Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment

Aliya Hamid Rao University of Pennsylvania
Stand By Your Man: Wives’ Emotion Work During
Men’s Unemployment
Recent research on unemployment has not
sufficiently acknowledged how unemployment
reverberates within families, particularly emotionally. This article uses data from more than
50 in-depth interviews to illuminate the emotional demands that men’s unemployment makes
beyond the unemployed individual. It shows that
wives of unemployed men do two types of emotion work—self-focused and other-focused—and
both are aimed toward facilitating husbands’
success in the emotionally arduous white-collar
job-search process. This article extends research
on emotion work by suggesting that participants
perceive wives’ emotion work as a resource
with potential economic benefits in the form of
unemployed men’s reemployment. The findings
furthermore suggest that as a resource, wives’
emotion work is shaped by the demands of the
labor market that their husbands encounter.
How do unemployed men, in current times of
ubiquitous layoffs, downsizings, and mergers,
experience their unemployment? How do their
wives support them through this challenging
time? Since the Industrial Revolution, unemployment has been its unwelcome byproduct
in societies. Indeed, unemployment, including white-collar unemployment, appears to be
becoming a permanent feature of the American
Department of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, 113
McNeil Building, 3718 Locust Walk, Philadelphia, PA
19104 ([email protected]).
Key Words: dual earner, emotion work, qualitative research,
economic landscape. Social scientists have
focused on the devastating emotional impact
unemployment can have on unemployed individuals (Ehrenreich, 2005; Norris, 2016; Sharone,
2014; Smith, 2001), how it shapes the identity
of unemployed individuals (Norris, 2016), and
how the material hardships of unemployment
influence marital dynamics (Conger et al.,
1990; Komarovsky, 1940; Newman, 1988),
particularly unequal gendered dynamics, for
example, by being positively associated with
abusive behavior, including men’s controlling
behavior toward wives (Schneider, Harknett, &
McLanahan, 2016). Despite a wealth of studies
on unemployment, we have surprisingly little
information on the contemporary emotional
experience of unemployment within marriages
and families, particularly in terms of shaping
gendered marital dynamics. This omission
means an incomplete understanding of how
unemployment now shapes, and is shaped by,
marital life.
This article therefore approaches the question
of unemployment and gender in marriages by
examining emotion work. Emotion work is
the emotional effort of aligning reality with
expectations, and within marriages it frequently
serves to maintain normative ideals of gender.
It is “the management of feeling to create a
publicly observable facial and bodily display”
(Hochschild, 2003b, p. 7). Research on emotion work in marriages has shown that spouses
often step in during “unsettled times” (Swidler,
1986), of which unemployment is one, to do
emotion work designed to help their partners
get through emotionally tumultuous periods,
636 Journal of Marriage and Family 79 (June 2017): 636–656
Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment 637
such as gender and sexual transitions (Pfeffer,
2010), physical ill health (Thomeer, Reczek,
& Umberson, 2015), depression (Thomeer,
Umberson, & Pudrovska, 2013), and times of
economic uncertainty (Cooper, 2014). These
studies asserted the importance of gender in
shaping the configuration of emotion work
within families in times of crisis, finding that
wives do much more of the emotion work
during pivotal times than husbands. Nevertheless, we do not yet know the connection
between the experience of unemployment and
emotion work.
Using data collected from 25 middle-class
and upper-middle-class families, this article
extends the concept of emotion work to explain
how wives’ emotion work also frequently functions as a resource with potential economic
benefits for husbands. Wives’ emotion work
here is primarily guided by the urge to help their
husbands manage the expectations of the American white-collar job market, which values a
cheerful, confident, and positive presentation of
self (Ehrenreich, 2005; Sharone, 2014; Smith,
2001). As such, these findings elaborate on
previous research on the increased intrusion of
the marketplace into intimate life (Hochschild,
2003a, 2012) by explaining how the marketplace
shapes marital dynamics around emotion work
during men’s unemployment.
Developing our understanding of the
emotional implications of unemployment is
important because involuntary unemployment
appears to be an enduring aspect of the American economic landscape that a large proportion
of the American population of workers is likely
to experience at least once in their life (Bureau
of Labor Statistics, 2016). Surprising casualties
of these structural economic shifts have been
college-educated, white-collar workers who
are finding out that their educational degrees
no longer afford them the security they previously enjoyed (Mendenhall, Kalil, Spindel,
& Hart, 2008). College-educated workers now
are more likely than their counterparts in previous decades to lose jobs (Newman, 2008).
When they do so, they tend to be pushed into
long-term unemployment lasting 27 weeks
or longer (Ilg, 2010) and face steep financial
penalties, with many earning far less in a job
after unemployment (Newman, 2008).
Starting with the case of male workers
and their wives is important because previous
research suggests that emotion work at home
is gendered (Erickson, 2005), with wives doing
much more emotion work for husbands than
vice versa. Most prior research suggests that
husbands do not do much emotion work for their
wives (Thomeer et al., 2013, 2015), although
others disagree (Minotte, Stevens, Minnotte, &
Kiger, 2007). Starting with unemployed men
is thus likely more fruitful for understanding
emotion work during unemployment.
Literature Review
Unemployment and Emotion Work in Marriages
Recent studies of unemployment have tended
to focus on the impact of unemployment on
individuals and have paid insufficient attention to how unemployment reverberates within
families, especially in terms of managing
the emotional dimension of unemployment.
Research has found that unemployment is associated with a detrimental impact on individual
well-being, particularly for those in the middle
classes (Anderson, 2009), which lasts for several
years even after reemployment (Young, 2012),
and depression, especially for men (Thoits,
1986). In addition, men may also feel anxious
about their masculinity because providing for
their families continues to be framed as particularly important for men (Conroy-Bass, 2015;
Legerski & Cornwall, 2010; Michniewicz,
Vendello, & Bosson, 2014; Townsend, 2002),
although others disagree (see Lane, 2011).
This is despite a rise of female breadwinners,
stay-at-home dads, and other trends in paid and
unpaid work (Bianchi, Robinson, & Milkie,
2006; Chesley, 2011; Pew, 2013).
Recent research has suggested that a key
factor that makes unemployment an emotionally
fraught experience for American white-collar
workers is the peculiarity of job searching in the
United States today. The American job-search
process makes extensive emotional demands
on unemployed workers (Ehrenreich, 2005;
Sharone, 2014; Smith, 2001). Unemployed
American, white-collar job seekers strive to
present themselves as friendly, cheerful, and
confident in addition to having the right skills
for the job for which they are applying, even
as they deal with myriad daily professional
rejections (for details on the emotional labor
of the white-collar job-search process in the
United States, see Ehrenreich, 2005, Sharone,
2014, and Smith, 2001). They are advised by
638 Journal of Marriage and Family
experts, such as career coaches, to create pleasurable interactions as evidence of “chemistry”
with potential employers (Sharone, 2014). As
such, scholars have argued that the white-collar
job-search process requires emotional labor.
Usually, emotional labor refers to emotion
work conducted for a wage and is subject
to an employer’s control as, for example, in
interactive service work (Hochschild, 2003b;
Leidner, 1993). Prior research focused primarily
on unemployed individuals, so it potentially
overlooked how the family may be critical in
enabling this emotional labor.
Some previous research analyzed unemployment as impacting the whole family materially
and emotionally (Komarovsky, 1940; Newman, 1988). In her interview-based study of
unemployed men in New York City and adults
who had grown up in families with an unemployed father, Newman (1988) found that
the narrative of a booming economy in the
1980s when she conducted her research and
the male-breadwinner structure of the families
meant that men in her sample felt extremely
stigmatized. Men’s unemployment negatively
impacted marriages and children. In her sample,
the “feeling rules,” that is, unwritten “scripts”
that “guide emotion work by establishing the
sense of entitlement or obligation that governs emotional exchanges” (Hochschild &
Manchung, 1989, p. 56), were shaped by the
primacy of the male-breadwinner family structure. Wives and unemployed husbands often
had a strong sense that men had broken the
marital bargain by being unemployed. Men in
Newman’s sample thus tended not to receive
emotional support from their spouses.
Even earlier, studying unemployment in
the Great Depression, Komarovsky (1940) did
not find much evidence of marital emotional
support in the male-breadwinner families she
studied. The findings suggest an absence of
emotion work from wives during this time.
Both studies were conducted primarily with
male-breadwinner families, which were more
prevalent at the time, and when gender norms
were, on the surface at least, vastly different than
they are currently. The “feeling rules” governing
emotional behavior and expression were thus
likely significantly different in these earlier studies than in contemporary times of employment
precarity, which is linked to a magnification of
the importance of emotional labor in job searching as well as more progressive gender norms.
