How to have a healthy relationship when one partner is unemployed

Guest post by Sullie Seeburg
How to manage as a couple when only one of you is making that bread. (By: Windell OskayCC BY 2.0)

My name is Sullie, and my partner and I live below the poverty line. What’s more, my partner is unemployed and will likely remain that way for the rest of our lives together. Considering we’re getting married in the fall, we’re looking at the long-term here.

So why am I okay with this? Because my partner’s health issues are chronic and difficult to manage. I could talk about the ridiculous hoops you have to jump through in the US to get medical care, but that’s a rant for a different day. Right now I want to talk about how we make our lives work with one bread-winner, under the poverty line.

Here are our steps to living below the poverty line on a single income…

Cook together, and make enough for left overs

My partner is a great cook, so several times a week we roll up our sleeves, kick our roommates out of the shared kitchen, and work together. I wash dishes and fetch things while he turns two pounds of rice and $5 worth of fresh ingredients into a world-class meal. He’s used to cooking in batches, so there’s always at least a day or two worth of left overs. He also packs lunches for me when I go to work. While all my co-workers are ordering delivery, I’m sitting pretty with my sandwich, carrot sticks, and apple.

Figure out which tasks can be completed by the stay-at-home partner:

Pet or child care: With my partner being home all day, this means our beloved dog is rarely left alone. He’s always there to throw her squeaky cow, refill her food dishes, or take her outside. Frankly, when I’m at work, I’m glad my partner and dog are both available to entertain each other.

Cleaning: And my partner helps keep things organized at home. We’re renting a room in a house right now. Aside from trips to the kitchen and bathroom, our whole life is contained within a single 10×14 room with sloped ceilings. It’s not a big space, should be easy to keep clean, right? With two people and a dog, it gets cluttered, fast. My partner helps me out by doing tidying tasks, like making the bed, sweeping the floor, and taking out the garbage. Every time I come home from work and open the door to our room, it’s like entering my own little oasis of calm.


My partner also looks out for my health, so I stay well enough to keep bringing home the bacon. Left to my own devices, I’m the sort of person to run myself into the ground by doing too many things at once. My partner picks up on symptoms and problems I don’t even notice, and will intervene when I’m neglecting myself. His own health issues have given him a crash course in doctor-ing, so when he hands me a pile of pills, or tells me my body is crying out for a nutrient, I listen. In the three years we’ve been together, I’ve noticed a definite improvement over my old way of doing things.


We make our budget together and we keep a bulletin board of envelopes for various regular expenses. If we’re getting close to the end of the month and we don’t have all the rent money yet, he cheers me on while I pick up extra hours.

Communicate and appreciate daily

Probably the most important things that my partner does to help me is communicate with me and boost me up. Most of all, we appreciate each other. He expresses gratitude that he doesn’t have to go out and quite literally work himself to death, and I express gratitude that he uses his skills to make our below-the-poverty-line life feel a little less austere.

Make peace with your circumstances

Would we rather be less poor? Sure we would, but we’ve made peace with our current circumstances and limitations. Right now, we have a rich and loving life together. We know plenty of couples with more money who are less happy.

There’s a really awful lie that society tells us, that we’re only worth as much as our paychecks, and the more money you make, the more important you are. The loss of a job, or the persistent inability to find a job, can cause depression and wreck a whole family. I think this narrative falls extra hard on men, especially if, like my partner, that man was raised in a “traditional” family where the father runs his own business or is the only adult with a job. The pressure to “be a man” and earn a living is toxic.

In this economy, there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around, and the jobs that are left are too physically demanding for someone with chronic health issues. Our decision to live on one income is not just a personal decision, it’s also political. I will patiently explain our reasons, repeatedly if necessary, to any hand-wringing family member or friend who thinks my partner is taking advantage of me. Short version: he’s not, and by sticking together, we increase our chances of survival.

Comments on How to have a healthy relationship when one partner is unemployed

  1. My situation is a bit different because it’s temporary and our finances are okay, but I’ve been prescribed bed rest for some time and that means that my husband has to take care of pretty much everything while he’s working full time. From my side, I try to thank him for each individual thing he does, “thanks for taking the dog out,” “thanks for doing the dishes – the kitchen looks great”, etc. From his side, he tries to make me feel better about lying around all day by telling me that that’s my job right now and thanking me for doing it.

