Wives of the Unemployed

Marcus was an unemployed IT professional with two kids and a wife. He told a story that many men in his situation would recognize.

“I kind of feel that I’m failing in my part to provide for my family because we’re just relying on my wife’s salary and her health care and everything,” Marcus said. “So I feel that I am failing in a sense by not having a job and providing for the family.”

Sylvia, Marcus’ wife, earned six-figures as a manager in a telecommunications company.

And Sylvia was stressed out.

“I felt the weight of the family was solely on me,” she said. “The pressure of ‘I can’t lose my job’ because… both of us can’t be unemployed. … made it stressful.”

In a full year of Marcus’ unemployment, Sylvia gain 30 pounds from “stress eating.”

After the Great Recession, sociologist Aliya Hamid Rao spoke to dozens of white-collar unemployed men and, for thirteen of them, their wives, too.

How do wives deal with their unemployed husbands?

Professor Rao, writing for Journal of Marriage and Family, sought to find out.

Wedding Rings

Bedrock of the Soul

Whether you love your job or hate it, just the fact that you have a job can be a bedrock of the soul. Losing your job, whether this loss was sought after or thrust upon you, can feel bad. It can feel really bad if you lost the job unexpectedly, without fanfare or warning. Grown men in this situation feel fear, sadness, hopelessness, and embarrassment.

To land a job you have to work. You have to network and you have to go on job interviews and sell yourself to the highest bidder. But Rao found that unemployed men who sport a breadwinner mentality can lose the confidence to look for a job.

The story goes like this:

The husband struggles to find a new job.

The wife struggles to deadlift her husband’s sagging spirits and gets him to look for a job.

“Why is Brian the greatest employee ever?”

Rao the social scientist met Brian and Emily.

Brian has been out of work for a while and feels frustrated at the job search: “[you have] to sit there in an interview and try to bullshit why is Brian the greatest employee ever? That part just for me is very probably the worst part of the whole thing,” Brian said.

Brian’s wife, Emily, sustains the family at a third of the income they once enjoyed. She loses sleep over it.

“It’s very scary,” Emily said. “I sit up in the kitchen and I think ‘We’re going to have to give up this house,’ you know, what are we going to do? We’re going to rent some shitty little apartment?” (646)

Emily understood Brian. “He doesn’t have the get-up-and-go to go do it [the job search] ’Cause he’s in such a dump,” Emily said. “So I am trying to still be very positive.” (646)

In tough situations it’s tough to be positive. And Emily is frustrated.

“But he is not a strong like a man like who just says, ‘Oh I don’t care. I’ve been fired? I don’t care. Screw them. I’ll go find another job.’” Emily said. “He is very sensitive and emotional. And he’s like a girl! Like man up!…”

Emotional Rescue

While the men were supposed to be trawling the internet for jobs, the duty of family organizer and confidence booster fell to the wives, many of whom had a steady job that could support the family, though at a lower income bracket than a dual-earner couple would make.

Some wives said that they are half of a husband-wife team — a partnership that will find a way out of their troubles. Wives made sure their husbands call and tell them about their day.

The husbands felt lost in their newly unstructured time; the wives tried to put their husbands on a schedule to look for a job.  All the while, the wives hid their own stressful emotions as best they could.

Managing stress is the wives’ homework. There’s a term for it coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild: “emotional labor.” In this kind of labor, Rao writes, the wives of the unemployed draw strength and humor from wherever they can find it.

One woman compared the situation to the taming of the fox in the children’s book, The Little Prince:

“It’s kind of like taming the little creature in The Little Prince: You meet at the same time every day and you’re expected to be there,” she said. “I don’t know that I’ve tamed him or whatever [chuckles] but [the call] is something I look forward to. ’Cause I like to hear what he has to say.”

“It’s an important call for me,” she added.

A Fine Line

Taming and nagging can be a fine line that neither the wives nor the husbands want crossed.

Rao met Shannon. Shannon has a job but her husband, William, is unemployed. Shannon treads carefully.

“I always ask him, you know, ‘What’d you do today?’ or, but I don’t want it to come across like ‘Did you do anything to find a job?’…” Shannon said.

“And I’m just trying to make conversation, where I’m sure he’s thinking “Just get off my back,” Shannon said. “So, that’s been hard.”

Teamwork it is, with wives batting clean-up.

Notes

This piece is based on Aliya Hamid Rao’s “Stand By Your Man: Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment” published in the Journal of Marriage and Family (pp. 636 – 656) in 2017. Joshua K. Dubrow authored this short popularization of that article, and is solely responsible for this interpretation of Professor Rao’s work. Professor Rao’s book, Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment (University of California Press), is due out June 2020.

