Careers and Couples: 12 Tips on Career Planning for Couples

Stephen Dupont, APR

Over the course of my career I have met with dozens of people of all ages seeking advice about their careers, from college students anxious about launching their careers to seasoned executives who need to make a mid-life change (sometimes, not necessarily by choice).

In reflecting on those conversations, I noticed a pattern — most people, in talking about their individual careers, rarely mention their spouse or a long-time partner. They typically speak of their careers in a compartmentalized framework focusing on their career only, rather than from a holistic perspective that involves their mate or long-term partner.

Why might that be? Perhaps it’s because, for example, a marketing executive, may think that her career has nothing in common with her husband’s career as a commercial real estate agent. Or possibly, the Fortune 500 finance executive believes that her corporate career is on a different trajectory than that of her wife, who has chosen to work as a freelance designer from their home.

I raise this question because I’ve come to believe that if you’re in committed relationship, where you depend upon each other economically and more importantly, emotionally, your career decisions must take into account the most important person in your life.

If you intend to stay together for a long time and ride the love rollercoaster of this thing we call life, career goals and aspirations need to be at the heart of the dialogue between you and your mate.

Dedicate time specifically to talk (and really listen to each other) about your career hopes and dreams.

From a financial standpoint, it’s incumbent upon a couple to weigh career decisions together to reduce their overall economic risks. These include the risks of work injury, job burnout, job stress, or a layoff. In other words, career decisions are not solely about making more money, gaining more responsibilities, obtaining a bigger title, or even doing more purposeful work. In today’s rapidly changing digital economy, couples also need to consider managing career risk.

Addressing career decisions is important for other reasons, including:

  • Determining how the couple will share the workload at home, including parenting duties;
  • Creating equality and respect in the relationship (especially if one person is making more than the other, or one of the mates decides to stay at home to care for the family’s household);
  • Understanding each other’s values and the role of work in their lives (as in a case where she might believe in taking “mental health days,” but he does not); and
  • Navigating future opportunities and challenges (Example: Will retirement happen all at once, or is it something we’ll slowly ease into?).

Beyond career decisions such as jobs, advancement, compensation, roles and responsibilities, couples also need to consider their support for each other in terms of the personal brands that each is building.

In looking at my relationship with my spouse, a mathematician who leads the STEM program for a private, liberal arts university, I’ve come to value the academic nature of her career, which has helped me in the development of my personal brand as a branding/marketing communications consultant. I feel our personal brands complement one another and we mutually look out for each other to enhance each other’s personal brands.

Could the same be said for your relationship with your spouse or long-time partner? Do you feel your personal brand is in alignment with your spouse’s personal brand?

Are you and your mate on the same page when it comes to thinking about your future together, including your careers?

If you’re not sure, here are 12 tips that you and your spouse or partner should consider when thinking about your careers and personal brands. The intent of these suggestions is to create awareness within your relationship about where you see eye-to-eye — and where there may be gaps.

1.) Commit to meet regularly – Schedule at least one hour per month to meet with your spouse and talk about your careers (and just your careers). Make a commitment to this goal and stick to it. You need time to listen, understand and process how each of you thinks about your respective careers. If you have children, find time that you won’t be interrupted or hire a babysitter, or invite Grandma and Grandpa to take them off your hands. Put away your phones and laptops. Have a notebook and pen handy to take notes.

Similarly, make a separate time (at least monthly, possibly weekly), to talk about money (only!) and the household budget, as money is closely linked to career expectations, as well as separate time to talk about other personal issues, such as parenting, vacation time, etc. Focusing conversations and limiting them to no more than an hour will help you to both limit distractions and maintain your attention.

2.) Learn to listen respectfully – In many households, there may be a gap, sometimes significant, between the two spouses in terms of how they view and value careers, jobs and income. This can create tension, which can become agitated when one partner holds positions his or her career, job or income as more important or of higher value than that of the other. This is why, when you do speak about your career goals and aspirations, it’s important to listen carefully to each other and to listen respectively.