As such, these previous studies are less useful
for understanding the contemporary emotional
experience of unemployment in marriages.
Some recent research attempted to capture
the emotional experience of unemployment and
economic insecurity in families (Cooper, 2014;
Lane, 2011). Cooper’s (2014) qualitative study
included 50 families divided among three broad
social classes that she described as upper class,
middle class, and working class. She found that
social class and gender are central in shaping how families contend emotionally with this
shift toward economic and employment precarity. In the upper-class families of Cooper’s study,
which are most similar in terms of educational
and occupational backgrounds to the families in
my sample, the division of anxiety about the
implications of living in an economically precarious world was gendered. The upper-class
families frequently fell into neotraditional patterns as they sought to ensure that despite the
broad shift toward precarity, their children had
all the opportunities to reproduce the respondents’ own privileged class status. As such,
the men in these families focused on earning
and managing the finances, whereas their wives
expended tremendous effort in micro-managing
their children’s educational trajectories by overseeing homework and conducting research on
the best classes, teachers, and schools for their
children. Yet these affluent families were not
contending with unemployment; furthermore,
Cooper did not explain how the upper-class
spouses did emotion work for each other as they
navigated these times. As such, Cooper’s study
was less useful for explaining how unemployment shapes the emotional dynamics between
these couples.
In her study of white-collar, unemployed
workers in the technology industry, Lane (2011)
focused on married, unemployed men with
wives who were employed. She found that
wives’ income served as a protective cushion. Lane argued that these unemployed men
reconceptualized their masculinity as being
at ease with having a breadwinning wife and
expressing comfort at bearing responsibility for
household chores such as cooking and child care
during their unemployment. She explained that
unemployed men had less emotionally fraught
experiences of unemployment, especially when
compared with unemployed women. Yet Lane’s
data and analysis did not consider the role
of emotion work in shaping unemployment
Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment 639
experiences. She did not consider how, just
as wives’ income may be a resource during
unemployment, wives’ emotion work too may
be a helpful resource for unemployed men.
Furthermore, the ease that men in her sample
felt about being unemployed was surprising
and differs from the results of other research,
including this study.
Wives’ Emotion Work as a Resource
in Marriages
To understand how emotion work may be a
resource for some within marriages, we first
need to understand what sociological research
currently establishes about emotion work in
marriages. At the crux of emotion work is
the discrepancy between what people really
feel and the feelings they publicly display
(Hochschild, 2003b). Emotion work is gendered, as it often “affirms, enhances, and
celebrates the well-being and status of others”
(Hochschild, 2003b, p. 165), and these tasks
are usually considered feminine. Heterosexual marriages are gendered, including around
the expectation that women act as nurturers.
Performing emotion work in their families is
intrinsic to how women create, on a daily basis,
their gendered identities as wives and mothers
(Ilta-Garey, 2011; Reay, 2004; Ruddick, 1980).
As the “emotion experts” (Thomeer et al.,
2013, p. 153) of their families, women draw on
their emotional resources, including patience,
encouragement, love, and support (Reay, 2004),
particularly during stressful times. In the study
of marriages, emotion work is most frequently
viewed as the micro-level management of
feelings, usually women’s, geared toward reconciling, upholding, and perpetuating normative
expectations of gender.
Studies have suggested that embodying masculinity, in contrast, means that men project
an emotional ignorance (Pfeffer, 2010). There
is some evidence, however, that when emotion
work is necessary to uphold normative notions
of gender and sexuality, men do some emotion
work. In their study of long-term couples, Elliott
and Umberson (2008) found that both men and
women do emotion work around sexual desire,
frequently with women trying to increase their
sexual desire for husbands and men trying to
decrease their sexual desire.
Generally, studies have suggested that emotion work occurs in two, subtly distinct, forms:
self-focused emotion work or other-focused
emotion work. Self-focused emotion work
occurs when an individual focuses on suppressing or manipulating his or her own feelings (or at
least the embodied presentation of their feelings)
to maintain another’s emotional equilibrium. In
contrast, other-focused emotion work occurs
when individuals focus on actively inspiring
specific feelings in another (i.e., happiness,
reassurance, confidence). This distinction exists
in Hochschild’s (2003b) original articulation
of the concept itself and has been applied in
research on emotional labor. Emotional labor
is distinctive from emotion work as the former
is guided by employer expectations and done
for a wage (for more on self- and other-focused
emotional labor, see Pugliesi, 1999; Wharton,
2009). Research on emotional labor has used
this distinction partly to parse out the job stress
and mental health outcomes of these two different types of emotional labor. Some suggested
that other-focused emotional labor can have
positive impacts on workers, and others suggested, in contrast, that self- and other-focused
emotional labor are linked to higher job stress
and reported distress (Pugliesi, 1999). This
distinction arises from scholars’ conceptual
interest in understanding how the marketplace
regulates workers’ feelings and well-being
but has rarely been applied in emotion work
in families.
When it comes to the private realm of family
life, some research has examined the deep penetration of the marketplace into the intimate areas
of life, such as dating and courtship, pregnancy,
and caring for elderly kin (Hochschild, 2003a,
2012). These are ostensibly personal activities
that can easily be bought and sold as monetary transactions. Yet this previous research
has not typically focused on how the marketplace may also shape the emotion work between
Regardless, research on marriages has implicitly suggested that wives do more of both types
of emotion work. Hochschild and Manchung
(1989) found that women in dual-earner families dealt with the burden of the second shift
by suppressing their feelings of being dealt an
unfair hand. Hochschild (2013) explained how
the wives of diplomats managed their emotions to help maintain and develop their husband’s diplomatic reputations and careers. Ortiz
(2011) similarly explained how the wives of
professional athletes saw their own emotion
640 Journal of Marriage and Family
work as shaped by marriages dominated by their
husbands’ careers. The wives of professional
athletes suppressed their anxieties about their
husbands’ potential infidelity during the athletic
season to ensure that their husbands focused
on the game. Yet these important works can
be further developed to more comprehensively
explain whether wives perceive their emotion
work as a helpful, indeed necessary, resource
for their husbands’ careers and how they marshal their emotions to make them a resource
for husbands. Studying this in the context of
unemployment—an acute example of employment precarity—is particularly important in our
historical moment.
Wives also do more other-focused emotion work by listening to and comforting their
spouses more than their spouses do for them
(Erickson, 2005). For example, Pfeffer (2010)
found that women were expected to provide
emotional support to their transmen partners
during the challenging period of the sex and
gender transition, but transmen were not as
sensitive to the emotional impact their transition
had on these women. A study of how emotion
work is gendered during a spouse’s physical ill
health (Thomeer et al., 2015) found that women
do more emotion work when spouses are ill
as well as when they themselves are ill. When
wives were ill, they did emotion work for husbands by suppressing their own anxieties and
concerns about their health so as not to worry
their husbands. Husbands, in turn, explained
their lack of emotional support by saying they
did not know how to provide support. In the few
cases that men did provide emotional support
for their wives, they framed it as fulfilling the
masculine role of protecting their families.
Similarly, a couple-level study of depression
(Thomeer et al., 2013) suggested that depressed
men received far more emotional support from
their wives than depressed wives did from
their husbands. Couples with depressed men
communicated extensively, including making
decisions together about medication. In contrast, when wives were depressed, marriages
often became tense and filled with negativity
and hostility, including silence around discussing women’s depression. The authors of
both studies used their findings to explain how
the experience of these different kinds of illnesses was shaped by marital dynamics around
emotion work.
These studies did not explicitly conceptualize wives’ emotion work as also being a
resource for men. Emotion work can be considered a resource if it extends beyond upholding
gendered norms in marriage toward potentially
having economic benefits. We thus need to
understand how a spouse’s, usually a wife’s,
emotion work may be a useful resource for
his or her partner. Indeed, emotion work has
been conceptualized as a cultural resource in
the mother–child relationship. In her study of
middle-class and working-class mothers in England, Reay (2004) explained how middle-class
mothers had the luxury of time, which enabled
them to be more emotionally present to guide
their children through school-related activities.
Working-class mothers, however, were preoccupied with meeting basic material needs
such that they could not do the emotion work
that middle-class mothers did for their children
and which often has greater payoff in terms of
educational performance. In marriages, too, it
bears understanding whether and how emotion
work may be a resource with economic benefits.