  2. All I can say is thank you thank you thank you a thousand times over!!! I am in the exact situation as you…except that as of a month ago my “position was eliminated” so now I am unemployed and looking…but alas, living in the state with the highest unemployment rate in the US things are not looking great.
    My husband (well..if common law was recognized) has been denied social security twice with asthma and heart disease…and of course because he “looks” healthy the parentals say why doesnt he work for once? And I am so tired of that conversation!
    I work…he doesn’t. Why is that a problem for everyone else BUT us? So frustrating..
    I know you can relate…and that is what I needed today! To know I am not some strange entity and the only person to ever take care of the people they love no matter what. Thank you

    • I don’t “look sick” either (I have bipolar and PTSD), and I’m constantly asked “But what do you DO all day?!” and people say things like “Man, I wish I could stay home all day with the dogs! You have it so easy!” I love the solidarity I find through the comments in this article. :hug:

  3. This is so perfect!
    At different points in our relationship, we’ve alternated who is making the most money. When we first moved in together, I was making fabulous pay and he was unemployed. This was a little more stressful for our new love than I think it would have been had we both been employed, but it really forced us to dive in and decide what was important. Here we are almost 3 years later and I am unemployed because of mental health reasons. I try to work from home, but getting your own business going is hard and not exactly comparable to full time pay. I’m so lucky to have a partner who understands that, even though things are tough, it’s not that I’m choosing not to work because I’m too lazy, but because it is too much for me to handle in most situations, so I have to be very particular about where I work. In all this time, we’ve had only a few fights regarding money, and that was in the very beginning when this was all new to us.
    Communication really is key, without an understanding of mutual expectations, we wouldn’t have survived.

  4. I have been out of work since September 2014 (8 months). I am a senior learning and training manager who has spent most of my 15 years working in the college/university sector. During the last 8 months I have secured 3 PT teaching contracts and together with my government unemployment check (Canada) I am able to pay all bills. My wife continues to work FT, ironically, as an Employment Counsellor at a local college. She has indicated that the 8 months without FT work has been too much on her and has caused her too much stress to the point where she cannot live with someone who has lost his confidence and cannot seem to find a job. Without a doubt, unemployment does eat at your confidence. I challenge anyone to say it doesn’t. However, another part of the confidence stems from the support you have from your partner. Usually, you just need someone who is there to listen. However,I I have been identified by my wife as the main contributor of stress in her life, something she cannot endure any longer. Despite coming close, I have not yet secured a FT job, for no lack of trying. I am now networking through LinkedIn, seeking out information interviews with executive managers, attending networking events in town, and continually applying for advertized jobs.We have not had to dip into any of our savings. Miraculously, we have no debt other than our car loans which we are able to pay each month. Still, she is suggesting a “Trial Separation” whereby I would leave, allow her to live under a stress-free home, and go off and find myself, a job, confidence, etc. What happens then and the details around this are still up in the air. I have no idea what purpose this will serve. Unemployment puts a toll on both partners. However, each partner needs to ensure they are looking after their mental, physical, spiritual, and relationship states. I don’t see separating as part of how you take care of the relationship state. I think there is more at play here and a lack of understanding of what love is and how it is displayed during the better or worse moments of life. Any thoughts?

  5. Sounds like you guys are doing great, considering your situation!

    One thing I thought of when reading this, though, was about your dog. Pets are definitely a luxury and can be costly. Maybe once you’re in the market for another dog, you could foster instead of adopting? I foster kittens through Best Friends and they provide everything — food, litter, veterinary care, toys, litter boxes, etc. It’s a great way to get the fulfillment of a relationship with animals, but without paying for it. Just a thought. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the great article. I’m very lucky to have a job I love that pays a decent wage, but our decision for my partner to stay at home (due to his health issues) has still not been a universally popular one and people still seem to periodically need to warn me I’m being taken advantage of, though i don’t see it that way at all. He looks after our flat, our pets, and me (i also have a chronic condition, but not one that stops me working), and if anything i feel spoiled that i don’t really have to lift a finger at home. The exception is food shopping and cooking, which i do, but that’s because i genuinely enjoy it, and i never have to wash up or clear up afterwards, which feel pretty great. We’ve been doing it for a little over 2 years now and it works really well for us, so we’ve recently taken the decision this is the new status quo for now, rather than a temporary measure, and I really couldn’t be happier.

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