired newspaper man called a woman he had read about at his local Department of Labor and specifically asked her for help. She connected him to a forest ranger and, though that was not his field, he went to work as a temporary assistant. He did such an outstanding job he was later hired by the agency to help others.

* Use your time wisely. In addition to job hunting, set aside at least two days a week either to volunteer or set up an internship for yourself in a place you would someday like to work. Allen identified a start up firm with his kind of values. He goes to that office daily, pitching clients. This is better than staying at home. Or go back to school and finish the degree you always wanted, or learn a new skill, or make a career change. This is the time. If not now, when?

* Keep your stress level under control. Take up walking, yoga, meditation, reading, swimming – whatever works for you but DO IT RELIGIOUSLY.

More Suggestions To Reduce Tension With Your Spouse:

* Initiate an “Expectation Exchange.” This is the time to discuss your relationship and how it is being affected by your job loss. In one case, the person without a job felt very guilty and despite what she read, she blamed herself for losing her job. Her spouse, whose income was not enough to carry the load of house payments, day care, etc. was disappointed in his wife. They needed to discuss what was going on. In another instance one wife said with anger, I come home after a day at work and have to pick up his ego and retype his resume. If you cannot discuss the situation openly, it might be helpful to meet with a counselor, therapist, psychologist or social worker – someone who can bring underlying feelings out into the open and help the couple resolve the tensions.

* Go to Plan B. Realize that your life has not followed the script you both had in mind. You are experiencing an event – job loss – and a non-event – not having the life you expected. This is the time to creatively brainstorm your plan B. This is the time to rethink your script and realize that today is not forever.