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Blog Insight & Commentary

A Couple's How-To for Dealing with Dual Careers

How can you avoid giving up too much?

Deborah Hill

Photo courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez

Managing the day-to-day challenges of life within a partnership can be rough, especially for dual-career couples. But it’s even more complicated when staying in the relationship means giving up the career of your dreams, or settling for much less, which is often the case with women.

When one partner gives up too much concerning career aspirations, the long-term consequences can include resentment, depression, a sense of isolation, and the loss of personal identity. In short, it sucks, and it’s usually the woman who makes the sacrifice. How well partners support each other’s career has a lot to do with internalized beliefs about gender roles and negotiating skills.

How his affects hers

For opposite-sex relationships, the conflict between work and life has traditionally been highly institutionalized. From the 1800s until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, businesses could refuse to hire married women and could terminate women employees who married. Called a marriage bar, this practice served as a rationale for institutionalized wage disparities between men and women. And it kept women out of some career fields entirely until recently.

The cultural legacy of generations of marriage bar thinking remains a weighty and tricky burden for couples (and society) to navigate. Even in the most equally yoked relationships, marriage partners can be surprised to discover they hold deep-seated beliefs about who should do what, particularly after children come into the picture. This is why, in part, women still face so much pressure to set aside careers to care for family members or to further their spouse's job. It’s also important to understand that men and women both struggle with stereotypes and cultural and family traditions and experiences when it comes to balancing work and home life.

Even the youngest of working couples struggle with mismatched expectations. A recent survey of Harvard Business School graduates reveals that more than half of millennial men expect their career will take precedence over their spouse's job. The women were planning for their careers to have equal importance within their relationship. 

Finances and workplace flexibility also play a significant role in a married woman's choices—or perception of choice. The high cost of child care and elder care can price lower-paid women out of the job market. In those circumstances, it’s hard to argue to continue in a chosen career. Women face a damnable catch-22 in trying to be a “good parent” while also living out their personal potential and dreams.

Read more: 12 Best Podcast Episodes About Work & Relationships

How to make dual-career relationships work

  • Be honest with yourself about what you really need. Set aside other people’s opinions for a moment and hone in on your personal bottom line.

  • Take turns describing the problem from each perspective. Try to identify what each partner fears, hopes for, and actually needs. It's also helpful to determine when a partner feels external pressure from parents, peers, or the boss.  

  • Explore each other’s beliefs and assumptions about gender roles. You may find this conversation equal parts horrifying and illuminating. Such discussions will help you come to a shared understanding of the challenges within your partnership. If you and your partner are very far apart in your beliefs and expectations, consider talking with a counselor to get guidance in working through these fundamental issues.

  • Create an expansive, shared vision of what you can achieve together. Often forgotten in the nitty-gritty and awkward conversations of who does what, this simple act generates optimism and excitement.

  • Now, start forming a plan that both partners like. Focus on collaboratively negotiating with your partner, centering your discussion on what each individual wants, not the person’s gender. Be willing for this to take several conversations. Take breaks if someone gets frustrated. And write it down.

  • Try bundling together the things that are most important to each person as a way to create the best win/win possible. This is a brilliant negotiating tip from Redbook’s How to Negotiate Your Way to a Better Marriage.

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