Christina, 29, has been with her serious boyfriend for several years. For most of their relationship, he’s worked at a start-up — until the company went under four months ago. He still hasn’t found a new job, and it’s wearing on them both. They don’t share an apartment, technically, but he stays at her place all the time (which is nicer, and doesn’t have roommates), and she feels like he’s basically living there rent-free. Whenever they go anywhere, she now pays for them both. She wants to be supportive, but she’s starting to feel uncomfortable with it — and taken advantage of. She works for a marketing firm and, while her paycheck is steady, she’s not made of money. Long-term, she can’t keep this up. She knows he’s trying, and she wants to help, but what if she’s enabling him?
This could go one of two ways: It could be the catalyst for your breakup, or it could be the first major challenge that you and your boyfriend get through together. Neither will be fun or sexy. But the key for handling it with your head up (and minimizing further financial damage) is to focus on your own experience — and bank account — instead of worrying about whether he’s mooching off you or not. “You can’t prove if he’s taking advantage of your finances, or you’re enabling him by taking on more financial responsibilities,” says Amanda Clayman, an L.A.-based financial therapist who has treated many couples in this position. “There won’t be a productive conversation around that.”
Instead, pay attention to when you’re annoyed, and then tell him — carefully. “The only way to constructively and honestly deal with this is by sharing where you’re at,” explains Clayman. “Unspoken resentment is a dangerous thing in a relationship.”
Of course, you need to be very strategic about this. Someone who already feels crappy about his joblessness won’t react well to one of his major sources of stability telling him that her love is in fact conditional on him rejoining the workforce and ponying up for Seamless orders more often. “Saying that you feel taken advantage of might seem a little strong,” says Clayman. Also to be avoided: making snipe-y remarks about money because you’ve held it in so tightly that it bubbles over.
Instead, place the situation in the larger context of your own finances, says Clayman: “Try prefacing it with something like, ‘There’s something on my mind. I’m worried that if I bring it up, it’s going to start a fight or hurt your feelings, and I want you to know that that’s not my intention.’ Then you can say, ‘I want to be supportive, but I also feel like I’m not able to take care of certain things that are important to me, financially, because of this situation.’ This is an opportunity to set boundaries, like what you’re comfortable paying for, and what you aren’t.”
There’s also the “what does this mean for your/our future” question. You’re probably starting to worry about more than just a few extra sushi orders on your credit-card bill every month. Maybe you’re even getting nervous about whether this guy is someone you can count on in the long run.
In 2010, my then-boyfriend quit a job he hated without another one lined up, and it took a lot more time than either of us expected for him to find something new. There were good reasons for it, beyond anyone’s control: the economy was still recovering (timing is the single biggest indicator of how long it will take someone to find employment), and he was switching careers. But as months passed, he got discouraged, and I did too. I remember getting a pang of jealousy when a friend’s significant other graduated from business school to competing job offers. Then I felt guilty. After one particularly stressful workday, I freaked out and cried and told my boyfriend I was worried that we might never have enough money to send our children to college and retire the way I wanted — and we were both 25 and nowhere close to having kids.
My fear was irrational (which he had the good sense not to point out), but my fraying nerves were actually quite normal. According to a study of the correlation between unemployment and health in the U.S. labor market, long-term unemployed people (defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as those who are jobless for over 27 weeks despite actively seeking work, at which point your chances of remaining unemployed begin to compound) are more likely to experience depression and physiological side effects of stress, including heart disease and hypertension. (Their spouses were not included in the study, but you don’t need economists to tell you that your partner’s mood will rub off on you after a while.)
In cases of high stress — job loss being one of them — many experts prescribe the “silk ring theory,” also known as the “comfort in, dump out” model. Visualize the person who’s suffering from the problem (your unemployed boyfriend) at the center of a circle; he’s the bull’s-eye, so he gets to kvetch and be a pain in the ass (“dump out”). Your job, as a person in the next concentric ring, is to be there for him as much as you can (“comfort in”). In turn, when you want to complain, you get to “dump out” to someone in the next outer ring — a friend, perhaps — and that person’s role is to comfort you. This system works particularly well when you’re feeling resentful of your partner and/or guilty about it. “Maybe down the road, once he gets a job, that’s something you can share with him, but he’s probably not going to respond well if you tell him now,” says Clayman.
If you still reach a breaking point — whether it takes months or even over a year — Clayman recommends focusing on measurable, concrete benchmarks. “He may not be able to control who’s hiring him, but he can control having an up-to-date résumé, or applying to a certain number of jobs per week, or trying a different approach,” she says. “You can say, ‘If I knew that you were doing X, I would relax more, and in exchange for that, I won’t micromanage.’ It doesn’t mean that you’re right and he’s wrong. These are the compromises that couples make to stay connected to each other.”
On the flip side, don’t be a martyr. You may care about this guy, but if your gut is telling you it’s time to move on, listen. My friend Marisa had dated a guy for over seven years when he found out he was getting laid off; she’d always made more money than him, but once his job was in jeopardy, he leaned on her even more. “I already paid for a lot of things, and he was almost too okay with it sometimes,” she said. “When he started freaking out about his career, I thought maybe he’d cut back a little bit, but instead, it was the opposite.” The last straw came when she took him to Babbo for his birthday. “I specifically remember the moment when he decided to order the tasting menu,” she said. “He was on the verge of being totally broke, and that was like, a $400 dinner. I just felt blatantly used.” They broke up shortly thereafter.
As for my own boyfriend: It wasn’t easy, but eventually, he got a position in a field he loves. We’re now married, and he’s since had plenty of opportunities to be the “stable” one between the two of us — which is the whole point of even being in a partnership, explains Clayman. “It doesn’t sound romantic, I know, but the relationship helps anchor you both, and give you the strength to absorb big personal hits.”