When you sit down and talk about careers, do this: identify the issue to be discussed in advance. Each person should write down his or her thoughts about issue. Then, each person should take up to five minutes to share thoughts without being interrupted. This would be followed by the spouse taking one minute to summarize what he or she heard, followed by clarifications until each is clearly understood. Listening is an art that needs to be practiced, especially by couples in long-term relationships who are often frazzled, tired and worried.

3.) Defining success – There’s what your boss defines as success. There’s what your peers define as success. There’s what the media defines as success. There’s what your spouse defines as success. But, what do you define as success? More importantly, does your mate understand and share that definition? Is it a McMansion in the burbs and entertaining clients, or involvement with a local nonprofit, or being home every night for dinner together, followed by coaching your kid’s soccer team? As part of your discussions with each other, define what it means to live a rich, fulfilling life. Try this: In your mind, imagine what the perfect life is 10 years from now. Write that story down and then read each other’s stories out loud to each other.

On the surface, this looks like an easy conversation, however, because so many of us allow our careers and the environment in which we work (which does not include our mates) to define us, it may be difficult for some couples to talk about their career aspirations (and to separate our career identity from our personal identity). In a way, our work (whether we own a business, work at a company, or are the stay-at-home spouse) can be a place of independence from our mates (where we don’t necessarily have to involve them). Some people may view this part of their lives as “off limits” from their mates because they made independent career decisions long before meeting their mates and don’t want to give up control of their career decisions.

4.) Lay it all out on the table – For a couple to have a straight-up conversation about where they’re heading, they need to have a conversation where they lay everything out on the table – fears, hopes, dreams and, aspirations. If you dream of starting a business someday, you owe it to your mate to let him or her know. If you think you’d really like to get your MBA but, looking at your finances, you’re not sure how that can happen, you need to lay that out there. If you’re worried about how to care for your parents who are in poor health while keeping up your performance at work, your mate needs to hear that. Get it all out. Rip the band-aids off.

And just know that you are not alone. There are millions of other couples, including couples you know, and who are as smart as you, facing these same worries.

5.) Understand your values – Many couples think they know what their loved one’s values are, but more often than not, it’s not until you experience a situation that you truly understand where your spouse or partner really stands.

Here are some real-life examples that I’ve encountered through my career conversations with others:

She thinks it’s perfectly okay to call into work and take a mental health day. On the other hand, he, whose father, a small business owner, never took a sick day (much less a vacation day), would find that morally reprehensible.

One mate believes in working in the evening after already putting in a long-day at work (“Because that’s when I can actually get stuff done!”), while the other mate would like no work (or screen time) after supper, unless it’s absolutely necessary to complete a work project.

A lawyer, I know, working in a high-powered law firm, attempts to balance the demand of his partners with his spouse’s strong desire that he be home every night by 5:30 p.m. to have a sit-down dinner with her and their children.

Here’s what to do: Separately, write out all the values that are important to you. Consider values such as flexibility, honesty, time with family, etc. Then, put a star, or as many stars as you want, by the five that are most important to you. Using your listening skills, share your values with your spouse. You may find you have some of the same values. You may like a value that your spouse identified that you didn’t. Then, together, write out your shared values as a couple, and keep the list to no more than seven core values that fit the two of you.

More importantly, list your absolutes as part of this process. For example, this might be your expectation that both of you will lead careers driven by integrity, honesty and transparency. Having a clear understanding of values will be important should one or both you find yourself in an ethically challenging situation at some point down the road.

6.) Share your family’s memories of work – The way we approach our day-to-day work and our careers is often shaped by our childhood memories of watching our parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents at work. Single working mothers, first-generation immigrant parents, small business owners, corporate executives who often missed many important milestones because they were traveling, stay-at-home moms (and dads) – we as working adults cherish some things about our parents, but loathe others. It’s important to share these feelings with your mate to help him or her understand where you’re coming from, and to see how you’re alike or different.

Imagine regaining chunks of time in your life by cutting your commute time.

