Adjusting Your Life to Your Partner’s Career

You might have seen, on any one of half-a-dozen sites, that a new Harvard Business School study suggests women aren’t achieving their career goals because they’re making room for their male partners/spouses to succeed in their careers.

To quote the Harvard Business Review’s “Rethink What You Know About High-Achieving Women:”

A strong majority of men expected to be in “traditional” partnerships, in which their careers would take precedence. Their expectations were actually exceeded. A distinct minority of women expected their partners’ careers to take precedence, but for about 40% of them, that’s exactly what happened.

When you read the entire HBR piece, it’s a little less gloom and doom than, say, Slate’s “It’s Not Your Career Holding You Back. It’s Your Husband.” However, it does present what I have found to be a reasonably true thesis, at least in terms of my own relationships and partnerships: one person has to be flexible enough to make room for the relationship.

That’s the point the Harvard study is trying to make. The big career costs, like one partner quitting a job to move to a place where the other partner has a job, are obvious. But combining your life with another person’s, at its core, has a time cost.

And, like many other aspects of domesticity and caretaking — although making sure there’s enough space in the day for a round of sexytimes before bed doesn’t quite fall into the buckets of domesticity and caretaking — the woman often absorbs the bulk of this time cost.

What does that look like? In its simplest form, the time cost means one partner is only fully present at specific times, and the other partner must rearrange schedules to also be present at those specific times. It also means that if one partner has harder bounds on his or her availability, the other partner must literally pick up the slack, whether that means doing more household chores or adjusting his or her life to make sure that the partner with less free time gets all of his/her needs met in the limited window available.

Here are a few observations from my own relationships:

— I’ve been in two long-term relationships with people who had high-profile, long-hour jobs. In both cases, the assumption was that I would be available when they were available. I spent so many evenings sitting by the phone, waiting for the “I just got done with work” call that could come anywhere between 7 p.m. and midnight.

This didn’t necessarily stunt my career, but it did subtly hinder me from pursuing friendships and networking opportunities that might have taken place during the hours that I sat by the phone and rewatched all of Homestar Runner. (There is nothing sadder than the “yeah, we all went out for dinner and drinks after work, sorry it took so long” text when you’ve been at home rewatching Homestar Runner and waiting for the phone call.) It also earned me, in one case, the “you wouldn’t understand, you don’t have a real job” comment.

— I’ve also been in long-term relationships with people who were working many fewer hours than I was, and the shocking thing — and this says much more about me than it does about them, BTW — was that I still tried to make myself available when they were available. My “hey, I’ve got work tomorrow” comment was a drag. I made subtle adjustments everywhere I could to be less of a drag, to be more present in a schedule that did not fit my current life.

And were these partners to have a voice in this post, they would no doubt say “But you chose to do these things. I did not ask you to be flexible in these ways.” And that’s the point. The partners who make adjustments — and yes, Harvard says they’re mostly women — make those adjustments without being asked, to match expectations that haven’t been fully analyzed, and then a few years down the road it’s not surprising that one partner’s career is taking precedence.

And that’s even before children come into the picture.

When I date now, I am absolutely straightforward about “this is my career, these are my friendships and hobbies, this is my availability.” I am trying out the role of the more dominant partner, rolling it in my mouth a little. I will not shape my life to yours, I tell people, though not in such direct words. Maybe, if we are true partners, we can shape our lives together.

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