When Your Supportive Spouse Turns Selfish

Oct Blog ImageI was at a dinner with eight highly successful professional women recently, ranging from age 35 to 74. Their stories were typical of research I have been conducting on dual-career couples. One had just been given a huge promotion opportunity in another country, but had struggled for several months to get her spouse to agree to join her. Another had decided that to save her marriage, she would take a year’s sabbatical and go back to school, giving the family some balance and a breather from two high-powered jobs. A third had tried to work part-time for her law firm but quickly realized she was being professionally sidelined. She opted for a doctorate instead. Her husband continued his career.

This experience underlines the conclusion I’ve drawn from years of research and experience: Professionally ambitious women really only have two options when it comes to their personal partners: a super supportive partner, or no partner at all. Anything in between ends up being a morale and career-sapping morass.

This is the reality of the half-baked transition we are in when it comes to women in the workplace. The 20th century saw the rise of women. The 21st century will see the adaptation (or not) of men to the consequences of that rise. The reality is that the transition is not smooth and the backlashes will be regular, but the benefits are potentially huge.

So far, it’s a small minority of men and companies who are at the forefront of the shift. As Melinda Gates recently wrote, we are still “sending our daughters into companies designed for our dads.” And into marriages billed as equal, as long as the man’s career isn’t disturbed by his wife’s success. (While I’ve occasionally heard stories of career-stifling spouses from same-sex couples, the vast majority I’ve heard are from heterosexual couples, and it’s almost always the woman whose career comes second.)

It’s not that these husbands aren’t progressive, supportive spouses. They certainly see themselves that way – as do many of the CEOs and leaders of companies I work with. But they are often caught out by trade-offs they were not expecting. They are happy to have successful, high-earning wives. They applaud and support them – until it starts to interfere with their own careers. A study by Pamela Stone and Meg Lovejoy found that husbands were a key factor in two-thirds of women’s decisions to quit the workforce, often because the wives had to fill a “parenting vacuum.” “While the women almost unanimously described their husbands as supportive,” writes Joan C. Williams of the study, “They also told how those husbands refused to alter their own work schedule or increase their participation in caregiving.” As one woman put it, “He has always said to me, ‘You can do whatever you want to do.’ But he’s not there to pick up any load.”

The women are left shocked and surprised. They thought the rules of engagement were clear. That well-educated couples would be mutually supportive, and take turns, or help each other become all they can be. A survey of Harvard Business School graduates emphasizes the disconnect: more than half the men expected their careers to take precedence over their wives’ careers, while most women expected egalitarian marriages. (Almost no women expected their own careers to come first.) Millennial men are often portrayed as more enlightened, but survey data complicates this picture: surveys have shown that younger men may be even less committed to equality than their elders.

Even for couples who are committed to equality, it still takes two exceptional people to navigate tricky dual-career waters. It’s easier to opt for the path of least resistance – the historical norm of a career-focused man and a family-focused woman. Especially if, as is often the case, the man is a few years older, has a career head-start and so earns a higher salary. This leads to a cycle that’s hard to break – men get more opportunities to earn more, and it gets harder and harder for women to catch up.

The disillusionment is deep – and lasting. The result is a delayed reaction, as I found in researching a book on the increasing divorce and marriage rates in the fifties and sixties. Talented women forced by their husband’s attitudes to downgrade their aspirations bide their time. After their children leave, often so do the wives. About 60% of late-life divorces are initiated by women, often to focus their energies on flourishing careers post-50.

Now it’s the husband’s turn to be shocked. They had worked so hard, provided so well, that was what they had understood their roles were! But that isn’t what modern couplehood is about in a more gender-balanced century. The dual-earner couple has huge advantages in turbulent economic times, as Eli Finkel, of Northwestern University, has written in his book The All or Nothing Marriage. The best marriages have never been happier, more balanced or more mutually fulfilling. Gender balance at home has created far more resilient couples. But it takes mutual support and balance across the decades. Ignore your partner’s dreams at your peril.

“I didn’t know,” many of the men I interviewed told me after their wives had left. To me, this sounds a lot like what corporate leaders tell me after their most senior female executives quit.  They hadn’t expected them to leave, hadn’t quite understood how upset they were by the attitudes, the lack of recognition, or the promotion of the less competent man down the hall.

But in the end, underneath it all, it isn’t true they didn’t know. The reality is they didn’t care. They didn’t listen — because they didn’t think they had to. They nod absently and ignore the rambling in their ear because they think it doesn’t matter, and won’t directly affect them. Several men admitted to me they just thought their wives’ frustrations were due to menopause and all they had to do was wait it out. It’s this kind of minimizing and discounting that drives women to distraction — before it drives them out the door. Much to the surprise, and subsequent grief, of their husbands.

A lot of the things people learn about leadership and team-building at work is directly transferable to managing better balance at home. Some of the strategies I outline in my upcoming book (www.LateLove.co) include:

  1. Vision: Discuss long-term personal and professional goals early, and revise regularly. Lack of alignment and mutual support between couples can derail entire life strategies. Be clear about what support will be required and expected to achieve these goals, and where it will come from.
  2. Active Listening: The most common complaint from women is that they don’t feel heard, from men that they don’t feel appreciated. For the first, introduce regular (monthly is good, quarterly a minimum) sit-down listening sessions. Dedicated, face to face, concentrated, unspeaking listening to everything your partner needs to say. Then repeat back what you heard. Adjust as necessary. Then switch. Sounds awkward? Only until it becomes relationship-saving.
  3. Feedback (aka Flattery): Everyone appreciates feedback, but it is increasingly rare, both at home and at work. The rule usually recommended is 5 to 1: Five positive comments for every ‘constructive’ one. Turns out humans love to be admired, especially by their intimate partners. So dial up the volume and tell your spouse how gorgeous, brilliant, caring and supportive they are. Reward the positive and watch it grow. Sounds artificial? Only until you see the light ignite in their eyes.

If your partner is not willing to engage, uninterested in “leaning in” and resistant to seeking help, you should ask yourself why not? Just like at work, it is interesting first to work on yourself. Understand your own issues, the impact you have on others, the degree to which you are creating the reaction you are struggling with. Consider working with a therapist or coach. In the end, after you’ve figured yourself out, if the relationship hasn’t improved, the question remains: What is keeping you in this team? Are you staying out of love or fear?

Until recently, women had more fear than finances; a lack of love was bad, but not as bad as poverty. For many women, greater financial independence means they can hold their relationships to a higher standard. Women want love and recognition and support – at work and at home. Companies that don’t offer it find they struggle with retention of women – many of whom will start their own companies. Couples that don’t offer it struggle with the same thing: women leave.

Retaining women – at home and at work – takes skill and self-awareness. It takes attention and a very intentional re-design of yesterday’s rules to today’s realities. At work, it means adapting company cultures and systems. At home, it requires an equally strategic focus on enhancing both partners’ potential, with a long-term, family vision across lengthening lives, tons of attentive listening, and regular flattery for the journey. Anything less is so yesterday.

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