In sum, the previous literature on unemployment, although valuable, has tended to focus
on the individual experiences of unemployment
without sufficient attention to how unemployment resonates within the marriage. Likewise,
research on emotion work has implied that
wives’ emotion work may be a resource for
their husbands, but this conceptualization needs
development. I therefore ask the following two
main questions: What emotion work do wives
do during their husbands’ unemployment? What
is wives’ and unemployed men’s rationale for
the provision of this support? To preview my
argument, after a methodological discussion, I
discuss my findings. I first describe the emotions
that unemployed men experience as they search
for a job and then focus on wives’ emotion work
as they strive to help men manage their emotions
to better align with the expectations of potential
employers and thus find reemployment. My
findings explain how unemployed men and
wives perceive wives’ emotion work as a useful
resource with potential economic benefits in
terms of the men’s reemployment. This conceptualization extends our understandings of the
function of emotion work in the private realm
of the family and illuminates the penetration
of the market into marital life to shape wives’
emotion work. In addition, in distinguishing
between self- and other-focused emotion work,
Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment 641
Table 1. Descriptive Data on Unemployed Men and
Families (N =25)
Educational attainment of unemployed men
Graduate degree (12)
Bachelor’s degree (11)
Some college (2)
Age of unemployed men
Annual household income before unemployment
Race/ethnicity of unemployed men
Native-born White (20)
Native-born Black (2)
Nonnative born citizens (3)
Duration of unemployment at time of first interview
Median=6 months
Range=2 months–13 months
Years married
Spouse’s employment status
Works full-time, earns the same as husband prior to his
unemployment (7)
Works full-time, earns more than husband prior to his
unemployment (3)
Works full-time, earns less than husband prior to his
unemployment (10)
Works part-time, earns less than husband prior to his
unemployment (5)
I point to the costs entailed by each type of
emotion work.
Sample and Recruitment
This article uses data from a multitiered data
collection approach. The data include interviews
with 38 participants (Table 1). Of these participants, 25 were unemployed men and 13 were
the wives of these men. I completed a total of
56 semistructured, in-depth interviews because I
conducted follow-up interviews with some participants. I also conducted intensive participant
observations in two families. This study’s design
privileges data and theoretical saturation and the
collection of qualitatively rich data to develop
conceptual arguments (Roy, Zvonkovic, Goldberg, Sharp, & LaRossa, 2015; Weiss, 1994).
Inclusion criteria, sample characteristics,
and recruitment methods. The sample was
recruited through professional associations and
job clubs catering to unemployed professionals
from a metropolitan area in the northeastern
United States. The sampling strategy for conducting the original interviews was snowball
sampling. The inclusion criteria required men
to be currently unemployed or to have been
unemployed until at most 3 months prior to the
original interview, have at least a bachelor-level
degree, be married to a spouse who worked at
least 20 hours a week, and have children aged 22
years or younger. These criteria were designed
to capture the experiences of male unemployment in middle-class and upper-middle-class,
dual-earner families.
The men I interviewed were professionals
who had held a variety of positions until they
lost their jobs, including information technology analysts, program managers, engineers, and
financial analysts. Two participants had only
some college. To maintain anonymity, at times
I do not use their real profession and instead
I select one close to it. They are included in
the sample because despite their educational
attainment, their income and occupation when
employed made them a part of the upper-level,
white-collar workforce this study aimed to capture. The original interviews averaged 2 hours
and were conducted in person except with one
unemployed man and three wives. Original interviews were conducted between 2013 and 2014.
The findings also draw on follow-up interviews conducted with 11 of the men and seven
wives. Follow-up interviews were conducted
approximately 6 months after the first interview, with purposefully selected participants.
The selection criteria for the follow-up interviews divided the participants into one of the
following three broad groups: those who had
appeared to be having a relatively easy unemployment experience, those who had seemed to
be having a relatively challenging unemployment experience, and those who had seemed to
be having a neutral experience. The follow-up
interviews investigated whether, and how, the
experience of unemployment evolved over time
for the unemployed individual and his families.
Follow-up interviews averaged an hour, with
approximately two thirds being conducted in
person. Follow-up interviews were conducted
between 2014 and 2015.
642 Journal of Marriage and Family
Participant observations. To supplement the
interviews and following in the methodological footsteps of previous studies on families
(Cooper, 2014; Lareau, 2011), I conducted
observations with families of two unemployed
men to better understand what people say about
the emotional experience of unemployment as
well as how they experience it (Jerolmack &
Khan, 2014). Although in this article I do not
present field notes from my observations, the
family observations were nevertheless instrumental in ensuring that I probed deeper with
my subsequent interviews. I spent more than
60 hours during a 2- to 3-week period with
each family, visiting several times a week. Each
family had children younger than the age of 6 at
the time of observations, and both wives were
employed full-time.
Data Collection, Analysis, and Sample
Interviews with unemployed men and their
spouses were conducted separately because
individuals often experience marriages divergently (Bernard, 1972). Interviews were usually
conducted in public spaces such as coffee shops
and restaurants. Interviews were semistructured,
allowing me to ask participants the same broad
questions but also enabling flexibility to pursue
individualized lines of questioning depending
on responses.
Interview protocols. The original interview
protocol was divided into seven sections.
These sections were the following: (a) general
background (information about the participant
including age, race, religion, education, social
class of origin, and essentials on their marital
situation), (b) career history (types and duration
of employment in the past decade, work, and
identity), (c) the process and aftermath of job
loss (first reactions, discussion with her or his
spouse and children, how they started spending
their days, job-searching activities, division
of household labor), (d) family finances (an
overview of the couples’ income, assets, expenditures, and debts and lifestyle changes), (e)
mental and emotional health (questions about
mood, drug and alcohol usage, sources of emotional support), (f) life at home (gender roles and
employment, marital quality, how unemployment has impacted marriage and relationship
with children, intimacy, fights, support from
spouse), (g) ending (space for the participants
to make general comments). The interview
protocol did not specifically ask about emotion
work, but the questions, particularly those about
emotions and support, were designed to facilitate responses on emotion work. The interview
guide for spouses covered the same materials as
that for unemployed individuals.
The follow-up interview guide was divided
into the following four main sections: (a)
job-searching activity, support received, and
feelings around it since the original interview;
(b) life at home, particularly the relationships
with spouse, children, time use, and division
of household labor; (c) finances; (d) hopes and
expectations in terms of career and family life
and goals for the near-term (i.e., 1-year period)
and long-term (i.e., next 5–10 years) future. The
follow-up guide was individualized to check on
outstanding moments and comments from the
original interview.
Sample limitations. I attempted to interview
the wives of all of the men in this sample,
and ultimately completed interviews with 13
wives. Spousal interviews are generally difficult
to obtain. Because most studies of family life
draw on information collected from one family
member, having reports from both spouses
in this study provides valuable insights. The
interviews with wives were particularly useful
in understanding two aspects of the emotional
experience of unemployment. First, the wives
provided richer details about emotion work
than did the unemployed men, and, second,
wives’ interviews also illuminated the challenges of emotion work, which would have been
underappreciated if I only had husbands’ reports.
I compared the narratives of the unemployed
men whose wives participated in the study with
men whose wives did not participate in the study.
These sets of wives did not appear to be systematically different from each other, and no particular aspect of unemployment seemed to explain
the decision of some wives not to participate.
It appears that wives who chose not to participate did so for reasons unrelated to their spouses’
unemployment. I requested participants to set
aside 2 hours for the interview, which may have
seemed like an extensive time commitment for
some of these wives.
It is important to note that in the 12 cases
in which wives did not participate, the article
analyzes the perceptions of the unemployed
Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment 643
men of their wives’ emotion work. Combined,
the complementary elements of this research
design—interviews with unemployed men,
interviews with approximately half of the wives,
follow-up interviews with strategically selected
participants, and family observations— enable
an understanding of emotion work during men’s
Data analysis. Interviews were transcribed. My
goal in analyzing them was to understand how
emotion work is configured during this charged
time, the directionality of it, and how participants explained it. I coded transcripts using
grounded theoretical methodology (Glaser &
Strauss, 1967). I reread each transcript several
times. In the first round, approximately 10 to
15 broad coding categories emerged through
this inductive process of line-by-line coding.
Examples of these categories include “division
of household labor” and “emotions and emotion
work.” Coding in the next two rounds was more
fine grained as I refined my coding categories,
for example, separating “emotion” from “emotion work.” To refine the categories even further,
I then combed through each category, again
reading the data line by line for each category. I
further demarcated these into subcategories. For
example, in pulling out data from the “emotion
work” category for wives, I divided this into
data that fit under subcategories such as “hiding
their feelings,” “motivation,” and “professional
reinforcement.” After I divided each code in
this manner, I rechecked my division of subcategories by rereading the data in each code. My
aim was to weed out redundant subcategories.
