Tia and Miles met when they were each new grad students at the local university and have been together ever since. Now, with each of them close to graduating, they are talking about getting married. They are also fighting. One of their housemates, sick of their squabbling, told them to see a counselor or find another apartment.
In our first session, Tia takes the lead. “I’m really sure he’s my soulmate, ” she says quietly.
“I look into the future and I picture us being together and having kids together someday. I don’t know why we’re picking on each other all the time.”
“Yeah,” Miles agrees. “We always got along great. Lately we can’t be together more than a few minutes before things start going downhill. We talked about getting married next summer. I don’t want to lose her but I don’t know . . .”
“What are you fighting about?” I ask.
“Oh. You know,” replies Tia. “What to watch on TV. Whether he put softener in the laundry. Whether I bought the right brand of coffee this week. What to do next weekend. It’s always stupid stuff really.”
“Lots of it is stuff I don’t even really care about,” Miles says thoughtfully. “Something she says just makes me mad.”
All this is small stuff. They’re not fighting about basic differences in values or trust issues or real or imagined betrayals. This is all small stuff that is getting big attention. When people are nitpicking about small stuff, it usually means there’s some really big stuff they’re avoiding.
“Let’s take a step back,” I suggest. “You’re both finishing up at the U. Tell me what you each want to be doing by next fall.” An uncomfortable silence follows. Each looks at the other. Each quickly looks at their shoes. Each doesn’t look at me. “Hmmm,” I’m thinking. “That was quick. We’ve just found out what can’t be talked about.”
Some careful questioning lets them tell their story. He is finishing a masters in computer science and already has two job offers in Boston as a result of successful internships and good networking. She’s finishing up a doctorate in history and is applying for postdoc fellowships at colleges in various parts of the country.
Taken separately, each of the big decisions these two are confronting marriage, career move for him, career move for her look exciting and doable. Taken together, it’s not so simple. How will they manage to do all three in a way that satisfies both? No wonder they’re fighting over who gets to watch the TV. Their arguments about the small stuff help them avoid what they are convinced will be a painful and no-win argument about what is really important.
Two people with two careers trying to make one marriage is now more common than not. More couples are on a dual-career path because both are passionate about what they do for work, because they believe it is an economic necessity, or both.
Unfortunately, much of the work world has yet to catch up with dual-career couples’ realities. Inflexible and long hours, promotions that are linked to relocating, and the assumption that employers should not have to think about a spouse’s career all make the management of two careers very stressful. Tia and Miles aren’t alone in their anxiety and confusion about how to stay together and stay on their career tracks. As they get closer to graduation, they also get closer to having to make a decision about each other and about the professions they have each spent years getting ready for.