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The Hidden Cost of the Government Shutdown

Many individuals, couples, and families got the rudest awakening at midnight EST on December 22, 2018 when President Trump proudly shut the government down in response to Congress’s refusal to fund his $5 billion dollar U.S. border construction project. Hundreds of thousands of American jobs were directly affected in the heart of the holidays. Now 3 weeks into the New Year, essential federal employees across numerous agencies continue to work while the government shutdown remains in effect. Unfortunately, they just aren’t getting paid for it. We’ve seen the data from previous government closings and the financial toll on taxpayers isn’t pretty. Billions of dollars were lost during the 2013 shutdown. It’s hard to take our eyes off of the enormous bill our country is racking up to focus on other issues. However, there’s a hidden cost associated with this shutdown that people close enough to the fray can’t ignore-the cost of stable human relationships. For many individuals, holding on to their most meaningful relationships depends in part or solely on returning to their job in our nation’s government.

As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) with a successful private practice in the D.C. Metropolitan area, I walk with clients across the tense emotional battlefield that’s created when a government shutdown is looming or actually goes into effect. Everything, in essence is on hold in the lives of government workers who, just a month ago were making efforts to ensure their household’s stability. Those efforts aren’t limited to bringing home a paycheck. Many individuals and couples that were already working through stress-related issues, relationship and marital problems or other mental health concerns find themselves making the hard decision to slow down or cancel their much-needed therapy appointments until further notice. This is just one example of a service that becomes an elective during times of financial crisis; however it bears more impact as people find themselves forced to personally confront newfound emotional and mental health issues brought on by the government shutdown. “How do we continue to manage our fear, anxiety, and sadness about being furloughed from our 2 children?” a couple of married government workers asked me as the news of a possible shutdown unfolded before the holidays. Another married client shared in a recent session “I’m honestly afraid to accept a position with a new company. How do we make any major decisions about our future when my partner has no idea when he will be called back to work?” “This week I cancelled my travel plans for my closest nephew’s wedding. The final payment was due for my accommodations, but I couldn’t guarantee that I’d be able to afford the plane ticket next month. I had to play it safe. I never imagined missing his big day.” Another client shared this news with me through tears while in my office.

The daily decisions become harder on households too. As furloughed parents decide if they can afford to send their children on the upcoming school fieldtrip, or individuals prioritize running errands by the amount of gasoline the task might consume, people find themselves in an emotional space not easily understood by peers and loved ones who aren’t in the same boat. It’s not uncommon for couples to feel disconnected from each other, as both the loss of earnings and daily purpose gradually chip away at a furloughed partner’s sense of self worth and pride. Feelings of guilt or shame can also arise when individuals that were living from paycheck to paycheck must quickly confront the bind that a lack of savings places them in. When the financial responsibilities suddenly have to shift to a partner who isn’t normally the primary earner, how does this impact the emotional climate of a relationship? Many couples and families are being tested only to discover that they aren’t well equipped for a battle without an end in sight. More specifically, when individuals are unable to express negative emotions such as anger, feelings of inadequacy, and even depression in a healthy way, they may resort to acting out or distancing themselves. It’s important to understand that these aren’t the worse case scenarios. Anyone whose livelihood has been directly or indirectly affected thus far by the shutdown is in a state of limbo. The lack of assurance that there will soon be a return to normalcy creates a sense of powerlessness that causes some to fight and others to flee emotionally. Below are several things to consider if you or someone you know has been affected by the government shutdown:

Government employees and family members affected by the recent shutdown may experience the following symptoms:

  • Fear

  • Anxiety

  • Panic attacks

  • Loss of concentration

  • Withdrawal

  • Disturbed sleep patterns

  • Fatigue

  • Changes in appetite

  • Sadness or tearfulness

  • Mood swings

  • Loss of motivation

  • Indecisiveness (mental paralysis)

  • Dark or suicidal thoughts

  • Inability to express emotions

It is not uncommon for couples to experience additional symptoms:

  • Role confusion

  • Communication breakdowns

  • Power struggles

  • Trust issues

  • Decrease in intimacy

  • Guilt

  • Shame

  • Lowered sense of self-worth

While no two households are alike, these tools will help you manage the emotional impact of the government shutdown in a healthier way:

1. Give your loved one a break. Your friend or family member is already on an involuntary break from work. Be patient if their mood, attitude, or behavior seems off. New situations don’t come with an emotional blueprint. Find someone to support you as you support your loved one. You can always seek a therapist for help. However, if money is tight, utilize the public library’s self-help section where you can find great books by licensed professionals who specialize in your area of concern.

2. Now is the time to develop a team mentality with your family and friends. In the absence of a definitive end date, one common goal that can be shared is to make it through the shutdown with your community of support intact. It can feel like it’s you against the world when your sense of security has been threatened. However, entertaining any offers to help before you actually sink can prevent situational depression.

3. Check in often with your partner. Whether you or your partner is furloughed, it’s important to create a safe space for thoughts and feelings specifically related to this life shift. A brief, weekly “state of the union” check-in can prevent you from feeling disconnected or overwhelmed by unshared emotions. However, checking in over a meal or during pillow talk can keep the mood light and relaxed, which is the goal.

4. Find purpose through temporary jobs. While most of us are hoping the government shutdown will end immediately, no one can guarantee a speedy recovery. While applying for other part-time jobs or creating a home-based business may seem inadequate in meeting all of your financial needs, you may find some comfort in knowing that you are taking steps to stay active and resourceful instead of stagnant, while also securing another means of income.

5. Work on neglected relationships. Time away from work can provide a rare opportunity to expand your role and responsibilities at home or check in with loved ones who you wouldn’t ordinarily have time to connect with. Instead of fighting, many loved ones develop a deeper sense of trust and appreciation for each other when forced to take on a role that their partner usually fulfills. Instead of focusing on why you’re currently able to take on the new role, allow it to give you new perspective that you can use in the future.


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