If your partner were to lose their job, you might think keeping your own employment would cushion the psychological blow. In fact new research finds that life satisfaction is higher for couples who share their unemployed predicament, than for couples where only one partner loses their job.
Maike Luhmann and her colleagues analysed over ten years of longitudinal data from 3000 co-habiting couples in Germany, where one or both partners had gone through an unemployment. If one partner lost their job, the second partner’s life satisfaction typically dipped shortly before the job loss, took a large dive the year it actually occurred, and continued to decline during the years of unemployment – mirroring at every step the (greater) loss felt by the unemployed individual.
When it came to the employment status of the second partner, two theories were fighting it out. The financial stress hypothesis would suggest that a household with at least one income is more able to supply its material needs, with positive consequences for the couple’s life satisfaction. By contrast, the “shared fate” hypothesis predicts that empathy and support are easier to produce when both parties are in the same boat.
The data supported the shared fate hypothesis – when one partner was unemployed and the second partner remained in work, both parties reported lower life satisfaction than when both partners ended up without a job. The researchers reasoned that when one partner remains in work, it is easier for the unemployed partner to be stigmatised and feel anxiety about abandonment for failing in their duties to the household. In addition, the unemployed person is shunted rapidly out of one life pattern, including a regular routine and social networks, and may find themselves now alone for much of the day, with the obligation to solve their problems and “get back on track”. Moreover, their limited contact with their working partner may be an invitation for friction: just what have you been doing all day?
Luhmann and her colleagues interpreted their results as showing that unemployment “hurts primarily because of its psychological consequences,” rather than being driven by its financial impact. Despite this, anyone would be hard-pressed to say more unemployment inflicted on a household is a social good. These findings underscore how important it is to combat the stigma of unemployment, and to provide support to couples with one member out of work, helping them come to terms with their new dynamic.
Luhmann, M., Weiss, P., Hosoya, G., & Eid, M. (2014). Honey, I got fired! A longitudinal dyadic analysis of the effect of unemployment on life satisfaction in couples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107 (1), 163-180 DOI: 10.1037/a0036394