It is rare to pursue two high-achieving careers with equal intensity for very long. At some point, one career must be prioritised, forcing compromise on the other. Compromise introduces tension in a relationship which will unavoidably and inevitably lead to difficulties in the relationship. These can only be worked out by the couple themselves.
Like a friendship only more so, the partners in a loving partnership should both be equal. No partner should be more powerful than the other. If a great new job offer for one partner forces the other partner to compromise then suddenly, and brutally, one side becomes more powerful than the other. This is not healthy.
No amount of corporate ‘policies’ will help the psychological damage for the compromising partner. No ambitious person likes having to compromise their career. Even partners who are not ambitious will resent the compromises to their lifestyle. These could include moving to a country where they don’t have the language; moving house and moving the kids to a new school; leaving behind friends and family connected to place; and – often – joining a milieu where everyone is living an itinerant life. I know that lifestyle. I don’t know many that have liked it. Companies create the problem by making job offers but it’s not their fault and there’s little they can do to solve it.
If the tension in the relationship is not resolved it will eventually break. In my case it took 11 years for a decision in 1989, not properly discussed, to lead eventually to a separation in 2000.
Discussing the impact of dual careers ‘properly’ is very difficult. If one partner is excited about the opportunities of a new job it is very difficult for the other partner to say ‘I don’t want to go’. And it is very easy in the excitement of a new job not to pick up on the signals that your partner might not want to go if they don’t say so directly. Naturally the couple should ‘talk about it’ but we don’t all live in a Hollywood movie. In my own case, the reason we didn’t talk properly is because I received a great job offer while my girlfriend (now my wife) was working in Ireland enjoying a great opportunity that had arisen for her. Even if you do get the chance to talk it through, the tension would not disappear, it just switches partners as one person is faced with the decision to give up on a plumb job because their partner is reluctant to move.
The first and most important step towards managing dual careers is therefore to admit to each other how much it sucks, how difficult it is, and how much compromise is involved. The second step is finding a compromise that both partners can live with.
Solutions to these problems do exist. One solution is the ‘It will only be temporary’ compromise where the new job is taken up on the promise that it will be for a fixed period of time after which, either the compromising partner’s career will then take precedence and move wherever that takes you, or you will move back home. Be wary of the temporary compromise. In my own case, a move to work in England that was supposed to last 2-4 years lasted 25 years.
The most common compromise is the ‘long-distance commute’. In this, the partner with the great new opportunity takes the job but has to put up with living away from home midweek and commuting long distances at the weekends. This avoids the other partner having to compromise their career. In my case, I spent 12 years commuting back and forth to jobs in England from my home in Scotland. My brother-in-law has an even crazier commute. He works in Brussels and lives in Scotland. At one point, he spent a year in Puerto Rico, and for some of this time he bravely attempted to commute weekly from Scotland to Puerto Rico. They had tried the ‘It will only be temporary’ compromise but my sister was back home with the kids after 2 years.
The downside of the long-distance commute is loneliness. Living by yourself in hotels and apartments is not much fun. Travelling is tiring and mildly stressing and expensive. It also introduces a new sort of tension in relationships that are conducted over the phone mid-week and then have a week’s worth of living squeezed into a weekend. If you have a busy weekend planned it means there is no time available for personal correspondence and admin. And all of this is before you have to put up with the travel delays that happen all the time, especially over the summer months. Notwithstanding how difficult the long-term commute, it is a sustainable way of managing the tension. In my case living like this was preferable to the alternative: divorce.
In my family there is myself and two sisters. In all three of our relationships, one partner is involved in a long-distance commute. It’s the modern world.