Finally, I checked for disconfirming evidence.
Because my disconfirming evidence—when
wives do not do emotion work—was not usually in the “emotion work” category, I combed
through the transcripts, focusing on the section
of the transcripts on family life and emotional
support to see what wives and unemployed men
had to say about wives not doing emotion work.
This data, incorporated in the Results, provides
a holistic view of wives’ emotion work during
men’s unemployment.
A brief note on the presentation of findings.
In the Results, I draw on quotes from my
participants to demonstrate each form of emotion work. The aim of qualitative research is
to develop conceptual arguments from carefully designed samples. To help the readers
understand how prevalent each form of emotion
work was in my sample, I also present percentages. These percentages are typically a
fraction of 25, as this data provides insight
into the emotional experiences of 25 marriages
of unemployed men. For men whose wives
did not participate in the study, I used men’s
reports of their wives’ emotion work. For those
13 couples in which husbands and wives both
participated, I cross-checked what both partners
said about emotion work. In my findings, I
analyzed the points where similarities and contradictions between spouses’ accounts occurred.
In the section on wives’ concealing their own
concerns, I drew on data from only the wives
because husbands’ interviews did not reveal this
form of emotion work. These percentages are
an approximation to guide the reader.
Men’s Emotions
Unemployment is emotionally fraught. Previous research (Ehrenreich, 2006; Newman,
1988; Ehrenreich, 2006; Sharone, 2014) suggested that unemployed Americans, particularly
white-collar workers, deal with feelings of
rejection at being unemployed, which are compounded the longer it takes them to find their
next job (Sharone, 2014). Feeling rejected was
a commonplace experience for men in my sample. Dave Dunn (all names are pseudonyms), a
respondent who had decades of experience as
an editor, explained how the rejections he faced
in his job search shook his confidence.
I had gotten to the point where I was just starting
to question my experience.… I started going “Did
[my editor] assign things to me and then just redo
everything because it was so shitty? And I didn’t
really do that good of a job for twelve years?”
No, that wasn’t the case. But you start questioning:
Maybe I really don’t know how to do this.
For these men, their professional worth was
also tied to how they felt about themselves as
husbands and fathers. In normative ideals of
American masculinity, men enact their fatherhood and their roles as husbands by providing
financially for their families (Townsend, 2002).
Unsurprisingly, these unemployed men questioned their value to their family and their place
in the world. Jim Radzik, who had been searching for a position as a marketing executive for
644 Journal of Marriage and Family
the past year, wistfully wondered “if there’s a
place in the world for [me] to embrace.” This
unmoored feeling was common in my sample
and disorienting for men as they struggled to
think of themselves as unemployed professionals. For some, this sense of displacement was
experienced very concretely. Marcus Neals, an
information technology professional with a master’s degree in business administration from a
top-20 business school and two children in elementary school, said the following:
I kind of feel that I’m failing in my part to provide
for my family because we’re just relying on my
wife’s salary and her health care and everything.
And I’m not really providing anything financial for
a while for the family. So I feel that I am failing in
a sense by not having a job and providing for the
The sense of rejection experienced during
unemployment was compounded by feeling of
failing at fulfilling the masculine role of providing for their families. William Smith, in his late
30s and with a 4-year-old son, explained how his
unemployment gnawed at him through everyday
activities. He recounted spending time with his
son recently.
We were members of a pool, and I would take [my
son Alex] to the pool during the day. It would be
like 20 moms, you know maybe 30 kids, and then
there’d be me, the guy. I mean I just felt like I’m
that guy, … like I’m an out-of-work dad playing
As William indicated, for these men, staying
at home and searching for a job were a constant
reminders of how they, as men, did not belong in
the home.
Although these men were questioning their
own professional capabilities and their sense of
self, in the American context of job searching,
they were expected to exude optimism and cheer
as they tried to convince potential employers
that they were the perfect fit for a position (for
details on the emotional labor in the American
white-collar job-search process, see Ehrenreich,
2005; Lane, 2011; Sharone, 2014; Smith, 2001).
Gary Archer, a chemist who was out of work
for 5 months, explained that “you have to be
in the right frame of mind to actually persuade
people to hire you. You have to be energetic and
Because job seekers are usually not particularly cheerful or positive during this time period,
projecting cheer became challenging for most.
Brian Bader, another respondent, was visibly
annoyed at the presumed importance of networking. Brian said that “[you have] to sit there in
an interview and try to bullshit why is Brian the
greatest employee ever? That part just for me is
very probably the worst part of the whole thing.”
He added that he can only network “On a day
when I feel good about myself.” Brian acknowledged that networking only on days when he felt
good was limiting: “So I’ve got to work on that.”
Thus, at times, the emotional labor of presenting
oneself as cheerful and confident, even though
one felt rejected, meant difficulty in remaining
motivated to continue searching for a job.
The unemployed men in my sample thus
experienced a variety of emotions. Prominent
among these were sadness, despair, shame, discouragement, and a lack of confidence. These
emotions were detrimental to the men’s overall
sense of self and were also obstacles to remaining motivated in searching for a job. The wives’
emotion work in response to their husband’s
emotional state, as I discuss next, was driven
by the underlying emotion of fear. The wives of
these unemployed men did emotion work primarily in an attempt to encourage their husbands to continue job searching. Although wives
were also concerned about the general mental
well-being of their husbands and with maintaining an emotional equilibrium in their homes,
their emotion work was focused on encouraging husbands to remain cheerful and optimistic
in the face of rejections that are endemic to
job searching in the American context. Wives
explained that their emotion work had an instrumental goal: It was meant to help their husbands
end this period of unemployment as quickly as
Wives’ Other-Focused Emotion Work
Wives’ emotion work that sought to actively
encourage their husbands to persevere in job
searching can be categorized as other-focused
emotion work because it focused on molding
husbands’ emotions. One of the key emotions
that the unemployed men faced was a lack
of confidence in their professional abilities.
Although lacking self-confidence was unfortunate in itself, a practical consequence for these
men was that it could be an impediment to
Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment 645
remaining motivated to search for a job. The
combined reports of the unemployed men and
their wives in this sample indicated that 68% of
wives (17 of 25) did other-focused emotion work
for the sake of encouraging their husbands to
continue searching for a job. Wives tried to alter
their husbands’ feelings to being cheerful, confident, and optimistic so that they could search
effectively. Wives did other-focused emotion
work in two ways. First, wives attempted to
encourage their husbands by reinforcing their
professional worth. Of the wives, 44% (11 of
25) did this. Second, the wives encouraged their
husbands to continue searching by creating a
sense of partnership—that the emotional and
practical challenges of searching for a job were
for the couples to bear together. The partnership
approach emphasized to unemployed men that
they were not alone in their unemployment and
that they could lean on their wives. Of the wives,
28% (7 of 25) did this.
Reinforcing professional worth. Based on the
reports of unemployed men and wives, wives
stepped in specifically to reinvigorate their
husband’s lost confidence. Tamara, an associate professor in the humanities, was married
to Kevin Goldberg, who was a manager in a
pharmaceutical company. They were in their
40s and had been married for 17 years and
had two children, a 6-year-old daughter and
a 13-year-old son. In the job he lost, Kevin
had earned $150,000 per year, along with a
sizable, performance-based bonus. Tamara
brought in more than $70,000 per year from
her own, highly secure job as a tenured faculty
member. Because of Tamara’s job, they still had
access to health insurance. Tamara reinforced
to Kevin that losing his job was not his fault,
and she continued highlighting his professional
skills to him as Kevin went through rounds of
job applications and interviews. Tamara consciously strove to boost Kevin’s self-confidence
by playing up small victories to highlight his
professional skills. This was a means of making
sure that Kevin stayed engaged in his ongoing
job search. She said the following:
I would say to him all this time “You know …
all these people said they applied for things for
months and months and months they don’t even
get a callback. So clearly you’re doing something
right. Clearly you have skills. Clearly you’re valuable because these people call you back and you
go in for interviews. It’s just you haven’t found the
right thing yet.” I would always try and talk him
through that. … “This doesn’t mean you’re not getting anywhere.” And I sort of tried to help him see
incremental progress.
Tamara viewed the other-focused emotion
work she did for Kevin as gendered and an intrinsic part of being a wife. She explained,
If you’re going to be married and you’re a woman,
you just better be prepared to be the one that is the
linchpin because, fair or not, most women that I
know, that’s the way it is. So I sort of knew that
things were going to fall apart if I didn’t hold them
Similar to Tamara, women viewed their emotion work as a practical necessity but also as a
wifely obligation. On his part, Kevin described
how it was helpful for him that Tamara worked
emotionally through every step of the job-search
process with him, supporting him.
