The woman behind the man: unemployed men, their wives, and the emotional labor of job-searching


by Aliya Hamid Rao

“How’re you going to find a job when you have no confidence and are very emotional?”

Emily Bader, an office administrator asked me this rhetorical question when I interviewed her about her husband’s unemployment. Emily was worried about her husband, Brian, currently unemployed, who used to work as a project manager. She was concerned about the personality he projected when he went on job interviews. She thought he needed to be confident and upbeat. In his interview with me, Brian agreed with this.

But, after half a year of being unemployed and job-searching, Brian was down in the dumps. Projecting cheer was difficult for him. Emily worried about Brian, but she also worried about when and whether he would find a job. She worried for their future.

Being unemployed is difficult. There is a lot on the line: money, your relationship with your spouse (especially if you’re a man), and feelings of shame and stigma are just some of the negative impacts of unemployment.

But if you’re a white-collar worker, job-searching means showing your best side even you feel your worst. It means convincing potential employers that you not only have the right skills, but, as on a date, you also have “chemistry” with the employers. As sociological research has shown, job-searching and going on job interviews requires tremendous amounts of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild called emotional labor – “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display.”

Emotional labor is usually done for the benefit of employers, for pay, while its counterpart in the private realm of the family is not done for pay. The white-collar job seeker has to show that he or she is upbeat, cheerful, enthusiastic, and passionate about each job he or she applies to.

But, as I show in a forthcoming article, job-seekers don’t work on their presentation of self alone, nor are they the only ones to worry about how they perform in their job interviews.

I conducted in-depth interviews with 25 college-educated, unemployed, job-seeking white-collar men, and their wives (n=13), follow-up interviews with half the sample, and observations with 2 of the families.

I found that wives play a significant role in attempting to mold their job-searching husbands’ emotions into ones best suited for success at gaining re-employment sooner rather than later. My findings suggest that the emotional labor that these unemployed men do as they job-search relies on the emotion work their wives do at home.

Specifically, I show that wives do both other-focused and self-focused emotion work as they seek to help their husbands succeed in getting a job.

Wives’ other-focused emotion work is focused on shaping husbands’ emotions into more positive ones. Wives prioritize re-instilling confidence in husbands’ sense of professional worth. This is because many unemployed husbands feel rejected by employers, as though they have nothing to offer professionally. This gets exacerbated the longer their unemployment continues.

Wives seek to instill a sense of professional worth in their husbands not just out of general love and concern for their husbands, but also because they are anxious about when their husbands will regain employment. They do so by repeatedly reminding their husbands about their professional skills and competencies. Emily Bader, above, for example cheerfully told Brian that “any company would be lucky to have him,” even while she worried that his morose demeanor would keep him from doing well in interviews.

Wives’ also do self-focused emotion work. Self-focused emotion work is when wives manage their own emotions for the benefit of their husbands. In this case, it includes suppressing their own concerns, fears and anxieties from their husbands during this time.

Although wives are worried about their economic futures just as their unemployed husbands are, they take care to conceal these from their husbands. As Maeve Gura, whose husband Nate was unemployed for close to two years, told me, “I can’t control how he’s going to take me being worried. So, I don’t tell him that I’m worried.”

Although I found that wives were doing emotion work for their husbands, husbands did not appear to be doing so for their wives. Husbands spoke quite openly about their fears around their unemployment with their wives.

Unemployed men’s interviews did not suggest that, unlike women such as Maeve Gura, they were trying to protect their wives’ emotional well-being at a time that is difficult both for the unemployed men, but also for their wives.

Doing this type of emotion work has costs to wives. At times wives reported that they stress-ate, internalized worries, or, in cases of when husbands’ unemployment exceeded a year, had to ultimately abstain from doing the above emotion work as it became too anxiety-producing for them.

My study highlights how the emotional labor and costs of job-searching are not limited to the unemployed man, but also spreads to their wives. It also points to the wide reach of the marketplace in shaping the emotional dynamics in these marriages, as wives’ engage in types of emotion work which they believe will improve their husbands’ re-employment prospects.

As unemployment becomes an enduring feature of the American economic landscape, as many people are likely to encounter it in their lifetime, we need more research on its emotional dimensions and how these extend beyond the unemployed individual.

Aliya Hamid Rao is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. This post is based on her forthcoming article “Stand by your man: wives’ emotion work during men’s unemployment” in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Image: via Picserver (CC BY-SA 3.0)


  1. Herbert J Gans said:

    Thanks for a very interesting article. It reminded me of what Mirra Komarovsky reported in more detail in her 1940 book “The Unemployed Man and his Family

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