A Moving Story for Spouses

A recent slogan for a major moving van line warns couples to "Pick the Right Mover, or Pick the Right Marriage Counselor." Strategically placed in business periodicals and designed to appeal to the frequently relocated corporate employee, the ad makes explicit every couple's nagging fear: The relocated family has only one dependable source of continuity--each other.

Granted, uprooting the kids from the old neighborhood is disorienting, but that's not even half the battle. In the age of the dual-income couple, corporate relocation may mean dragging a spouse out of job. And if that spouse happens to be a husband, you may find yourself tangling with a cultural taboo--one that will put a huge strain on your marriage. At the very least, your beliefs about equality will be tested against the actual balance of power in your relationship.

Few couples have tempted the rocky cultural terrain. Of the 22 million people who packed up and moved for work last year, only 2 million were husbands trailing their wives. While that's double the number from 1980, it's a sluggish progression considering the large number of women who have reached middle- and upper-management, positions ripe for relocation assignments.

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Even though countless women have silently resigned themselves to trailing their spouses for decades, the smattering of men who follow their wives are kicking and screaming so loudly that their dilemma now has a name. "The Trailing Spouse Crisis" hit the front page of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The articles warn of the "dangers" of being the trailing spouse and document the indignant male cries of "It isn't fair!" One husband complained that after three moves to follow his wife, "I have never been able to remain in one position long enough to find out how successful I might have been in my own career."

Haven't we heard this before? Sure, but the trailing spouse issue came alive only when it became real for men. But what really smarts is the fact that it doesn't apply to more men. Of those people who moved for work in 1993, a scant 17 percent were women--and only 10 percent of them were married. It's tempting to write off this vast relocation gap to women being passed over for relocation opportunities, but that's only part of the problem. A recent poll of unemployed executives showed that men are three times as likely to pick up and move for a new position than women.

Why, in this era of increasing egalitarianism at work and at home, are women continuing to trail their husbands's jobs, yet unlikely to move for their own? If relocation is often the ticket to job advancement, aren't women paying dearly for their immobility? And what makes men immune to the family pressures to stay in one place? Do the pioneering men who follow their wives pay the same price as their female counterparts? The answers are complex but the questions fundamental. The relocation gap may well be a subtle refuge of gender inequality, where men and women sacrifice themselves to norms they openly disavow.

For the Love of Money?

Some economists would have us believe that a family's decision to move for work is simply a matter of maximizing family financial well-being. Wives, they assert, are over-represented in the "trailing spouse" category just because women make less money than men. But in actuality it's not that simple. Even when wives have the potential to earn substantially more than their husbands, they are still more likely to decline a move for their own work if it disrupts their husband's job.

A study by Mobil Corporation found that a man generally will follow his wife only if she earns at least 40 percent more than he does. Other research indicates that she must earn at least twice what he is currently earning. In contrast, even when a woman is earning more money than her husband, she is still likely to discontinue her employment and move for his job.


Obviously, the relocation gap can't be explained by salary and stature. But don't think that the gap is filled only by women who turn down opportunities to relocate. Many women are never given the option. Susan Anderson, a 30-year-old division manager for an insurance company, is anxious to relocate, but no one is asking her. After seven years with her company she is frustrated by her lack of movement:

"I missed out on two good promotions because they both required moves to the home office in Southbrook. In both cases, I had more experience than the person they chose, but men move men around here. Everyone knows it. It's really kind of a dub. They all get together at lunch and chronicle their move stories, comparing mortgage differentials and movers, and school districts and neighborhoods in Southbrook. Everyone at the top here has been to Southbrook at least once, but I doubt I'll ever get a chance."

Indeed, "men move men" may well explain why 95 percent of foreign relocations in international businesses go to men. Perhaps, since most managers are men, they promote or relocate people they trust and feel most comfortable with--other men.

Yet even well-intentioned managers may purposefully overlook women for relocation out of reluctance to create problems for their marriage. Other managers may be projecting their own stereotypical beliefs about dual-career marriages and relocation. Imagining the upheaval that might ensue if their own wives were asked to move, some managers simply suppress the option of relocating married women.

Still others are completely ignorant of today's work-family realities. They are the 90 percent of CEOs whose wives have never worked outside the home and whose rise was enabled by a marriage devoted exclusively to his career. (That family dynamic is reinforced in the workplace: Studies show that traditional fathers whose wives don't work earn up to 20 percent more than men with working wives.) To them--still the top decision makers in corporate America--female employment, much less following a wife for it, may be inconceivable.