7.) Analyze your time – As part of your ongoing dialogue with your mate about careers, at some point, you need to address your use of time. I recently counseled a communications executive who works in the Washington DC area to reconsider her daily one-way 90-minute commute to her job. “Imagine,” I said to her, “how much of your life you could reclaim for your family or your other pet projects, if you could knock that down to 30 minutes or less?” In addition to commuting time, there’s time that you and your mate spend working at home, outside of business hours, or working on vacations; checking emails and social media; working a side job; and traveling for business. The question that you need to consider is, “Is all this time spent on working interfering with our ability to lead the lives we really want to live?” Maybe it’s time to consider putting some boundaries on work time so you can invest more time into you as a couple.

My wife and I think about this quote from former First Lady Barbara Bush: “At the end of your life you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child or a parent.”

8.) What would you really do? – Let’s say you think you will officially retire when you turn 65. How many years of active work life do you have left? Is it 10 years, 20 years or 35 years? My question for both you and your mate is, knowing how much time you have left, what are you going to do to make those the best years of your life? Do you keep plugging away at what you’re currently doing, or do you consider something else entirely? Do you still live in the same place? Do you still socialize with the same people? Do you still live in the big house with the yard that you need to mow every Saturday? If money were no object, what would you do then? Instead of waiting to win the lottery or making a bundle if your company goes through with the IPO, allow yourself the room to consider how you might make some of those dreams start happening today, even, if only, a little bit at a time.

Read a book together about setting big goals for each other, and together, as a couple.

9.) Goal setting – You and your mate should each write out your short-term and long-term goals. On a piece of paper, write out what you’d like to achieve in the next year, two years, five years, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 40, 50 years – and name the year and your age for each increment of time [I’d take issue with that – no one knows and overcomplicates planning]. List all of your goals – career goals, travel goals, family goals, financial goals, etc. Then, take 30 minutes each to share your goals with your spouse, and another 30 minutes for you to carefully listen to your spouse’s goals. It’s important to hear what matters to your loved one and to consider how you can both help each other meet your goals.

10.) Budget for career development – For both you and your mate to lead fulfilling careers, you need to keep learning and growing. Some organizations are very generous in paying for career development opportunities. Others are not. If you work as a solo consultant or you work for an organization that does not pay for career development, than you and your mate should budget for this in your household budget. Items to budget for include: books, seminars, webinars, workshops, career coaching, and education (masters programs, certificate programs).

Important to note: Discussions about money can be loaded for some couples. After all, money is cited as the number one reason that leads to divorce. As a couple, you should have separate discussions about money and if you’re having difficulty talking about it, you should seek help. When you talk about career issues and decisions, focus on just that, with the intent of helping each other realize your career goals and aspirations.

Make room in your family’s budget for career development.

11.) Share your mentoring experiences – I’m a strong advocate of serving as a mentor and seeking the advice of mentors. I also believe that you don’t have to limit yourself to just one mentor – have a team. But don’t stop there – share what you learn from these relationships with your mate, and vice versa. Along these lines, consider seeking out an older or more experienced couple to mentor your career relationship as a couple. The more input you receive and process together as a couple, the more ideas and options you will develop as you think about your careers.

12.) Learn to compromise – Careers rarely follow a straight upward trajectory. There are bumps, curves, nosedives and upswings. At one moment you may be under a huge amount of stress to complete a big project. At another time, your mate might be offered a big opportunity, which may entail moving the family across the country. And still another: you would like to obtain your MBA at night and on weekends while trying to maintain a full-time job. Using your goal setting and values as a framework, practice having conversations about how you would compromise in those situations so when they do come up, you’re more prepared to steer clear of conflict.

Managing Careers and Relationships is Hard Work

Managing your career and personal brand is hard work. It’s complex and it can be outright frustrating, which can lead to many moments of conflict between you and your spouse.

But, it can be incredibly rewarding, and thrilling, too, especially when you feel like you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing in the world – together!

Bringing your mate more fully into the picture can help both of you realize your potential more fully while, at the same time, reducing your risks to the ups and downs of our ever-changing economy.

Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a creative brand powerhouse based in Minneapolis. Contact Stephen Dupont at stephen.dupont@pockethercules.com or visit his blog at www.stephendupont.co.

© Stephen Dupont, 2018

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