“I kind of feel that I’m failing…” (644)

“I felt the weight of the family…” (648)

In a full year of Marcus’ unemployment… (650)

“[you have] to sit there in an interview…” (644)

“It’s very scary…” (646)

“But he is not a strong like a man…” (646)

Though at a lower income bracket (646)

“It’s kind of like taming…” (647)

“I always ask him…” (652)

“And I’m just trying to make conversation…” (652)

The Fight That Never Comes

“Instead of leaning back away from a punch,” the man said, “you let it come, let the other guy commit to the attack, then spin it around on him.”

The man wasn’t talking about a fist fight. He was talking about how to deal with life’s daily problems, like an argument with a co-worker or a negotiation for a hotel discount.

He was talking about Aikido.

Aikido, like karate, is a martial art, but with a big difference: its practitioners don’t fight. Instead of throwing kicks and punches, in the martial ballet of Aikido they rigorously prepare themselves to side-step the violence of a fight that never comes.

Writing for Qualitative Sociology, sociologist Drew Foster wonders, “Why do people who will never actually fight train their bodies to fight?”

Roll with It

Aikido is not like the other martial arts. “Instead of overcoming an opponent through force,” Foster writes, “the goal of aikido techniques is simply to neutralize the situation by pinning, throwing, or taking the balance of the aggressor, often only to the extent that one can safely withdraw from the situation.” You receive the attack, flow with it, and find the exact point where you can use the attacker’s force to counterattack.

A rule: You can’t muscle it. The whole point is minimal force. Submission by sheer force – and not the ballet of angle, leverage, and timing – is a cheat. Rule breakers are admonished.

Another rule: No competition. An early Aikido founder declared competitiveness as inimical to Aikido’s spirit: “Such things are seen as fueling only egotism, self-concern and disregard for others.” To rise in status, one goes through formal tests to earn grades and degrees (like academia).

Foster spent nearly two years in an Aikido training center, called a Dojo, set up “in a revamped storage facility near the edge of town” somewhere in Middle America. With his “body as a tool for research,” he interviewed, observed, participated, and took notes. To gain their acquaintance, he went to out-of-Dojo experiences such as parties and potlucks, bars and restaurants.

Aikido in America is a mostly white, male, and middle class affair. In Foster’s study, the Dojo’s Sensei, or main instructor, worked at a business consulting firm. His assistants included a musicologist, a retired professor, and a children’s drama teacher. Most of the members were white men. They were architects, academics, consultants, and engineers. Membership was a hundred bucks a month. They came in after work.

Most have never been in a life-or-death physical fight.

“These mostly white and middle-class practitioners,” Foster writes, “are extremely unlikely to experience violence or risk of violence in their everyday worlds.”

What Are They Training For?

Mike is a 30-something graduate student and a member of the Dojo. “Lately I’ve been thinking how I’m striving to do aikido in everyday arguments with my wife,” he said.

“I’ve been really trying to figure out how to finesse my responses to my wife and blend with what she’s saying… I also try to know when I’ve been overcome and roll out of it safely instead of trying to meet whatever’s beating me with more counterforce.”

As hokey as it may sound, they are training for life. It’s what Foster and some of his interviewees call Big Aikido, “the employment of aikido techniques, philosophies, and principles in non-martial settings.”

One guy told the story of when he tried to get the discount he was owed at a hotel. Instead of being angry and confrontational, the guy calmly took in the hotel clerk’s aggression (so the story went) and produced the necessary information to win the argument. He got the discount. The guy’s wife praised him: “Wow! You really aikido-ed that!”

In Aikido, the body is fit and the pain is real. But hitting is for the mat and the training is for life’s non-martial problems.

“Ever since that period when I really just pushed myself to keep rolling out of throws even though I was so afraid of getting hurt,” a woman in the Dojo said, “I’ve found I can apply this ‘just roll’ to other areas of my life…”

“Like trying to finish my novel.”

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Notes

This piece is based on the article, “Fighters who Don’t Fight: The Case of Aikido and Somatic Metaphorism” by Drew Foster in Qualitative Sociology, (2015) 38:165–183. This piece is authored by Joshua K. Dubrow, but he did not conduct any of the research, and Josh alone is responsible for the interpretation of it.

“Instead of leaning back…” (178).

“Why do people …” (166).

“Instead of overcoming an opponent …” (171).

“muscling it” (175)

“Such things are seen …” Quote by Ueshiba (1984: 15) in Foster (2015: 171).

“in a revamped storage facility…” (170)

“body as a tool for research” (169)

“These mostly white and middle-class practitioners…” (171). Most of his 19 interviewees were white men in their 30s and 40s. Most were middle class.

“Lately I’ve been thinking… beating me with more counterforce.” (176)

“the employment of aikido techniques…” (176).

“Wow! You really aikido-ed that …” (178).

“Ever since that period … trying to finish my novel.” (177)