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They Lost Their Jobs to COVID. Will Their Relationships Be Next?

Unemployed in lockdown and relying on their partners for support, the problems go far beyond just wondering how to pay their bills

On any given weekday, during the hours between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., Arthur, a 28-year-old unemployed barber, does his absolute best to avoid his apartment. But, he admits, “I have nowhere to go.” “Sometimes I go to my parents to do some laundry,” he tells me. “Basically, [I’ll] do anything so that I’m not home.” 

Back at his apartment, Josenya, 29, Arthur’s girlfriend of two years, is most likely to be found behind her desk in their living room, drowning beneath the glow of two computer monitors. She’s a project manager for a digital ad agency and she “makes good money.” “I’m just really thankful to still be working,” she says. 

Sometime around 6 p.m., Arthur usually makes his way back home to prepare dinner. “I like to cook,” he says. “It helps keep my mind occupied.” “His cooking is incredible,” Josenya interjects. “I kept telling him he should do something with his cooking while he waited for the barbershop to open.” 

There’s a pause before Arthur, noticeably frustrated, chimes in. “I just enjoy doing it,” he says. “I’m not trying to make a living as a chef.” 

According to Josenya, in the past few months, this push, however light, for Arthur “to do something” while he’s been furloughed is a giant red button that says “don’t push,” but it’s one that she can’t help but keep pushing. It’s always just a matter of time before the reality that Arthur is currently not working, while Josenya is, leaks into their otherwise loving relationship like a stench that makes them both sick. “I’m not trying to start an argument with him,” Josenya says. “I just —” 

Another pause. 

“I don’t know what I’m trying to say,” she admits. 

If the current unemployment crisis in the U.S. were a TV show, Arthur and Josenya’s situation is the episode where a loving relationship is tested once the guy feels “useless” and the girl is “just trying to help.” In another episode, meanwhile, would be 24-year-old Jane (a pseudonym), who is finding it harder and harder to love her 28-year-old boyfriend of nearly three years (he’s been unemployed since the pandemic began). “We love each other a lot, though his lack of drive/ambition makes it hard to love him as much as I did before all this,” she says.

He’s a professional photographer but hasn’t had a paying gig in years, and his current work (as a barista) closed for a short period of time and reopened when their county allowed it, “probably one or two months later,” she tells me. He feels bad about not working, she says, but she hasn’t seen him try to fix it. “He says he doesn’t want me to resent him for this, but how can I not if he continues to sit back and do nothing while I bust my ass and risk my life at work to do hair during a pandemic?” Jane asks. “Or maybe I’m just not seeing his efforts. I don’t know.”

It’s no secret that in times of economic hardship, relationships — particularly romantic ones — struggle to stay lovely. During the Great Depression, according to a report in The Atlantic, “husbands grew more difficult, tense and irritable toward their wives.” Such was also the case during the financial crisis and subsequent recession in 2008. Per the same report in The Atlantic, researchers found that “rapid spikes in unemployment ‘generate a general climate of fear and uncertainty’ in society as a whole, not just among those who lose their jobs.” The result was that, in places where the unemployment rate increased by 50 percent, domestic abuse increased in those same places by 20 percent.

Of course, the alternative can also be true too — a crisis doesn’t always breed another crisis, particularly if you and yours aren’t strapped for cash. In 2018, Ashley LeBaron, a then-doctoral student at the University of Arizona, co-authored a paper in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues that focused on how financial stress during the 2008 recession affected married couples. Her findings suggest that for white, middle- or upper-class couples likely devoid of the same level of financial hardships that most Americans suffer through, spells of unemployment can strengthen a relationship. She reported that the relationships between the couples she interviewed “grew stronger not just in spite of, but because of, the financial challenges they had endured together,” per a report in Futurity. “She found that the strongest relationships were those in which partners remembered to practice ‘relationship maintenance behaviors,’ including respecting one another, being there for one another and showing love and affection for one another.”

Indeed, at the beginning, Jane tells me that the pandemic actually brought her and her boyfriend closer together. “The time spent was great for us, but once I returned to work, it really started to affect our relationship,” she explains. “I would be condescending and mad at him often because I would come home to find him in the same spot I left him 10 hours ago. I just felt like a babysitter.”

Spells of unemployment like the one Jane’s boyfriend is experiencing can, according to Niels Blom, a research fellow in social statistics and demography at the University of Southampton, be particularly distressing for their female partners. A few months ago, amidst a spike in unemployment, Blom set out to see how the current economic crisis could have long-reaching implications for millions of couples and families. “One of the more interesting findings from our research was that women were, on average, less happy with their relationship when their male partner was unemployed, but the reverse wasn’t the case,” says Blom. 