Often I’d make it all the way into the final interview and at that final interview they would just
make some other decision. But she has offered
… unfailing positive support. I think that’s really
what’s gotten me through. I’ve shared my plans,
what I was doing and planning to do, to navigate
through this thing. And it was … a team effort and
we managed it together.
These data cannot reveal whether there was
a direct link between Tamara’s emotion work
designed to reinforce Kevin’s professional worth
and the ultimate outcome, whereby Kevin gained
a lucrative consulting position that offered him
a similar remuneration to the job he had lost.
What these data tell us, instead, is that for
Kevin, Tamara’s emotion work was instrumental in instilling professional confidence, which
he felt he needed to continue searching for a job.
Emotion work in the form of reinforcing their
husband’s professional worth was not always as
smooth and ultimately successful as for Tamara
and Kevin. Emily Bader was married to Brian,
a product manager who had been out of work
for 4 months. Emily’s annual income was a
third of the $90,000 a year that Brian’s job used
to bring in. Brian, quoted earlier, was feeling
particularly discouraged as he searched for a job,
something that worried Emily: “He doesn’t have
the get-up-and-go to go do it [the job search].
’Cause he’s in such a dump. So I am trying to still
be very positive.” Emily explained her concerns
646 Journal of Marriage and Family
about Brian’s attitude, saying that she tried to
convince him of his professional worth by telling
him that “he has many skills. He’s so dedicated.
He’s so loyal. He works really hard and any
company would be happy to have him.” Similar
to other wives, Emily expected that she could
play a role in shaping his feelings into positive
So recently I told him I said that I was worried
about his inactivity and I felt like his search is
too passive. You can’t just sit at a computer. But
I always have to do it in like a positive way, right?
So I always say, “Oh I heard you talking on the
phone today. That’s great! You need to be talking
more. You need to talk.”
Despite this, Emily added:
I’m very worried about him. I am. If he thinks
that he’s nonemployable, then he won’t be. You
are what you think, right? So if he thinks that, he
projects that, it’s not going to happen. … It’s very
scary. I sit up in the kitchen and I think “We’re
going to have to give up this house,” you know
what are we going to do? We’re going to rent some
shitty little apartment?
As she explained, for Emily the material
stakes were high if Brian continued thinking
of himself as nonemployable. As professional
workers and a dual-earner couple, Brian and
Emily, similar to the rest of my sample, did
not face destitution. What worried them was the
potential for some, even if minimal, downward
mobility, and the possibility of a diminished
lifestyle. In addition, for Emily, Brian’s way of
searching for a job and his emotions depicted a
lack of manliness.
But he is not a strong like a man like who just
says, “Oh I don’t care. I’ve been fired? I don’t care.
Screw them. I’ll go find another job.” … He is very
sensitive and emotional. And he’s like a girl! Like
man up! … Be stronger. Have a harder shell. Let it
roll off. Have confidence.
As Emily’s quote illustrated, wives’ emotion
work here also aimed to encourage a more
stereotypically masculine response of confidence despite the rejections that these men
faced. By worriedly questioning, “How’re you
going to find a job when you have no confidence
and are very emotional?” Emily drew an explicit
link between Brian’s feelings and his success in
finding his next job.
Pierre Miot, who had a background in finance
and worked at a bank, similarly explained how it
was encouraging to him when his wife expressed
her conviction of his professional abilities: “My
wife will say, ‘You will find a job. You will get
a job.’ It’s encouragement.” His wife’s encouragement was important to him because Pierre
already felt an immense amount of pressure to
find a job saying, “The pressure I put on myself
and the society already puts it on me, that I need
to find a job.” Pierre alluded to the idea that his
professional self-worth mingles with normative
ideas about masculinity to make the experience
of searching for a job high stakes.
Partnership approach. When Terry Clarke,
an engineer in his late 50s, lost his job 6
months ago, it was so emotionally difficult
for him that he compared it with death, saying, “There’s the discouragement part because
[being unemployed is] dying in a sense.” After
he lost his job, which used to bring in about
$140,000 a year, Terry apologized profusely
to his wife of 27 years. His wife, Sandy, was
a paralegal-cum-office manager who earned
$80,000 a year in her job. Terry told Sandy that
“I feel like I’ve failed you.” Although Terry
alluded to his sense of failure in providing
for his family, his wife Sandy responded by
reassuring him, saying “Well, I don’t view it
that way at all. I don’t see that you have done
anything that would have caused me to see you
as a failure. It just happened.” In her interview,
Sandy contrasted this layoff with a layoff that
Terry had undergone 5 years ago, explaining
that then she had to “be very guarded in what
I [said] to him. But now I really feel that there
is far more freedom because he’s willing to
talk about this job loss. So I feel like I’m more
an ally to him than I have been in the past.”
This shift motivated Sandy to do emotion work
for her husband. Sandy’s emotion work aimed
to protect Terry’s masculinity by encouraging
him in his job search and doing so in a way
that reassured Terry that in her eyes he was no
less a man, a husband, and a provider than he
had been. Sandy and Terry both agreed that
this time around their marriage was stronger
than it was prior to Terry’s unemployment.
Terry said,
I would say [our marriage] was stressful…. It was
just living on the edge of anger. I think that’s
mellowed over time. … [Now] it’s consistent, it’s
Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment 647
positive. Our relationship is better now than it’s
been in a long time. … In this time of stress she
has been perfect.
This change shaped Sandy’s ability to deploy
the partnership approach as well as Terry’s
ability to respond favorably to it. By being
an ally, Sandy metaphorically held Terry’s
hands as he went through the ups and downs of
searching for a job.
When Sandy’s workday was over and she
drove home from her office, she called Terry
from the car to catch up on what he had accomplished in his job search that day.
It’s kind of like taming the little creature in The
Little Prince: You meet at the same time every
day and you’re expected to be there. I don’t know
that I’ve tamed him or whatever [chuckles] but [the
call] is something I look forward to. ’Cause I like
to hear what he has to say. It’s an important call
for me.
For both Sandy and Terry, this phone call
was emotional. In his follow-up interview, Terry
explained that, for him, Sandy’s reassurance was
important in enabling him to remain motivated
despite rejections in his job search. Terry appreciatively acknowledged the following:
She was always very, very positive. Frequently she
would call me on her way home from work and say,
“What did you do today? How was your day?” It
was: “How was your day?” And that allowed me
to, without any defensiveness—she didn’t ever put
me in a corner—to say, “Well, this is what I did,
this is what I learned, this is who I met.” So, it
was always an interchange or interaction that was
positive and encouraging. So that was extremely
important for me.
For Sandy and Terry, their partnership
approach remained consistent through the
duration of Terry’s unemployment. Sandy and
Terry’s case also illuminated how forms of
emotion work can shift over time, depending on
the marital dynamics at that point in time.
Scott Mandel, an engineer with a master’s
degree in business administration, similarly
asserted that his wife’s “active interest” in
his job-searching activities was emotionally
encouraging to him because he felt that he was
not alone as he searched for a job. He added,
“It’s hard to explain everyday what you’re doing
and how she can help. But without boring her
with all the details [I’ll say] ‘Well I went to
another meeting today.’ So she’ll help.” For
these men, their wives’ checking in was a form
of support. For wives, providing this emotional
support was emotion work because it involved
privileging their husbands’ emotions over their
own anxieties.
Sandy explained that her daily phone calls to
Terry would be challenging for her. “Being in
the car for the call is good. If it’s bad news it
allows me to decompress before I get home, so
he doesn’t have to see me worry.” As I elaborate
later, wives consciously strove to make sure that
their husbands did not see the extent of their
worry. For the Clarkes, as Terry searched, Sandy
focused on boosting his spirits.
Not all attempts at a partnership approach
were as successful as the Clarkes. Some husbands perceived their wives’ check-ins as tantamount to nagging. Laura and Robert had been
married for 5 years and had a 4-year-old and
a 2-year-old. Until Robert lost his job, they
each earned a six-figure salary. They lived in
an upscale neighborhood in a house that Robert
bought prior to meeting and marrying Laura.
They had a full-time nanny (whom they retained
during Robert’s unemployment) to take care of
their two children from 9 in the morning until
6 in the evening on weekdays. Robert, a public relations professional, had been out of work
for 7 months. Laura, a successful radio producer with degrees from two Ivy League universities, worked full-time. Despite her own
time-consuming career, Laura was trying to be
emotionally present for her husband to help him
find reemployment quickly. Just as Sandy called
Terry daily, Laura e-mailed Robert each day.
