Illustration by Sibel Ergener

Unemployment Can Hurt You More Than the Death of a Spouse

How does it really feel to be out of work for a long time? We talk to guys who’ve been there

Here’s a sad fact: Even if you get a new job after you’ve been laid off or let go from a previous job, your life satisfaction will permanently remain at a lower level than it was prior to the job loss.

And here’s an even sadder one: This job loss will leave even more of a permanent mark than divorce or the death of a spouse, says Maike Luhmann, a professor of psychology at Ruhr-Universität Bochum who’s written extensively on the subject.

The reasons are numerous. For one, it can be hard to gain back the confidence you’ve lost. And even after you’ve a new job, there’s the added fear of losing it or having to prove you were worth the hire in the first place. It also places strain on personal relationships, because it’s not just the person who loses their job who’s affected. “Spouses of unemployed persons also experience somewhat weaker, but still significant drops in their life satisfaction,” Luhmann says. And while it would seem like the financial problems are the deal-breaker, it’s actually “the psychological effects such as shared stressors or emotional contagion,” some of which can be linked to traditional gender roles, in which men are (still!) seen as the breadwinners.

The research is fascinating in itself — Luhmann and her co-authors examined the reaction and adaptation to unemployment of more than 24,000 individuals over a 15-year period — but we wanted to hear personal stories from men who’ve been there.

Sia, 32, senior HR manager at Online Resume Builders, Ottawa, Canada
During the six months I was unemployed, I felt inferior, depressed, and more than anything, embarrassed. It felt like I lost a piece of my identity, and was left confused, wondering which direction to move towards. Maybe I didn’t have a clear path or direction I was heading in before, but at least having a job distracted me from that reality. Not having enough disposable income affects you in a lot of ways. For me, the biggest thing was being cut off from social activities that involved spending money, and having to cancel my gym membership. In retrospect it was probably a bad idea, as I ended up more depressed and more ineffectual at job-hunting.

In the long term I think it was a serious blessing as I realized that I didn’t need to be reliant on someone else for money and security: The experience led to having my own resume-building software company, and I realized that If I could just get over that initial hurdle of insecurity and fear, then I could start something for myself and gain a measure of independence that I wouldn’t otherwise be afforded.

Naveed, 24, student, New York City
Being unable to find a job after spending four years in college is debilitating. I feel like a failure, and that’s caused me to become more pessimistic. A year ago I figured I would’ve found a good paying job by now, and moved into a decent apartment with my mom and sister. It’s particularly overwhelming because I’m supporting my family after the death of my father last year. If I had a job, we’d be living 10 times better than we are now. Instead, we’re cramped in my grandma’s house, and the situation is tough on all of us.

You know the feeling when you’ve sent out a bunch of resumes only to have them enter the void without even a rejection letter? That’s how I feel constantly — this hopelessness makes me even more unwilling to apply for other jobs. It’s a spiral of depression where eventually you give up searching for a while, because it’s mentally and emotionally tiring.

William, 50, IT management consultant, New York City
I lost my job shortly after I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder, which, to say the least, didn’t help matters. The damage is direct, but I also had to deal with difficulty getting treatment after my health insurance gave out. My kids lost all respect for me because I drank too much from the job loss. The transition ended my marriage and wrecked my credit —I have a master’s in business and can’t hold a job. After burning through my savings and dipping into my kids’ college funds, I’ve been able to blend part-time consulting work with two other concurrent careers — journalism and entrepreneurship. But I can’t splurge on anything; for instance, I can’t just get on an airplane and go somewhere new.

Steven, 43, customer service management, New York City
I was laid off from a job at the beginning of this year, after another stint of unemployment in 2015. And because of this, I tried WAY too hard to impress the business — I deeply feared the idea of being unemployed to the point I was no longer being my normal, pleasant co-worker. In the long term, I am definitely humbled, which is something new to me. And that new humility does lead to continued bouts of self-doubt compared to before.

It’s affected my sex life as well, because I’m paranoid and lacking confidence from not having a job, and I would never want to lose my wife’s affection for me. I’d like to feel productive, and that I’m contributing to something special that makes the world or someone’s life a better place. However, I am always learning something new to keep my brain sharp and productive. Most recently, I’ve been learning to speak Spanish and code, while taking a business course.

In spite of everything, my work issues led to a new appreciation for family, my wife, my health, and managing finances. I had three family members come down with cancer this year, and I was able to help them because I had the free time to do so. I also take care of the apartment I live in with the same diligence I took care of the businesses I worked for. In doing so, I no longer feel I’m identified by my ability to get a job. I’ve had the time to reflect on the amazing work experiences in my life, my travels, and all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. Part of me believes I took that all for granted in the past.

Cindy Lamothe is a writer in Antigua, Guatemala. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Quartz, Guernica, The Rumpus and more.