By Lisa Toner
“A savage recession, like a war, shakes the traditional identity of men and women.”
Nick Clegg’s 2009 statement could not be closer to the bone for Karen Davidson, a 50 year old part-time admin worker, wife and mother from Midlothian. Her husband David, also 50, was made redundant from his job as a plant operator and has been unemployed for two years.
With a 21% increase in male unemployment since the recession began, an uneasy shift in the conventional roles of spouses has occurred all over the country. Jobless men are stranded at home and women have been thrust into the role of main provider. So when unemployment hits home in this way does it shake the foundations of a marriage and cause couples to look at each other differently?
Karen says: “David knew he may be made redundant, but when it happened we were still shocked. You pray that it won’t happen to you. He was given one months notice and we barely had time to prepare. We were very calm initially and hoped he would find something else within a few weeks. Two years have now passed and the feelings of hope have dwindled.
“We did what we could to adapt to a lower income. We amended our mortgage and car payments and looked at our expenditure to see if we could cut costs and save money. My wage was less than half of David’s and within a month we were living on a third of our previous income. We could not make ends meet.”
Karen continued: “For the first few weeks David was upbeat and positive but when he had to sign on for benefits his mood took a downward spiral. He was told that we were not entitled to any financial help because I worked 24 hours per week and I was expected to support him. I remember him coming home that day. He was very deflated. He has worked his entire life and he saw that first visit as a significant sign of failure. The Jobcentre staff carried out a job search for him and had openly commented that there were no jobs out there that were suitable for him and that the situation was ‘hopeless’. He has had to endure that same pointless process once a fortnight ever since.”
Recent figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that 8.6% of men in the UK are unemployed compared to 7.1% of women. At the time of David’s redundancy in January 2009 the same figures showed an unemployment rate of 9% for men and 6.7% for women.
Karen remembers her husband’s decline in mood: “David became depressed quickly. I found it very difficult. I had to support him and allay his fears when I was anxious too. I had always been the one relying on him but now the tables had turned. He felt humiliated and inadequate. I began to hide my money concerns from him because I didn’t want to add to the way he felt. Once or twice I mentioned that I’d had a difficult day at work and he snapped at me and told me that I was lucky to have a job, so I stopped talking about work too. He became withdrawn and irritable. He sat around all day and I felt frustrated coming home from work to a tetchy husband and untidy house.
“David losing his job was like a death, we definitely felt like we were grieving for something, mainly the working man and provider part of him. Our relationship was unbearable at this point and I walked on egg shells. His feelings of guilt overcame him and he reacted angrily. I felt resentful too, not towards him being unemployed, but towards him letting it affect him in this way. I had to be strong so why couldn’t he?”
Helen Weston, a counsellor with Relationships Scotland said: “Relationship problems are being exacerbated by rising unemployment. The effect is felt painfully by both male and female partners, but relationships with more traditional roles suffer in a particular way.
“Many men have been brought up to regard themselves as the provider and when they can’t meet this expectation they often suffer a loss of self-esteem. This threatens their identity and may lead to depression. Relationship counselling can be a tremendous benefit here as it helps couples to negotiate new ways of relating.”
Karen admits that she wasn’t sure if their marriage would survive the strain. She said: “We recently decided to go for couple counselling. We’ve only had three sessions but we were able to communicate better almost instantly. I hope we can pull together now but this situation is soul destroying. Thankfully we had a strong marriage to begin with or we would have been facing divorce. This could have easily broken us.”
Mark Keenan, MD of Divorce-online UK says that divorce numbers have de-creased by 10% since May 2010, in-spite of marital breakdowns. He said: “We speak to lots of potential divorcees, but it seems that people can’t afford to get divorced at the moment because of financial pressures. Job losses, lack of mortgages and a stagnant housing market mean that many couples are staying in the same property because they can’t sell or transfer the property between them.”
Karen considers what the future may hold: “David is still unemployed and it’s terrible to admit this, but he has taken cash in hand jobs recently. I am ashamed and worried that we will get into trouble but realistically, we can’t afford to turn the work away. We have been given no financial support and we have no alternative. With a weeks work here and there, some of the financial pressures have eased and David’s mood has improved. He structures his days differently when he’s at home and he does some gardening, shopping and cleaning.
“I don’t see an opportunity for David to find another well- paid job. He has had a few interviews for minimum wage positions where he has queued with dozens of men half his age. He options are very limited and in the meantime he will just have to take whatever is going.”