Laura explained that she went to great lengths to
encourage Robert without being overbearing in
the process, but this was challenging. Describing a recent conversation she said: “I was talking about how Samuel L. Jackson accepts every
movie offer that comes his way. But Robert took
this as a critique of himself.” Laura had shaken
her head and emphasized that although she had
just been making small talk with Robert, he sensitively interpreted her words as a personal critique of his not being proactive enough in his
job search. She had explained their misalignment on this conversation saying, “I was having
a People magazine conversation, and he was having a conversation on The Atlantic!” A comment
that Laura had considered trivial had nevertheless pierced Robert. Indeed, in his own interview,
648 Journal of Marriage and Family
Robert had described Laura’s efforts as being
Unlike Terry, Robert was unable to fully
acknowledge and appreciate Laura’s efforts.
Still, despite these glitches in communication,
Laura tried to provide emotional support to her
husband by “boosting him up,” but this meant
“tempering my normal, blunt way of speaking.
This is just how I am—I am blunt so I need to
work on it, particularly now.” Laura added that
“Robert asked me to be less condescending, he
asked me to be more empathetic when I talk to
him about the job search and getting on top of
his job applications.” She added that tempering
how she talked to Robert about his job search
“takes a lot of hard work! … Being empathetic
is not the problem, it’s more how I convey it.”
In his follow-up interview, by which time he
had gained full-time employment after being
unemployed for a total of 9 months, Robert
reflectively explained why he had sometimes
found Laura to be condescending, “One of the
things you feel when you’re unemployed is
you’re hypersensitive to disrespect much more
because you’re feeling like you’re not appreciated. You’re not respected because clearly
nobody wants you on the [job] market. You’re
unemployed. You’re constantly struggling with
self-respect, identity issues on a daily basis.”
Thus, although at times wives’ efforts to provide
emotional support were not received positively
by husbands, many wives, similar to Laura,
nevertheless persisted in trying to emotionally
support their husbands.
Wives’ Abstaining From Emotion Work: The
Costs of Other-Focused Emotion Work
Particularly in cases in which unemployment
had been long term, some wives found that
doing other-focused emotion was too emotionally costly and so they abstained from doing it.
Of the wives, 24% (6 of 25) disengaged at times
for their own well-being. Amelia Radzik’s husband, Jim, a marketing professional, had been
unemployed and searching for a job for the past
year. Amelia has worked as a sales manager at
a large multinational company for more than
20 years. In recent years, her own salary had
been approximately $200,000 per year. Unlike
Amelia, Jim had an unstable employment history
during the course of his career. For the past 14
years, he had not worked for more than 2 years at
a company, earning more than $100,000 per year
when he had worked. For Amelia, this unstable unemployment history and the emotional
roller-coaster it entailed had made her place limits on the emotion work she does to help Jim.
I tell him now, ‘I can’t get emotionally involved
in anything anymore. Like, I can’t get excited
about an opportunity for you anymore. … I said,
“I honestly only want to hear, ‘Oh by the way,
tomorrow, I’m going to work at this company.’ I
can’t take the emotional ups and downs anymore.”
… The hardest part for me is probably staying
positive for him, … always having to be his support
Amelia’s case highlighted the unsustainability during a longer time of other-focused
emotion work, such as reinforcing professional worth or the partnership approach. At
these times, wives sometimes thus disengaged.
Similar to other wives, Amelia specifically mentioned that any emotion work she did for Jim’s
benefit came on top of other responsibilities.
“From an emotional perspective, it’s really hard
on me to always be the positive one for him. You
gotta be ‘on’ at work all the time. So then when
I come home, I feel like I gotta be ‘on.’ So, from
a wife perspective, it’s very demanding.”
Although the wives did not discuss emotion
work they did for their unemployed husbands as
having detrimental consequences for their own
paid employment, they did express feeling pressured to make sure their own jobs remained safe
and protected while their husbands were unemployed. For Amelia this meant putting up with
a boss she dislikes. Sylvia Neals, an upper-level
manager at a telecommunications company who
earned a six-figure salary, equal to the salary her
husband had earned, added the following: “I felt
the weight of the family was solely on me. …
The pressure of ‘I can’t lose my job’ because
… both of us can’t be unemployed. … made it
Abstaining from doing emotion work
was often the only way that wives, such as
Amelia Radzik, could protect their emotional
well-being. Still, unemployed men sometimes
experienced this disengagement as uncaring.
Jim Radzik, for example, euphemistically said
of Amelia, “Her way of supporting and encouraging somebody is probably very different than
how you support and encourage somebody and
how I do it.” Frank Amara, who worked in the
insurance industry and had been unemployed
Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment 649
for 4 months, elaborated on this issue by saying
the following:
We can’t talk about the employment situation. I
can’t even talk to her about the frustration of “Geez
here’s a job that I thought I was qualified for,
applied for, I can’t get called on.” So that’s tough.
You sit there sometimes you just have silence.
There’s nothing to talk about.
Yet for wives, disengagement frequently
emerged out of necessity, especially when
unemployment became long term, extending
beyond 6 months. Alice Easton, who works for
a nonprofit, said that her own other-focused
emotion work for her husband, who had been
out of work for close to 2 years, shifted from
trying to encourage her husband to search for
employment to disengagement:
I would ask questions: “Did you network today?
Did you make calls today?” Just kind of check in
and see where he was, what he was doing. It kind of
evolved over time where the more frustrated I got,
the less I engaged. Because really, ultimately me
questioning him, I’d get frustrated enough where I
kind of tell him my frustrations. But I’ve learned
to be able to kind of cope with this [by] just
sit[ting] back and ask[ing] other people to hold him
accountable [for searching].
One of the worries wives had in terms of
remaining engaged emotionally with their husbands vis-á-vis husband’s unemployment and
searching for work was the fear that wives
would be unable to conceal their own concerns.
Abstaining from emotion work gave wives much
needed emotional space to themselves, often to
not burden their husbands with their own worries. The experiences of cases in which husbands
had been unemployed for a long term suggested
that the toll of the other-focused emotion work
of encouraging husbands manifested in wives in
a longer term.
Wives’ Self-Focused Emotion Work
Wives did self-focused emotion work when they
managed their own emotions, for example, when
they managed their fears or worries about how
long their husband’s unemployment would continue. Wives did two types of self-focused emotion work: concealing their own concerns and
giving space. Wives did this self-focused emotion work to free husbands to focus on their own
emotional well-being rather than also worrying
about how their wives are faring emotionally.
This was meant to enable men to direct their time
and emotions to searching for work.
Wives’ concealing their own concerns. Wives
did emotion work during their husbands’ unemployment to create an atmosphere that enabled
husbands to continue searching. Yet they did
so frequently despite their own anxieties, which
they hid from their husbands. This form of emotion work was only revealed through interviews
with the wives. For the most part, husbands
remained unaware that their wives hid their anxieties. As such, in cases in which I interviewed
only the unemployed men and not their wives,
I did not get data on whether their wives concealed their emotions. Thus, the proportion of
wives who concealed their concerns was better
understood as a fraction of the wives I interviewed, with 62% of the interviewed wives (8
of 13) doing this.
Maeve Gura’s husband Nate was a former
executive at a multinational company. He had
been unemployed for the past 2 years. The Guras
were financially comfortable. They lived in a
million-dollar house. When employed, Nate’s
annual income had ranged from $200,000 to
$300,000, depending on bonuses. Yet Maeve
was nevertheless concerned about her husband’s
reemployment prospects, but she hid this from
him because “I can’t control how he’s going to
take me being worried. So, I don’t tell him that
I’m worried.” Although Maeve and Nate, similar to other couples in this sample, were affluent by any standards, they had built a lifestyle
around both incomes. Much like the upper-class
families in Cooper’s (2014) sample, my participants were not concerned about going without
food, heat, or electricity. Rather, their “upscaled”
(Cooper, 2014) anxieties revolved around maintaining their lifestyles and avoiding “relative
deprivation” (Newman, 1988).
Connie Mandel explained that in concealing
the extent of her anxieties from her husband
Scott “I get really worried. I internalize stuff.”
Although Connie’s words hinted at depression, she herself did not link her emotion work
directly to depression. Other wives talked about
gaining weight and losing sleep. Sylvia Marcus,
for example, explained that she had gained 30
pounds during the year-long unemployment
of her husband, which she attributed to stress
eating. Others too discussed emotion work
650 Journal of Marriage and Family
as one aspect among many of this stressful
situation that may impact their mental health.
