My friend Dana Theus, Founder of InPower Women, asked me what I thought about something that Sheryl Sandberg talks about in her book, Lean In ― one of the most critical decisions for a woman that impacts her career success is her choice of partner.
Looking back at the relationships I’ve had, including two divorces, I agree to a point. My success was in my control. Yet my partners either made it easier or harder for me to achieve my goals.
The greatest divide that led to the end of my relationships was based on my career aspirations. It took me decades to figure out how to factor this into my choice of a partner before we moved in together, and then how to have conversations about our partnership over time.
I don’t have children. Children add an extra dimension to consider when looking at how your relationship affects your career.
Many of my female coaching clients have children. Their careers are far more dependent on the support they get from their husbands, both domestically and emotionally.
This was echoed on a video panel I recenty participated in on this topic. There was one man on the panel, Conor Williams, who is the primary child raiser at home while also holding the title of Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Conor said that after discussing career aspirations and personal values with his wife, he chose to spend more time raising the kids while his wife spends more time on her career. This conversation happened before they married.
Because goals, dreams and desires change over time, Conor and his wife have ongoing partnership discussions.
What do you talk about in these discussions? When you talk about your partnership, don’t argue about who is doing more than the other, whose work is more exhausting, or whose work is more important. Conor wrote about this in a Daily Beast article, The Trouble with Work-Life Equality. There is no way to quantify what each spouse contributes at work and at home.
Conor said their conversations focus on what matters to each other. They want to do their best to help each other get what they most want out of life. He says, “I can make it a priority to give her multiple opportunities to choose the work-family life that suits her. And she can do the same for me. And sometimes things don’t work just right, so we talk a lot and fight occasionally and do our damnedest to figure something out.”
After listening to Conor, I realized that how he and his wife manage their partnership was missing in my previous relationships. There were unmet expectations, resentment, nagging and hurt feelings because we didn’t have these conversations. By default, I started these conversations with my current partner early in the relationship. My current partner understands what I am trying to accomplish with my work. He does what he can at home to support my efforts.
Neither Conor or my current life partner, Karl, are wimpy men. I see my partner as strong because he isn’t threatened by my success. He doesn’t resign himself to caring for the house while I travel for work; he chooses to contribute to the relationship the best way he can while we both pursue meaningful work.
It’s not a role reversal or trade-off because I earn more money than he does. It is his choice to support me and our relationship in the way it currently looks. As Conor said, “You find someone who is willing to juggle along with you, to be effective, compassionate parents and people wanting the best for each other.”
With women the primary or sole breadwinner in 40% of U.S. households, the conversations about how each person contributes to the family is even more critical. Here are three tips to help:
- If you are about to enter or have recently entered a committed relationship, discuss what the partnership will look like on a daily basis for at least the first three years. Sharing long-term dreams is essential as well.
- Make real plans to have these conversations regularly because what we want and what we find fulfilling changes over time.
- Remember to practice flexibility and resilience, the key ingredients for any lasting, loving relationship. Don’t give up your dreams; look for the creative solutions that demonstrate a mutual investment in what you both want over time.
The question to continually answer is, “How can we both feel fulfilled with our lives?” Then ask it over and over again to keep the love alive.
Sheryl Sandberg said, “When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects or, even better, wants to do his share in the home. These men exist and, trust me, over time, nothing is sexier.”
Read more about how women can find fulfilling lives in Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.