Job Loss Grief in Disguise

Losing one’s job has an impact on us at many levels. Not only does it create added financial stress, there can also be psychological impacts that have us questioning our worth or value. The event may also lead to environmental changes such as moving to a new home or city. Having the added stress of multiple changes at once increases the likelihood of marital discord and adds strain to already raw emotions. Many people might not realize some of the effects this can also have on your most significant relationship. When the grief is not recognized or expressed it can be displaced on the partner in a form of anger or resentment.  The internalizing of feelings and avoiding discussion leaves the partner on the outside. They feel the disconnect, and a growing confusion or anxiety ensues. This distance creates opportunities for each of them to reach elsewhere for support or be vulnerable to increased psychological distress.

Job loss is difficult on everyone.  The impact on men can be even more significant since such a large part of their identity is attached to where they work and how successful they feel in supporting themselves or their families.  It is not uncommon when under duress to see both partners resort to blame, anger and increased marital conflict. After being fired or laid off, some men may feel criticized, devalued and mistreated.  Their spouse may ask questions and pursue for answers which can feel like criticism. This then may lead to the man using other coping strategies like avoidance, indifference or defensiveness. 

In the case of a job loss, although the couple is mutually impacted, they may view the event and its impact from different vantage points. When people experience an unrecognized loss, according to Derdeyn and Waters (1981), they will not know exactly where the source of the discomfort lies and instead attribute the source of distress to the person closest to them. This projection of unrecognized grief is usually manifested as anger toward their partner.  This is understandable as grief follows the loss leading to intense ambivalence, depression and anxiety.

Usually at this time of crisis, other accumulated, unprocessed losses come to the surface like:

  • Phase of life in the life cycle
  • Change in role in the family such as becoming an empty nester
  • How the event effects your view of the past or future
  • Meaning-making around lost opportunities, unmet expectations, and less time to live

Rather than having open discussions around the grief and change moving into a constructive problem-solving phase, the couples are more likely to act out their feelings as a projection. In an article, Unshared Loss and Marital Conflict, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, a case study about a gentleman is shared who came to resent his life, his work and the relationships he had made. This unconscious, unresolved grief was expressed as a complaint towards his wife as being demanding and constricting. Her actions in some way reminded him of feelings at his work. The feelings towards his wife were really manifestations of his own dissatisfaction with his overloaded work schedule, his over pleasing and perfectionism at work.  He didn’t really want a divorce with his wife but rather a divorce with the self he had become.

In therapy, the therapist can help guide the couple through making sense of the projected patterns, help protect the couple from further harm from the negative cycle and guide them into a new way of communicating and making sense of the loss. The negative projections and externalizing of the internal grief onto the partner can be recognized, owned and explored. Taking this ownership of the problem frees and empowers the spouse and offers relief and increased safety.

Acknowledging Loss

Learning how to recognize and own your own disowned parts, grief and needs and sharing this with your partner is one of the best ways to move through grief and heal.  There is another phenomenon that frequently occurs due to our unique attachment and interdependence on our significant other.  If our spouse or partner is truly unhappy, then it reflexively may mean we are to blame. We are somehow failing them, letting them down or inadequate.

“In all close human relationships which are characterized by a high degree of mutual interdependence, the suffering and unhappiness of one member assumes a signal-function for his partner. This means that his suffering will signify not only that he is hurt or sick…but also that his partner is bad, for he has failed to gratify his needs! Thus arises the more general idea that in all sorts of human relations one’s partner’s unhappiness or discomfort signifies the badness of the self.” –T.S. Szasz

Learning how to make space for your grief and take the time to process it, protects your marriage from unwanted conflict or unnecessary blame of self or your partner.  In a safe and secure connection, couples can learn to explore the various hidden losses and unexplored grief that happens to all who pass through a life full of change, transition, ups and downs. Couples that can learn to share, unpack and explore their grief together will free themselves from resentments and potential blocks and find themselves on a mutual path of growth and development. The alternative is one of isolation and loneliness.

It is not always natural for us, having never experienced a safe space to do so, to know how to begin the process of healing together as a team. If you would like guidance on your journey to healing, please reach out today. Just click the link below to get started now.


Derdeyn, A. P. & Waters, D. B. Unshared loss and marital conflict. Journal of marital and family therapy 1981, Oct, 481-487

Szasz, T.S. The communication of distress between child and parent. In J.G. Howells (E.), Theory and practice of family psychiatry. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1971.

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