Gender-Role Identity

The decision to move for work is shaped not by salary or title--his or hers--nor by office politics. Rather, it is the product of gender-role ideology. The roles husbands and wives play in the household are built on each spouse's conception of their own gender. These beliefs are rigid and take root early, starting when parents deride whether to swaddle you in pink or blue, and are solidified at every stage of life.

Those roles determine the mutually recognized right or authority to exercise power within the relationship, say Denise and William Bielby, sociologists who recently studied the couple dynamic in move-for-work decisions. A man with traditional gender-role beliefs sees himself as primary provider and decision-maker--and would likely refuse to let his spouse's job or children's lives interfere with his own job advancement, say the Bielby. And a woman with traditional beliefs of herself as homemaker/wife would likely sacrifice job advancement if it means asking her husband to leave a job or uprooting her kids.

Here's the sticking point: Even though more women have infiltrated management and the executive office suite, they are still likely to subscribe to traditional beliefs about the male provider role. In fact, they go out of their way to support that role--they may take on half the business work, but they take on all the housework as well.

In The Second Shift, her now-classic study of the division of labor in the household, sociologist Arlie Hochschild found that many people ideologically support the idea of egalitarian roles, yet in carrying out those roles the principles get trampled. There are great contradictions between what people say they believe about marital roles and what they seem to feel about them. Many couples who moved for the husband's work were "outwardly egalitarian" but couldn't override the traditional gender roles ingrained within them. And their behaviors reflected this traditionalism; women would rather pass up a career opportunity than upset their deep-seated, culturally programmed gender roles.

Awkward Sex-Role Reversal

Following their wives for work, men would be challenging those same culturally prescribed roles. The assumed head of the household would have to take the passenger seat, forfeiting the power and control traditional roles bequeath him. And such men may be worse off as trailing spouses than women have been because they are charting new territory, with no cultural means of support.

Regardless of their psychological fortitude, couples must endure formidable external pressures individually and together. Not all couples can withstand these societal constraints. They often pay a high price in the negative response from others. Reactions of family and friends may well be the most trying part of the upheaval. Listen to this trailing husband:

"Their first reaction was to assume that my own career must be falling apart, when in reality it was going quite well. But I was confident that I could do this job anywhere. I knew I could get another job, and did. But sometimes I was embarrassed about it. I hated telling people why I moved because I never knew how they would respond."

Another male spouse-trailer, a former high-school teacher, said that he had always earned less money than his corporately employed wife, so moving for the spouse with the higher earnings seemed to make good family economic sense Yet it did not stop co-workers and extended-family members from questioning why he would move to further his spouse's career: "It has never bothered me on a personal level that she makes more money than I do. But the reactions we have gotten are beginning to bother me. They act as if I am lazy or incompetent."

Women who uproot their husbands for their careers have their own social repercussions to contend with. Even though countless men have done it before them, suddenly, moving the family for work is "cold" and "calculating." It seems that the rules for corporate relocation have changed--the new version confirms the stereotype of the cold and aggressive successful woman.

Take Nina Webster. When she was offered a new and "terrific" position in Arizona, her husband, Rob, supported her desire to pursue the job. For her the pressures imposed by family and friends were "incredible." Nina recalls: "Feelings of guilt were being imposed upon us from all sides."

Some couples would sooner try commuter marriage arrangements to cope with dual career demands that draw them in differing geographical locations. But they too pay a price. "My mother thinks I am being selfish," says one woman of her derision to move for her own job--and leave her husband behind. "After he was transferred to California, I had been warned that the job market was not good for my area. But I followed him again anyway because I didn't feel that I could refuse. So we built a great house on the coast and we all settled in. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a job.

"After two frustrating years, I felt like I had to move to work. I really like my job here, but now everyone acts like I was the one who abandoned him. My family and his are constantly telling me how sad it is that he has to live in that big beautiful house by himself. They forget that I moved eight times all over the country for his work, and now I am the one who feels guilty because of the commuter marriage. He won't move for me, and I couldn't wait any longer."

Resist the temptation to attribute this woman's experience to personality--hers or his. The very existence of the relocation gap and the societal consequences for those who bridge it are rooted in American culture, not individual psychology. In fact, the male trailing spouse is bound to be left dangling as a cultural anomaly until social mores change in boardrooms and living rooms alike.

Once companies begin to dole out promotions, raises, and relocations with a blind eye to gender, then more couples will at least be forced to test whether their beliefs in equality translate to real decision-making power in their marriage. Either way, a battle will ensue: first an internal war with culturally prescribed roles, then an external dash with those who strike against people who break the rules. It will no doubt be a painful process that will get easier only as more couples take the challenge.

Nevertheless, the relocation gap will likely taunt a generation or two until enough wives are even given a chance to stand on its precipice.

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