Asking for a Friend//

How Can I Prioritize My Own Career and My Partner’s Without Letting One Fall to the Wayside?

A Gottman therapist says navigating a dual-career household can be challenging, but it’s entirely possible to make it work.

Westend61/ Getty Images
Westend61/ Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

Q: My husband and I are both very career-oriented, and we’ve worked hard to achieve success in our own fields. While we’re proud of our accomplishments, it can be difficult to navigate schedules without making one of us feel like our career is less important than the other’s. Is this normal? How can we optimize our time and energy as a unit, instead of feeling like we’re in a career competition with each other? 

A: With dual-career couples on the rise, navigating schedules has become a common topic of conversation in many therapists’ offices. The most recent findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics report that nearly half of all marriages in the United States consist of dual-career couples. Most people did not have role models for how to successfully navigate a dual-career household, so many are struggling. You and your husband are definitely not alone with this challenge.

The couples I see in my office that are navigating schedules successfully and as a unit are doing two important things. The first is that they approach conversations regarding schedules with a team mindset — focusing on what is best for the family unit as opposed to what is best for the individual or the individual’s career. This shift in mindset from “me” to “us” is imperative, and is the breeding ground for trust. In John Gottman’s book, What Makes Love Last? he defines trust as the state that exists when both partners are willing to change their own behavior to benefit their partner. In other words, they make decisions that maximize the payoff for them both (or at least minimize both their losses). When you are both working toward maximizing the benefit for yourself as well as the other, trust and a feeling of connection flourish, which will make navigating any difficult situation or conflict much easier.

One couple I worked with was a great example of this team mindset. The wife is a businesswoman and the husband was, at the time, in school getting his teaching credential. The wife was offered a promotion that required them to move to a different state, which would interfere with the husband’s schooling. In a compromise, they decided to move to the other state for two years so she could advance in her career, and he took a short pause in getting his credentials. He viewed this break as an opportunity to stay home with the kids and enjoy some family time. After returning to their hometown, he was able to pick back up with the program he had started, and his wife navigated her work schedule around his school schedule as best she could so that he could continue to advance. This couple was able to prioritize what was best for both in the long term, and both made sacrifices at different times for the other to succeed.

The second thing couples do to successfully navigate a dual-career household is to communicate about schedules and responsibilities on a regular basis. I encourage the couples I see in my office to establish weekly, monthly, and annual meetings to ensure there is constant communication and planning. At your annual meetings, you can discuss larger events such as work travel, vacations, and any other significant events. A monthly meeting gives you an opportunity to look ahead and map out the upcoming month, and a weekly meeting ensures you are on the same page for the upcoming week and are navigating any last-minute changes. Remember to include planning time together and individual time during these discussions as well, and to be truly present when you are spending time together (that means you truly need to put all work away and focus on the family). 

When a scheduling conflict arises, I encourage you both to honestly explore and share the potential short-term and long-term impact of a missed event. You can ask yourself the question, “What will the impact be if I miss this event in the next 10 hours, 10 days, 10 months, and 10 years?” Share this with your partner, and then listen to the potential impact for your partner. From there you can decide as a team what makes the most sense for the family unit as a whole.

Although navigating a dual-career household can be challenging, it is possible. Regular conversations and a team mindset in which you both work to maximize the family system as a whole will lead to a win for everyone. 

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