How can you make sense of the family-career conundrum?

Written by
Prof Konstantin Korotov

23 Dec 2015

23 Dec 2015 • by Prof Konstantin Korotov

For married people or those living in long-term partnerships the question of relationship between each other’s career choices is potentially a challenging one. At times, the choice made by one of the individuals may have considerable consequences for the other individual, and, eventually, for the couple as a whole.  Through over twenty years of teaching and coaching executives, I have observed three major types of relationship between the career choices of two family members: consonance, investment, and sacrifice.

Consonance between career choices of two family members means that both of them follow their career dreams and interests (whatever those may be), and those quests are not affecting one another negatively. Take an example of Heike and Boris: both are financial services executives pursuing a child-free life-style. They have lived and worked in New York, Frankfurt, London, and Hong Kong, and each of their moves has been based on a shared desire to experience living and working in the world’s major financial centers. So far they have managed to coordinate their job changes and relocations to make sure that both make choices that don’t compromise the desires of the other partner.

Here is a different example: Evelyn and Dan met each other in a grad school studying biochemistry and went to work for the same life sciences company after graduation. Evelyn has progressed significantly quicker than Dan and has become one of the top-flyers in the organization. Dan has discovered that working for a large business was not what gave him excitement and satisfaction. While Evelyn is pursuing her executive career, Dan is now absolutely happy teaching online chemistry courses, and taking care of their two small children.

Finally, take Maria and Paul who after twelve years of trying to start a family got blessed with charming but demanding twins. Maria has decided to give up her work as marketing executive to dedicate herself to family, charity work, and supporting Paul in his attempt to combine his medical practice with engagement in local politics.  In all of the above examples the couples reported lack of challenges or issues associated with the combination of career choices.

Investment is a temporary state of relationship between the two careers when one of the members of the family takes a temporary break, slow-down, or change in his or her career in order to support the development of the other partner’s professional progression or to help the family gain additional advantages.

Take an example of Veronica and Joao, both from Brazil. When her company offered Veronica an opportunity to relocate to Europe, Joao knew that he wouldn’t be able to work there as a medical doctor, his profession in Brazil. However, the couple decided that they were going to embrace this opportunity, as this was a good chance for Veronica to increase her visibility at the headquarters and develop a strong network that would be helpful in her future career steps, and it was a chance for the children to learn a new language and expand their cross-cultural competencies. Joao planned to take a few professional development courses, learn a new language, and dedicate himself to the wellbeing of the family in a foreign country. However, he and Veronica agreed that they would be returning to Brazil no later than in three years’ time, so that Joao could still return to his medical career. 

Or take an example of Gerhardt and Sabine. Gerhardt was offered an opportunity to work on a shift-based schedule in Africa. His work engagement would be based on eight-week rotations with three weeks of recreation time between them. Sabine had to take a reduction in her working hours in order to manage the children on her own during Gerhardt’s absence, which would reduce her earnings and choices of some interesting assignments requiring travel. As Gerhardt’s work arrangement would bring with it significant increase in earnings he wouldn’t be able to get working under traditional circumstances, Sabine and he decided that three years of such work would be a good investment in meeting their life-style expectations: living in a large and comfortable house. Both Sabine and Gerhardt knew that they wouldn’t be willing to continue with such an arrangement for more than three years, and that Sabine would like to go back to full-time work eventually.

In situations similar to the above, the main issue that families and couples face is making sure that both parties agree on the value of expected return on the required investment, and that at the agreed point in time the person taking a temporary break or slow-down in his or her career can go back to what is important for them.

Sacrifice is a psychologically irreversible state where one of the family members feels that he or she has given up something that was important to him or her, and that is no longer seen as pursuable. Consider Bruno and Julia, both PhDs in history who met during their doctoral studies and started a family. When on the very competitive academic job market, both landed excellent job offers: Bruno in Australia, and Julia in the US. As is often the case with academic couples, getting a dual appointment was impossible, so Julia decided to forfeit her US offer and go with Bruno to Australia. When her hopes to get a university position in Australia failed to materialize, Julia found that it was very hard to get her research work published, and that her academic network was difficult to expand and even to maintain. While Bruno was quite satisfied with his career progression and eventual academic administration opportunities, Julia’s frustration over unmaterialized potential as an academic kept growing. When Bruno got home one night to announce to Julia that he was being considered for one of the top university positions, Julia couldn’t help breaking down in tears and saying “I have sacrificed my career for yours,” instead of celebrating her husband’s well-deserved career success. 

The problem with sacrifice is that it gives the person who believes that he or she has given up something important for the sake of the others the psychological right to put the blame on the other partner. If the family is having other issues, this can add to the overall set of challenges they are facing.

In order to limit the potential negative influence of career choices on the family life managers and their loved ones should spend time and effort exploring their career dreams, expectations, and limitations. They should be honest and serious in exploration of all the sides and potential consequences of choices they face, including the fears and anxieties associated with them. It is important to constantly check how career choices and preferences of both partners affect one another, and whether there are any changes in those choices and expectations. It is also very important to make sure that investments and consonance don’t grow into sacrifice, to the surprise of both parties involved.