How to Cope on the Market as an Academic Couple

February 17, 2003

When I think of the difficulties faced by academic couples on the job market, I am reminded of a scene from an old television comedy popular during my graduate-school days. Louise Lasser, as the lead character in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, is beset with a host of problems that would challenge any modern soap-opera heroine. Without a dependable confidant, and worried that she's losing her mind, Mary tries a self-help tape. It instructs her to place one kitchen chair far from the table. Then it tells her to lean her right arm on a chair at the table. "Keeping your right arm on the chair," the tape continues, "now put your left arm on the chair across the room."

Academic partners facing the "two-body problem" -- searching for two tenure-track jobs near each other -- often find themselves trying to accomplish a feat as absurd as Mary Hartman's. It is simply not possible to put the career part of yourself in one place and your life in another. Your academic career is not just something you do -- it's an aspect of who you are. Similarly, committed, intimate relationships become part of how we define ourselves. This is why losing careers and partners is so devastating: We're losing a part of our identity.

If you are part of a dual-job search, you are facing much more than just logistical challenges. The choices you make will initiate a chain of reactions that will cascade down throughout your lives, with the emotional consequences of each action affecting your next interaction with your partner.

So I offer the following suggestions knowing that they are private solutions to what is fundamentally a social problem -- that until there is true equity in the opportunities for academics of both genders to succeed in their careers without having to sacrifice family life, there are no real "choices" in the full sense of the word.

How to Decide

You've landed the tenure-track job of your dreams. But your partner's only offer is hundreds of miles away. Should you live apart a few years and pursue your careers separately? Or should one of you give up the offer for the sake of staying together? And if you want to stay together, which offer is better? Whose career should take precedence?

As you're making these tough decisions, keep in mind that the process by which you make them is at least as important -- if not more so -- than the decisions themselves.

There are certain questions you'll need to ask yourself, and you'll need to discuss your answers with your partner. Some answers may reveal feelings that are in conflict with your espoused values. But failing to address these issues early in the game can prove fatal to your relationship later on.

What does having and being a partner mean to you? What do you really want from your partner -- not just your superficial expectations but your deepest longings? We all want to be loved and respected. But from your parental models and socialization experiences, as well as from early hurts and deprivations, you've constructed a deep sense of what you really long for from a partner.

It's easy to reject gender-role stereotypes until you're faced with a situation in which one of you will have a greater opportunity for success than the other. This tends to be when expectations that we've disavowed rise to the surface.

These days, it's very difficult to admit to ourselves that we harbor old stereotypes. Try to keep in mind that no one is free of these. Being aware of them allows you to make them part of the decision-making conversation. Having realized you really always wanted someone to take care of you doesn't mean you'll decide that this wish will govern your choices. We're all capable of relinquishing old longings, unless they are tied to the core of who we are.

What are your most important life dreams? Ideally both partners in a relationship are dedicated to making one another's dreams a reality. These are the things we can't concede without giving up who we are. You need to be clear about what you can sacrifice and what is so much a part of you that you'll never come to terms with losing or compromising it.

Women often have a more difficult time honoring and holding onto their dreams. They've been socialized to believe this is selfish -- and there are many people happy to reinforce that message.

Resist the influence of outsiders on your relationship. Be sure that the goals you're pursuing are truly yours -- not your department's, not your adviser's, not your family's.

To the extent that both of you feel like the other person truly understands and honors your life dreams -- what you feel able to sacrifice and what's a deal-breaker -- you'll have an easier time living with your decisions.

How open to influence are you? There's considerable research to suggest that the perception of fairness and equity significantly influences relationship satisfaction. Both partners need to feel that their desires have been supported and honored. When individuals feel unable to influence their partner, a power imbalance develops in the relationship. The last thing you want is to find yourself with a trailing spouse who feels as if you didn't listen to, or take seriously enough, his or her needs in the situation.

When you feel threatened, unwilling to be influenced, and unable to relinquish power in the relationship, odds are there are unspoken life dreams at stake. Mental-health professionals with expertise in couples' issues can help you tackle the problem of conflicting life dreams.

How much "we-ness" do you need? Couples differ in their relative need for a sense of togetherness versus individuality. If both of you feel the need to emphasize your individuality rather than your "couplehood," a commuting relationship will be more manageable. But if you need to think of your life goals and activities as something "we" do, living apart will take a greater toll.

Coping With Post-Decision Emotions

Although the goal of a dual-career couple is to prevent the situation from devolving into a zero-sum gain, all too often one partner succeeds in landing a tenure-track position while the other winds up in the role of "trailing spouse."

If you're the partner who has made the greater career sacrifice, here are some ways to cope with inevitable feelings:

Resentment: Feelings of resentment arise when you experience yourself as powerless and victimized. Being a "trailing" spouse can be demeaning. You're probably underemployed. If you've accepted a part-time position, your prospects for tenure have probably diminished. Assuming you and your partner made your decision in an equitable manner, you were not victimized by your partner. Put your resentment where it belongs -- on the difficult job market and the inequities of the system. Your best shot at getting past this is to find alternative employment that utilizes your most important strengths.

Jealousy: Especially if you're in the same field, it's difficult to see your partner succeed while your career is stalled. Painful as it may be, talk about these feelings with your partner. They don't negate your supportiveness or the pride you feel about his/her accomplishments. Negative feelings are a part of being human; conflict is a part of relationships. The idea is not to prevent or avoid them, but rather to manage them so they're not destructive. Couples therapy can be helpful in addressing jealous feelings that threaten to erode your emotional connection to one another.

Even the "successful" partner is likely to face difficult emotions. Here are some ways you might manage these:

Guilt: It's difficult to be happy when the person you love has sacrificed while you've gained. Women are particularly vulnerable to feeling guilty as they watch their husband's career languish. Assuming you didn't pressure your partner into following you, blaming yourself will help neither your partner's career nor your own. Challenge the gender-role stereotypes that tell you that you should have been the one who made the sacrifice. Make sure you have enough emotional support to help you cope with the disapproval of family members and others who believe your role is to follow. Both men and women need to be as supportive as possible of their struggling partner. Resist the temptation to allow tenure pressure to make you blind to everything but your work.

Pressure: If you're the partner who took the tenure-track position, in addition to the standard pressures, you're likely to feel the added burden of having to justify the sacrifice. What if your partner has passed up opportunities and after all the work and compromise you still don't receive tenure? Keep in mind that outcomes neither justify nor negate the validity of decisions made at the time. Besides, this kind of worry is likely to distract you, rather than help you to be successful.

Living Apart

If the two of you have decided to live apart and commute, periods of loneliness are inevitable. People who treat the separation as a short-term situation tend to be far more unhappy than those who set up a livable home for themselves wherever they are and work at developing supportive friendships. It's important to keep your partner up to date on the developments in your life at a distance so that you don't wind up leading truly separate lives. Dual-career couples who live together often become absorbed by day-to-day demands and neglect their relationship. If you're living apart, use your uninterrupted time to focus on your work while you're alone so that you can give each other your full attention during reunions.

Rituals are an important part of what it means to be a family. Substitute the daily rituals, like dinner together, with others you can create in a commuting relationship. Select something you enjoy doing together, such as having a candlelight dinner or fantasizing about what life will be like when you're together again, and make it a ritual -- something you do intentionally every time you're together.

One final suggestion: Treat each decision as an experiment. If it's not working, you'll need to negotiate a new arrangement. As long as you're approaching the problem as a team with a shared problem, you'll find a way -- albeit a less-than-perfect one -- to work it out. The most important thing to avoid is defining your partner as the problem.

Ellen Ostrow is a clinical psychologist and founder of Lawyers Life Coach, which provides coaching services to female lawyers trying to balance professional success and personal lives. She has served on the psychology faculties of three universities and as a staff psychologist at several university counseling centers.