In other words, based on his data, men’s happiness with the relationship wasn’t linked to women’s employment. This, Blom says, “indicates that the male breadwinner ideal continues to be important for how relationships work.”

Anecdotally, the same is true when both partners are men. Or that, at least, seems to be the case for 47-year-old Amir and 48-year-old Roberto, who have been married for 11 years and who have already gotten past a stint when Amir was unemployed. A few years ago, when Amir was laid off for the first time, he remembers the feeling of not being able to connect with his partner. “I was heavily feeling like he needs to understand,” he tells me. And so he kept wondering, “Why doesn’t he understand?” which inevitably brought him down even more and made him more depressed. This time around, when Amir was laid off in March due to the pandemic, he didn’t feel like he needed to explain himself as frequently to his partner. “It’s been much better,” he says. Part of that, he says, is because Amir and Roberto have a better financial safety net than they did a few years ago, which takes some of the pressure off of Amir to be hasty in his search for another job. 

It might help too, says Blake Allan, associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Houston, if both people in a relationship, especially during a crisis like the one we’re in, can “normalize the experience of being unemployed.” “In the U.S., we’re really shitty about blaming people for being unemployed when really it’s these massive structural issues that are going on that lead to unemployment,” he says. “But people tend to blame themselves. They internalize that guilt.” Which, in turn, he says, spills over into their relationship.

Part of that spillover effect is feeling personally responsible for all the changes that begin to occur when one partner is unemployed. “I feel like I’m limiting what we can do and where we can go,” Amir says. “And for him to then come home and basically reinforce what I was feeling by saying, ‘Did you look for a job? Did you find somewhere to go? Did you clean?’” It’s in those questions that both Amir and Roberto admit to harboring feelings of resentment.

This expectation — that the unemployed partner does more to help around the house — is a common theme amongst couples I spoke to where one person isn’t currently working a traditional 9-to-5 job. It’s one that Jane tells me has taken some time for her boyfriend to get used to. “Once I spoke up about needing help, he made it more of a priority,” she says. “I’ve expressed that since I’m always working/not home as much and am providing most in the home, I would appreciate him keeping the house clean. I don’t expect it, but it would be great.” And though it’s not as consistent as she’d like, Jane has noticed that her boyfriend is trying more since she brought it up. 

The sad truth, though, is that statistically speaking, the longer it takes Jane’s boyfriend to find work, the less likely it is that their relationship will survive. “Another interesting finding from our study showed that women were, on average, less happy with their relationship if their partner had been unemployed in the past few years, even if he was employed now,” says Blom. Essentially, men’s unemployment seems to “scar” the relationship, to the point that women’s “happiness levels don’t fully recover.”

The staying power of the male breadwinner theory, though not surprising, continues to be harmful even when the decision for the male partner to stay home to look after children is a mutual decision, in part because the push to be a stay-at-home-dad is almost always the result of some economic crisis. Such is the case for one 44-year-old father who tells me that, although he and his wife found it best for him to stay home with their children to prevent the risk of COVID, he’s struggling with accepting his new role. “I can only speak for myself,” he says. “The hardest part for me is the psychological aspect of feeling like I’m not doing enough, feeling like I’m almost useless.” He knows it isn’t true, but he can’t shake the feeling and the thought, he says, “is always there in the back of my head.”

He’s far from alone. As we wrote in our 2018 report on the largest stay-at-home dad conference in the country, the number of men in American families who are the primary caregivers is roughly 1 in 15 fathers. And yet, coming to terms with their non-traditional role as a caretaker is no easy feat, as we observed at the time: “They admit the biggest issue in giving up a career for parenting is their ego.” 

Imagine, then, what unemployment does to the egos of men who don’t even have a sense of purpose — i.e., caregiving —while they’re unable to work. “Everything [Josenya] is thinking, like what I could be doing, whether I’m trying to find a job, I’m thinking about that all the time,” says Arthur. 

Thankfully, since we last spoke, Arthur is back at work cutting hair. “It’s been slow but just having a place to go a few days a week, I’m thankful for that,” he tells me. And so, he’s less frustrated at home, too. “I have less time to think about failure,” he says. Meanwhile, Josenya feels less guilty for having to work late. “We’re finding our balance,” she tells me. “For a while, we were just off.”