3 things people in career transition need to agree on with their partners

mm Russ Finkelstein

I’m a matchmaker. Whether it is dates, jobs or the perfect restaurant, I like to be involved in the making of pairings. Although I’ll admit that I have had many more successes in pairing people with jobs than spouses.

There is an unusual thing that can happen where work and love meet. I’m not talking about being happier in your job and bringing that into your relationships, although that’s true, too. I’m getting at the question of the kind of agreement you need from your significant other when changing your job or profession.

Well over a decade ago I recall being at the early part of a five-hour drive with a couple that had been married for several years. After the first hour or so, we started discussing life and our future hopes. The husband, Barry, shared that while he was feeling a certain kind of success now, his mind drifted to another path.

“I’ve thought about giving up my current position and becoming a poet,” he said.

Without skipping a beat his wife said: “Given that we have just purchased a condo and I am unwilling to take on all the bills, I don’t think that’s a possibility”.

There was initially some silence, and then the radio was turned on for much of the rest of the ride.

We want those we love to be happy. However, we don’t want the trade off to be our own misery.

I LOVE talking to couples about work, largely because I get to be Switzerland. There are thorny issues to be solved, but doing so in the couple bubble can be very difficult. I was able to gain quite a bit of experience doing this, much to the misery of my parents, after I took a conflict resolution seminar in grad school. To this day when I want to irk them, I will go into massive reframing mode: “Mom, what I think dad is telling you is…”.

However, over time I started to see many more people who were in relationships where both parties were unhappy with their work and unsure how to figure out what to do next. What I realized is that they were often afraid to share what they were thinking about and feeling with their partner because of the expected response. Chiefly, that the partner had an agenda, and they expected that any advice would be filtered through that agenda.

I think that conversations are a huge part of our professional success, whether we are getting clear about our strengths and priorities or networking. However, the person you are speaking with must have several traits. One of them is “standing”, which I describe as having expertise you respect, so that you’ll find it hard to discount their counsel. If there’s an agenda they might have, you’ll find it an easy excuse to ignore their input. So when you’re in a romantic partnership with someone with whom you share the mortgage on a condo, for example, you’re unlikely to trust the person not to have that in mind when you start talking about your desire to pursue a career in poetry.

This is why I think that for most relationships, there are only three things that your partner and you must agree on to safely choose a next position.

1. How much will you each be bringing home monthly?

We all know that the center of many couple troubles is money. If one party is suddenly making a good deal less, what does that mean for your collective obligations for mortgage or rent? How about the impact this will have on health coverage, retirement or debt reduction? Will this have other ramifications for your lifestyle, perhaps impacting when you can buy a house, go on a vacation, or what you will be able to put into retirement or a college fund?

2. What is your work schedule?

Second on the list of scarce resources that become a source of tension is time. A solid relationship means that both parties feel that the other is invested in their collective success and being available to one another and others that you know require you. If you decide that you are switching from a 9-5 schedule to overnights, or working many weekends, or away from home due to travel 40 percent of the time, or that you are expected to work 70 hours weekly, you may be putting the relationship off-balance. Does this mean your partner now must handle all child or elder care? Are you no longer available for occasional date nights?

3. Where in the world will you be living?

Finally, we have the complex issue of where you agree to consider looking for work when it comes to your search. At first this may feel like a pretty simple one, but as in all relationship situations, things get complicated pretty quickly. The decision of where can have a big impact on whether you are going to have children: do you want to move nearer your family so they can help with childcare? Or on what each party values as they consider lifestyle: Do they want to live in the country with some horses, while your ideal apartment is a studio in Manhattan?

If you are able to come to agreement on these things, you will be in a much easier position to make even dramatic shifts. Your goal is not to surprise one another, but rather to show how mindful you are of their well-being by exhibiting that you are thinking about their happiness as tied together very closely with yours.

The main thing is a sense of openness and flexibility. If they’re wedded to living off the grid in a rural area and simply can’t budge on that priority, but you’re a city type, then that’s not a relationship with a future. But if they might be willing to consider some kind of compromise, that’s the key. Maybe you could aim to buy an urban pied-à-terre for you to retreat to and write your novel in on the weekends, while they tend the horses.

If you are able to agree to, and realize, these terms, and they still have issue with you pursuing your idealistic dream, then it is likely much more about them than you. They may be more driven to be the spouse of someone with the title and prestige of Mayor or Pilot.

I continue to believe that we can be more fulfilled by our work and relationships. But: the more you know and communicate about what you want, the more likely you are to get there sooner.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >