You do it best…when you do nothing at all?

Ouch. I really feel for these folks. The only thing worse than watching someone you love lose their job is, um….losing your job under the watchful eye of someone who loves you.

Dear Amy: I am 30, and my boyfriend is 32. We have been together for eight months. We are looking at this relationship as one that will lead to marriage.

He was laid off at the beginning of the month. His response to this event has left me confused and disheartened. This was his first job out of college, and someone who knew his family hired him without an interview. He rose steadily in the company, almost effortlessly, and he deserved it — he is brilliant. Since the layoff, he has not completed his resume, has not contacted people in his industry for leads (though he knows quite a few people), and although he has listings on a few online job sites, he has not followed up on promising postings.

For now he has his severance and an agreement with his former employer to be a subcontractor for another month or two.

He agrees that he needs to do more, acknowledges that as time passes he is more anxious, and has promised to ramp up his efforts, but he always has an excuse for not actually getting things done. I’ve sent him information for work in his field, have offered to help send resumes or do anything else that might help to make it a less daunting task.

I know that it’s his life, but what else can I do to help? He is a loving, supportive, caring man. I don’t want to walk away from this relationship, but I can’t see myself with someone who is so unwilling to help himself.

Is there anything more that I can do or say? — Anxious Girlfriend

It’s so hard to watch someone you love wrangle with trying to find work. It’s hard for lots of reasons…hard because, well, there are just fewer jobs to be had these days. Hard because you have to just trust that they’re doing everything they can–even though you’re probably hearing only the real highlights or real lowlights, and not much in between. Hard because maybe you have the energy and drive to do some research, and you sincerely want to be helpful, but don’t know if your efforts will be perceived as badgering, or even condescending (“look at all the opportunities I was able to find in a 3 minute Google search…” etc.).

It’s hard because you don’t know if the person needs a pat on the shoulder or a kick in the pants, and if it’s even really your role to administer any of those things. Hard because you both just want to punch all stupid HR folks who never call back or even acknowledge receiving an application. But since they avoid getting punched like it’s their job (oh wait, it is), you wind up taking it out on yourselves, each other, or the poor, innocent resume–and by extension, each other again. (“Why would you use that word? I wouldn’t have used that word. Is this what it looked like when you sent it out?”) Wait…I seem to be talking about my life….ahem.

And it’s hard enough when you’re looking for a first job, straight out of college, and can hang out in family homestead limbo (even if you’d rather not) while you search. It’s got to be even worse when you don’t go through this trial by fire until you’ve had a job where you succeeded easily for 10 years, and now you’ve got no job, and are probably questioning the reality and validity of your success in the first place. So, now that my rant is over, here’s what Amy actually said:

Dear Anxious: The next thing you need to do is less. Much, much less.

This will be very challenging for you. You seem like a very high-functioning, caring and capable person, and your guy is foundering.

If he is paralyzed, your pushing him will not help. Prodding can make paralysis worse because it is perceived as pressure.

You should convey a version of the following: “I believe in you. I know this is hard, but I also know you can do it. I’m going to do you a favor and let you do whatever you need to do. I hope you’ll tell me if I can help you; otherwise, I’m going to step back.”

Then you should back off (from his job search, not the relationship). Your boyfriend might spend his days in his jammies eating Cheerios out of the box. When he sees the end of income looming, he may get it together.

This is a test of his character — not yours.

I think she is right on with her advice on this one. It’s what I tried (didn’t always manage) to do when I was in a similar situation (which, I should clarify, was due to some perfect storm of bad market, bad timing, stupidheads, and other factors, and, unlike this case, not a lack of effort or applications). Until explicitly asked by the job seeker to participate in the process, I think it’s the best anyone can do.

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