David Maxfield is coauthor of three New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My husband was terminated from his job last June because he was told it was “not a good fit.” He worked from home and I could tell that during conference calls he was usually either blamed for not getting a job done on time or was defensive about the work he did. It’s now March and still no job prospects. He is very defensive when I suggest job opportunities, networking, or re-training. I am to the point where I am shutting down because of his attitude, but finances are becoming critical. How do I talk to him about real solutions for job hunting and networking without him getting so defensive?
Thanks for asking a tough question. The sad truth is that time doesn’t always heal all wounds. Sometimes a personal calamity such as termination, death, divorce, financial loss, etc. creates a vortex that grows with time—engulfing the person, and sucking their loved ones into a growing spiral of failure.
It sounds as if your husband is caught in this kind of vicious cycle, and it’s reaching into your relationship. Take heart. There are ways to break free, but it will take effort on your part—and some of this effort might seem counterintuitive at first.
Painful stories. Think of your husband’s termination as a powerful blow that left bruises. These bruises are painful realizations or stories your husband is now telling himself. The stories we see most often are helpless, victim, and villain stories.
• Helpless Story: Your husband might be thinking: “I’m a failure,” “It’s hopeless,” or “I’ll never succeed.” These stories will undermine his mood, self-esteem, and motivation. These thoughts often become automatic, entering his head every time the topic is touched, and create humiliation and pain. They might explain why your husband is avoiding everything related to the topic.
• Victim Story: Your husband might be thinking: “The system is rigged,” “It’s all political,” or “People don’t respect me.” These stories would make him feel put upon and oppressed. They might also explain why he resists your attempts to help.
• Villain Story: Your husband might be thinking: “My boss wasn’t fair to me,” “The company shouldn’t have fired me,” etc. These stories would lead to ruminating on and revisiting the blow. People who tell villain stories often reactivate the personal calamity instead of grow beyond it.
Master these stories. In an ideal world, your husband will come to realize that these self-defeating stories aren’t the whole story. Sure, he might not be as skilled, as politically savvy, or as appreciated as he assumed he was, but he’s not a failure either. He will put this blow into perspective. However, if he hasn’t come to this realization on his own, then there are actions you can take to help.
• Use Direct Experience. Your husband needs proof that the self-defeating stories he’s internalized aren’t the complete truth. You can help by focusing on his successes, rather than his failures. However, words alone aren’t likely to be enough. Look for ways to use direct experience. For example, how can he help others during this time between jobs? The best way to recover from a blow to your self-esteem is to earn it back. He can do this by making a challenging and meaningful contribution to others.
Focus on the purpose, not the strategy. One of the challenges we face as family members is that we’re seen as nagging, rather than helping. The solution is to back away from the specific requests we’ve made, and focus on the broader common purpose that unites us.
• You say your husband gets defensive when you suggest jobs, networking, or re-training. Try backing away from these specific strategies. Instead, ask for your husband’s help with the broader mutual purpose: managing your family’s critical financial decisions.
Remember, respect is at risk. Your husband’s self-respect has taken a beating. He’s likely to be extra sensitive to any sign of further disrespect. In fact, he may take your well-intentioned suggestions as a sign that you don’t trust or respect him.
• Take extra care to avoid being directive or controlling during the conversation. Emphasize exploration, visioning, and personal choice and control. Remember that requests may feel like demands.
You might open this conversation with: “I’d like us to set aside a time to explore our goals together. My main goal is for us to build a happy life together. Everything else is open to change. Maybe it’s time to jump off the rat race. Or maybe it’s time to double-down. Can we set aside an hour or two to talk about what you’d like to see happen?”
Explore barriers, instead of advocating for actions. There is a common mistake most of us make when we’re in your situation. We advocate for actions we believe in instead of exploring the barriers that make these actions difficult. When we take it as our role to advocate, we force the other person to argue the other side. We argue for, they argue against, and guess who wins?
• It works better if we begin by acknowledging that the action will be difficult. This shows respect for why they are stuck. Then explore the barriers one at a time, in bite-sized chunks. Brainstorm solutions, while continuing to emphasize personal choice and control.
De-escalate your finances. My suggestions so far have focused on process—how to have the conversation. I’d like to end with a piece of substantive advice. I’ve been in your husband’s position and I recommend cutting back on expenses before you get too far into a financial hole. Find a way to reduce your predictable expenses. For example, rent a smaller apartment, sell your home, stop your cable TV subscription, etc.
Know that you are not alone. Many families are facing your situation. The news describes people dealing with this as “discouraged workers.” I hope I’ve given you some ideas for addressing this discouragement, while pulling your family closer together.