Bottom Line/Personal: If your spouse is out of work, you may be sad, you may be mad, and you may be scared to death. But here’s the truth: you need to put your emotions aside so you can help them get back on their feet. But how do you do that?

I’m Sarah Hiner, President of Bottom Line Publications, and this is our Conversation with the Experts, where we get the answers to your tough questions from our leading experts.

Today I’m talking to Nancy Collamer, a leading career coach, speaker, and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit from Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. Welcome, Nancy.

Nancy Collamer: Thanks.

Bottom Line: How is it – I mean, truly, I have very dear friends who, tragically, have a spouse that is out of work, and it’s very emotional for them. But you really have to put that piece aside, no?

Collamer: You do; although it can be very challenging to do that. I can speak from personal experience. We had a period in our marriage where my husband was out of work for a year, so I talk about this partly as a professional, but also quite frankly from personal experience as well.

It is very, very tough, and I will tell you that being in that role of having to play the supportive spouse is very difficult because you, too, need support. So we’ll get into that a little bit later. Let’s start by talking about some of the things that you can do.

The first thing to keep in mind is that you are their spouse; you are not their parent. There is a fine line between being supportive and being intrusive, and that can be a delicate dance. So the first thing I would say is if they’ve gotten laid off is, initially, just give them some space. They need time to just grieve and to come to terms with what’s happened, and that’s okay. You need to give them the space.

But then, at a time when it’s good for both of you, it’s really, really helpful to sit down in the morning, if that’s a good time for you, and have a conversation about how we as a team are going to handle this. “How can I help you through this transition?” Ask them. Let them drive the conversation; let them tell you how you can be of help. Some people are going to love the fact that you want to send emails to all your friends to ask for networking advice, and other people are going to hate that. Let them drive the conversation on that.

Bottom Line: And I presume that this conversation is actually – I’ll call it a very non-emotional conversation. This isn’t the time for coddling. It really is a sharing of information about, “what do you want?”

Collamer: Yeah, and that’s why I say try to have it at a time when emotions aren’t running high. Maybe it’s Saturday morning when you’re both having this conversation over a cup of coffee.

Because not only do you want to discuss, “how can I help you with the job search?” – and, by the way, it is their job search, not your job search – but also, there’s a shift in dynamics when the husband is suddenly home. I can remember, quite honestly, when my husband was home, I thought, “Why am I always the one who’s picking up the kids?” Because that was our old roles. So there are a lot of things on the home front that need to be adjusted as you go along.

Bottom Line: To that point, are you saying that you should shift some of the roles? Or actually avoid the temptation to do it? Because it would be really tempting to say, “Okay, spouse, you’re home, you go pick up the kids.” But the truth is: their first job needs to be getting a new job.

Collamer: Yeah, I think that’s really what you have to keep front and center, which is that this is their job now – finding another job. While they might have a little bit of extra flexibility, you don’t want to change things dramatically because you want them to have the energy and the focus on the job search process.

Bottom Line: Right. So you have the conversation, and then you don’t switch your job tasks. Then what else do they need to do?

Collamer: I think another thing too – and this can be really, really challenging – is keeping in mind that you aren’t in control of the job search. Even if you hear them on the phone and you don’t particularly like the way that they’ve just come across in a conversation, that’s a private conversation between them and whomever they’re speaking with, so keep it zipped.

Again, I think something that’s really helpful is to try to avoid talking about the search during the week, when you’re both involved with a lot of different things. It was very helpful for us to set up periodic discussions when we were able to sit down – again, during a non-emotional time – and just say, “Give me an update. What’s happening here?”

That way, he felt like I wasn’t nagging him or getting too involved, and I felt better because at least I had some sense of what was going on.

Bottom Line: Does the conversation change if somebody’s been out of work for a month versus 6 months versus 18 months?

Collamer: Yeah, I think the conversation changes, and the financial situation may have changed as well. Oftentimes one of the questions that comes up is should the person who’s out of work take on a part-time job, let’s say at Starbucks? That can be a decision that is fraught with all sorts of emotional minefields, but it’s a conversation that you probably need to have.

By the way, we’ve been talking about this strictly in terms of you and your spouse; don’t forget the kids are involved in this whole mix as well. Children sense tension in the home, and you don’t want to tell them everything – you want to keep them feeling safe and secure. But it’s important for them to have some sense of what’s going on because boy, they have radar. They know. So the more you can keep the lines of communication open, the better it is for everybody.

Bottom Line: In a constructive way. Not throwing anybody under a bus.

Collamer: Right. Yeah, absolutely.

Bottom Line: You don’t want to be their mommy; you don’t want to be their daddy; but some people, either because of their drive or because they’re so emotionally challenged by the change, may not be so aggressive in their new job search. How do you prod someone along if they don’t really seem to be trying very hard? Or again, after you go through all the job boards for 2 months, now there aren’t as many jobs available, so the pacing changes.

Collamer: Yeah, this is where I think encouraging them to get out of the house – there are lots of different ways that you can join a job search support group. There are all sorts of both paid services and local groups that you can join. That can be incredibly helpful. It gets them out of the house; it gets them in a community of people who are going through the same thing at the same time, and they can exchange job leads, strategies, and ideas. That can be very helpful, and it takes you out of the equation.

In some cases, hiring a career coach, even if it’s only for a couple of sessions, can also be very helpful. Let them be the people to give the advice and help push them forward. If you can afford that, that’s great. But if money is an issue, there are services out there to help people going through job transitions, some of which are actually supplied by the unemployment offices.

 Bottom Line: Does it matter? Are the strategies any different depending on your gender or the gender of your partner?

Collamer: I don’t think that matters as much as it does the dynamics of your relationship. Hopefully, you have a good sense of what works in terms of your communication. These are times when you really are going to have to dig deep.

Something else I think that’s really important to do is remember to take care of yourself during this whole process. It’s that old story about if you’re on an airplane and the plane gets into trouble, put on your own oxygen mask before you put it on your child – and not to compare your partner to a child, but the fact of the matter is, if you don’t take care of yourself, if you’re not exercising and doing things to lower the stress, you’re going to be of less benefit to your partner.

Bottom Line: Yeah. Just like with all caregivers, we always say the same thing: you have to find time for you, to find your own support.

Collamer: Yeah, definitely. And the last thing I would say is remember this is your partner, and this is your spouse, so remember to still have fun with each other. You don’t want this to become the central theme of your relationship.

Again, if money is an issue, you can go and take walks in the park, go take advantage of free movies at the library. There are lots of things you can find to do just to get out of the house, have a good time, and reconnect with each other in a different way. That’s really important to do.

 Bottom Line: Great advice. Thank you, Nancy Collamer.

Collamer: You’re welcome.

Bottom Line: The bottom line? If your partner’s out of work, yeah, it’s okay; you can be scared and you can be mad and you can be frustrated and all those sorts of things. But those are your emotions. First and foremost, you have to support your partner. It’s hard on them too. So give them the space and the love to be able to deal with their emotions.

And then to help them get back to work, check in with them. You’re not their parent, so don’t take on that role. Instead, have regular meetings with them, and then check in on what do they want for your support? How is it going? But ask them, and let them lead the conversation for you. It’s okay if you have kids to include them in the information as well. Kids know if something’s wrong, so don’t try and keep secrets from them.

And then, most importantly, take care of yourself too, because you have to deal with your emotions. So find support groups and help yourself be strong for the sake of your spouse and the sake of your family. This is Sarah Hiner with Bottom Line.