Emily Bader, who had earlier described losing
sleep as a result of her husband’s unemployment, explained how she concealed the extent
of her worries from her husband Brian as she
encouraged him. Emily expressed her sense of
uncertainty and fright when she said: “[Brian’s]
like just this total zombie and I’m riding down
the river with him.” That wives downplayed their
own anxieties to avoid burdening their husbands
sometimes took a toll on their own well-being.
Although Sandy Clarke had successfully set
up an emotional partnership as her husband
Terry sought a job—in which she reassured
him that his unemployment and job searching was something they would get through
together—this nevertheless was difficult for
her at times. She softly explained that “I tried
never to really show him when I was having
doubts.” Sandy privileged Terry’s feelings over
her own, focusing on boosting his spirits. Sandy
elaborated on her anxiety, saying:
There would be days where it would be just hard.
And I have a very dear sister who is able to take
me off the ledge. And she would encourage me.
I would call her when those days happened. And
I would be like “I just don’t know. I don’t see
anything happening.”
Sandy continued encouraging Terry despite
her own misgivings.
The fact that it is important for unemployed
husbands and wives that the wives keep their
anxieties to themselves was best revealed when
wives failed to do so. James Peterson, an unemployed man, explained:
I think Karen gets to what you and I might refer to
as a little bit of a breaking point. It’s not a 100%
directed at me. It’s directed at the circumstance. So
some anger, some tears, some pent up frustration.
Really wrapped in the uncertainty.
For James, the cost of his wife, Karen, not
doing the self-focused emotion work to conceal
her concerns was apparent: “And while those
moments are important to her to have, they occasionally are a little bit of an alternative use of
time for me.” James was saying that having to
tend to his wife’s emotional well-being took
away from the time and energy he should have
spent on trying to get reemployed. The cost of
husbands being privy to wives’ anxieties over
their unemployment was thus framed as the time
and emotional energy this detracted from husbands’ job-searching efforts. So it was unsurprising that in their own interviews, husbands
were frequently unaware that the encouragement
from wives was coming at some cost, particularly the cost of concealing their own anxieties.
Shannon Smith reflectively pointed out that “I
mean I don’t think Will realizes the impact [his
unemployment] has on me.”
Interestingly, wives did not express doing
emotion work to conceal any concerns about the
persisting unequal division of household labor
during this time. Both unemployed men and
their wives generally agreed that unemployed
men’s time is best used for searching for a job
than for taking over household chores. Robert
Jansson explained, “It [division of household
chores] hasn’t changed as much as you’d think
it should.” He added a refrain that I heard from
most men and wives that “I deal with all the
outside stuff and she deals with a lot of the
inside stuff.” This lack of a shift in the division of household labor was the norm in this
sample. Even Frank Amara, whose household
income of $80,000 a year placed him at the bottom of this sample, put his youngest daughter
in full-time daycare that costs $900 per month
so that he could continue searching for a job.
His father, retired and affluent, helped out with
the daycare payments. This lack of a substantial
shift around household chores for unemployed
men has been corroborated by quantitative data
(Gough & Killewald, 2011).
Similar to other men and their wives, Robert
and his wife Laura agreed that Robert should
treat his job search as a full-time job. So at
about 9 in the morning each weekday, Robert
used to go down into his basement office, coming upstairs for lunch, then staying downstairs
until 4 in the evening. His children, aged 2 and
4 years, were often in the house during this time
but remained with their nanny. The relative lack
of friction over the household division of labor
during this time, which has also been found elsewhere (Gush, Scott, & Laurie, 2015), appeared
to be mediated by several factors. These couples
believed that searching for employment at their
level was a time- and emotion-intensive process
that required unemployed men’s focus. In addition, many of these couples outsourced much
of their household work, including cleaning and
child care. Most continued to do so during unemployment. In fact, most had not dramatically
Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment 651
changed their lifestyle to become more frugal. If
they did, it was only after many months of unemployment.
Of the 25 unemployed men and 13 wives
I interviewed, I only encountered three cases
of wives’ emotion work in dealing with the
tension of divergent expectations over household chores. Connie Mandel, married to Scott,
a former project manager in a pharmaceutical
company where he had worked for more than 20
years, explained her feelings when she wanted
Scott to take over some of her chores after he
lost his job.
Like, no, this isn’t me anymore! I know that for a
long time you were the primary job and it was me.
It’s not me anymore. You need to take ownership of
this. Until you get a job, you’re taking ownership
of all this stuff. … But it’s not that you’re helping
me out. I’m helping you out.
Scott was not fully aware of the extent of
Connie’s frustrations over how they divided up
household chores. In his own interview, he said
that he contributed more to household chores.
At least one and a half times more work. Because
you know you’re home. You can keep the laundry going, while you’re home, do the shopping,
while you’re home. That’s like wink wink, “I know
you’re looking for a job but I work out there and
you’re here.” It’s fine. I don’t have a problem
with it.
Connie was irritated at Scott about the lack
of a shift in how they divided household work,
but her frustration over this was anomalous. Still,
even Connie’s bigger concern was how Scott’s
moods might affect their children. Her two children would sometimes ask her, especially right
after Scott was laid off, “They would say, ‘Why
is dad being so mean?’ Or ‘Why is dad being
such a grump?’ I’m not sure they said the same
thing about me when the stress is bad.” Unlike
earlier studies (Newman, 1988), in my sample
children were a far less important factor in why
wives did emotion work. Only 23% of wives
(3 of 13) and none of the husbands mentioned
being at least somewhat concerned about how
their children were faring at this time. Unemployed men and their wives explained that their
financial resources and the fact that they only
minimally altered their lifestyle meant that their
children were protected from the consequences
of their father’s unemployment. Peter Scotts said
the following:
When the severance package became a reality we
sat down with them and we told them all the
details. … They knew I was going to get paid
for such a period of time, we’d have insurance
coverage and everything. So that really wasn’t a
stressful situation at all … for them. I mean they
certainly never showed any negative emotions or
worry or fear or anything.
The emotion work that wives did was primarily to encourage their husbands rather than also
to shield their children from the potential stigmas of unemployment.
Giving space. Another way that wives tried to
ensure that husbands were emotionally unburdened was by choosing stretches during which
they strategically “gave space” to their husbands to deal with rejections in their job search.
Although wives frequently wished that husbands
would continue seeking employment without
losing time to these emotional setbacks, they
chose to prioritize their husbands’ emotional
well-being. Of the wives, 53% (13 of 25) did this.
Before James Peterson, a project manager in
the health care industry, lost his job, he and
his wife, Karen, had a combined annual income
of more than $200,000 per year. In their late
50s, they had two sons whom they continued
to support with college expenses. James was
out of work for 4 months at the time of the
interview with Karen. Karen explained how she
gave James space to deal with rejections in the
job-search process: “So if he had a day where
he was dwelling on it, that probably irritated me
but not to the point I like really let him know
it. … Someone’s having a bad day, you let them
have the bad day.” Karen considered it better for
James’s ability to search if she suppressed her
own impatience in favor of letting James exhibit
and deal with his own emotions, particularly disappointment, because his emotional well-being
was tied more directly to his ability to search.
Giving space can be seen as one specific way of
wives concealing their concerns.
Shannon Smith elaborated on negotiating the
tricky terrain of trying to be supportive and motivating her husband. She acknowledged his right
to be disappointed when job interviews did not
translate into job offers.
652 Journal of Marriage and Family
I always ask him, you know, “What’d you do
today?” or, but I don’t want it to come across like
“Did you do anything to find a job?” you know.
And I’m just trying to make conversation, where
I’m sure he’s thinking “Just get off my back.” So,
that’s been hard.
In detailing her own way of giving space,
Shannon pointed out how she was conscious of
her tone and of trying to make sure she came
across as supportive, rather than haranguing, to
her husband, William. William himself did not
express any such sentiment, but I did see that
in the case of the Janssons. Shannon explained
the importance of maintaining a distance from
William’s job search at times: “I just kind of
gave him space. I know how it is to lose a job.
[I give him] three or four days, and we do this
[for] each other ‘All right, it’s time to move
on,’ you know.” Wives viewed this as a way of
allowing their husbands to recuperate from disappointments in their job search. And husbands
appreciated this, with one who said of his wife,
“She doesn’t nag. She doesn’t say ‘You’ve got
to get out and get a job.’ I mean, she could make
it very, very painful and she doesn’t. And that
makes it a lot easier to take initiative and go out
[networking].” As the wives’ quotes suggested,
not nagging, or at least not appearing to nag,
required these wives to suppress their own feelings and to carefully consider their words, questions, and tone, particularly as this was a time
when the men were especially sensitive. Doing
so also allowed husbands to remain focused on
the job search.
Unemployment is a stressful experience for
individuals and for families, even for advantaged families who have the material resources
to weather unemployment without immediate
material hardships. In this article, I offer an
understanding of how unemployed men and
their wives navigate this emotionally strenuous
terrain. Men’s own emotions, ranging from
grief and disappointment to discouragement
and feelings of rejection, are typically shaped
not just by the fact of being unemployed but
considerably by the demands and experiences
of the job-search process (Sharone, 2014). The
wives attempt to alter men’s emotions into more
positive ones such as confidence and optimism
so that husbands remain encouraged to search.
These findings develop recent research on
emotion work within marriages (Elliott &
Umberson, 2008; Ortiz, 2011; Pfeffer, 2010;
Thomeer et al., 2013, 2015) by illuminating
how wives, and to an extent husbands, perceive
wives’ emotion work as a resource with potential economic benefits. The increased vagaries
in the American labor market, including for
white-collar workers, have meant a greater
emphasis on job candidates’ use of emotional
labor to project a cheerful and confident outlook
and create a sense of chemistry with employers,
as employers can choose from among many
similarly skilled workers (Sharone, 2014).
Wives’ emotion work is aimed at helping husbands comply with employer expectations.
As such, we see how the emotionally charged
experience of unemployment and job searching
reverberates within families and is managed
not just individually by the unemployed people,
but by their spouses as well. This management can have emotional costs to wives; the
costs of other-focused emotion work appear to
take a longer time to germinate and bear out
as emotional exhaustion in the longer term,
whereas self-focused emotion work seems to
have short-term emotional implications, which
are internalized by wives.
That emotional labor—in the realm of paid
employment—is shaped by employer expectations is not new (Hochschild, 2003b; Leidner,
1993), but emotion work in the private realm of
families has been typically seen as being unconnected to prospects of monetary gain. A major
concern about emotional labor is how, particularly under conditions where the marketplace
has primacy, human feelings are commercialized because they are shaped by the demands
of employers (Hochschild, 2003b). That wives’
emotion work is seen to have potential material
gains here suggests that wives’ emotion work,
although not directly controlled by husbands’
prospective employers, too appears to be shaped
by them. The experiences of this contemporary
group of couples illuminate the wide reach of
the marketplace into these American marriages
to the extent of shaping emotional dynamics
between these couples.
These findings contribute to our understanding of emotion in marriages during a context of
economic uncertainty. In her study of economic
insecurity among families in the Silicon Valley,
Cooper (2014) found that, in her upper-class
families, the group of families in her study that
Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment 653
are most comparable with my sample, husbands
and wives adopted a neotraditional division of
labor in emotionally managing anxieties. In her
study of white-collar unemployed individuals,
Lane (2011) found that unemployed men often
adopted a new masculinity, where job searching
was not a priority. My findings, on the contrary,
show how gaining reemployment is paramount
to these men, with wives becoming the emotional bulwark in this process, privileging their
husbands’ feelings over their own anxieties.
The findings presented in this article suggest
that economic insecurity and unemployment,
although related, have distinctive implications
for marriages. Trends in marital homogamy
(Schwartz & Mare, 2005) mean that these professional, unemployed men are often married
to professional women. Wives’ emotion work
in support of their husbands’ job searching
highlights how even their own economic success does not lessen the obligation of doing
emotion work that props up gender norms
(Elliott & Umberson, 2008)—where men’s
unemployment is understood to be inimical to
masculinity—even as the material conditions
for that ideology falter. Indeed, in line with
previous research (Elliott & Umberson, 2008;
Thomeer et al., 2013, 2015), we also see that,
despite greater ostensible gender equality in
marriages overall, there is an inequality of
emotions here where wives’ feelings matter
less. In fact, wives’ emotion work has emotional
costs to them, which are not always known or
acknowledged by husbands.
Some earlier, key studies, specifically
Komarovsky’s (1940) The Unemployed Man
and His Family culled from data collected during the Great Depression and Newman’s (1988)
Falling From Grace, provided insights into the
emotional tenor of unemployment. Economic
trends since these studies have shifted toward
greater overall precarity in work (Kalleberg,
2009), where emotional labor has become a
significant feature of gaining employment,
particularly for unemployed job seekers as they
strive to present themselves as personable and
cheerful candidates (Ehrenreich, 2005; Sharone,
2014; Smith, 2001). The male breadwinner
families of these earlier studies also tended to
espouse gender traditional norms, and so, on the
one hand, we could have expected to see wives
doing a great amount of emotion work to comfort and support unemployed husbands. Yet we
do not see that, and the authors (i.e., Newman,
1988) suggested that husbands’ unemployment
was seen as breaking the marital bargain, which
could explain the lack of emotion work from
wives. In the dual-earner families of today, and
in this sample, the marital bargain is not as predicated on male breadwinning. Wives’ emotion
work for husbands in this study appears to be
unfolding under a different set of feeling rules.
If feeling rules have changed, then the anger
and disappointment that the wives of unemployed men in previous generations exhibited
toward their husbands’ unemployment would
be less fitting in our times because those feeling
rules were contingent on different norms about
marriages and gender roles.
A question to consider is whether these
unemployed husbands do emotion work for
their wives. My findings do not suggest that
husbands were doing emotion work to allay
their wives’ concerns about their unemployment. The focus in these marriages, as my
findings suggest, was on men’s emotions and
on altering these into more positive ones. Often,
husbands were not even aware of the extent
to which wives were concerned about their
unemployment and job-searching activities.
These findings about husbands’ lack of emotion work during this period are in line with
previous research that suggests that in marriages men tend to do less emotion work for
their wives (Erickson, 2005; Pfeffer, 2010;
Thomeer et al., 2013, 2015).
Although all of my participants had children,
the wives emphasized that their emotion work
was for the benefit of their husbands rather than
also being a way of shielding their children from
worries. This is in contrast to earlier studies
(Newman, 1988) that found that parents did
much to ensure that their children did not have
to reveal their downward mobility to peers.
The difference between this earlier study and
the findings here may lie in several factors.
First, the trauma for children that Newman
found was vested in the downward mobility
that their father’s unemployment implied as
well as in the stigma of unemployment in the
1980s. Unemployment among my elite group of
workers is far more common now and arguably
less stigmatized than it was when Newman
conducted her study. Second, because of the
current norms where employment at a company
is not perceived as being for life (a significant
change from Newman’s study), these workers
often factor in this contingency in their financial
654 Journal of Marriage and Family
and savings plans, which means that they can
maintain their lifestyles even for several years
without extreme changes. Last, as these are all
dual-earner families, unlike the families that
Newman studied, they already have a built-in
financial buffer. Most of my respondents explicitly mentioned that children are not troubled
by their father’s unemployment because they
have experience with the unemployment of
friends’ parents. Combined, these factors may
explain why unemployed men and wives do not
report doing emotion work for the sake of their
This study adds to the growing body of
research on white-collar unemployment, which
has become more commonplace in recent years.
Yet these findings have limitations. These
findings may not be directly applicable to
the emotional experiences of unemployment
among other social classes. Much of the emotion work that wives in my sample perform is
linked to their husband’s job-search process.
Recent research on blue-collar unemployment
and job searching suggests that the blue-collar
job-search process is intrinsically different than
the white-collar job-search process and work
does not require emotional labor (Sharone,
2014). Emotion work in the families of these
different types of workers thus likely takes different forms and has different rationalizations.
My findings do not speak to the experiences of
unemployed individuals who come from different sexual orientations, social classes, and family
structures. In addition, my particular sample has
access to emotional and financial resources that
other families, who do not have such educational
levels or who are not married, may lack. This
study does not have the racial diversity in its
sample to examine whether, and how, forms of
emotion work may be raced. The findings from
this study nevertheless open up a space to conduct research on this important topic of emotion
work in marriages during unemployment.
In this historical moment, economic precarity, a byproduct of the primacy of the market, is a
key feature of American society. These findings
explain how wives’ emotion work is shaped by
the expectations of the white-collar job market
their husbands encounter, as wives strive to help
their husbands project cheer and confidence in
an attempt to align with employer expectations
about desirable qualities in employees. Consequently, these findings reveal the penetration of
the market to shape marital dynamics. These
findings also extend the conceptualization of
emotion work to explain how, in these market
times, wives and, to an extent, husbands see
their emotion work as a resource with potential economic benefits in terms of husbands’
I thank Annette Lareau, Robin Leidner, Kristen Harknett,
Randall Collins, Demie Kurz, Patricia Tevington, Rachel
Ellis, and Junhow Wei for their helpful feedback on earlier
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