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Teamwork for Two-Career Couples

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.”

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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.

“Miles has done so well,” says Tia. “I can’t ask him to follow me when everything is opening up for him in Boston.”

“And I can’t ask Tia to put her career on hold. Good opportunities in history are really hard to find. She needs to go wherever she gets a good offer.” Miles too is generous and supportive.

These two are remarkably alike. Neither wants to ask the other to give up on personal dreams. Neither sees a way to do their own career differently either. They didn’t realize it but the problem that brought them to therapy is not competing careers. The problem is that these two good people each privately decided they couldn’t ask the other to compromise and didn’t have the flexibility to imagine personal alternatives.

Good communication instead of pointless fights just might lead to a solution. Redefining the problem might make it possible to talk. They’ve been working on their problem separately and drifting apart. My job is to help them learn to work as a team toward the shared goal of finding satisfying work for both while staying together.

We imagine different scenarios: Long-distance relationship while they each get on their career feet; staying together and alternating whose move gets priority; one or the other exploring a more portable job option within his or her field; looking harder for a city where both can work. I encourage them to take a longer view. Confining their thinking to the next year puts unnecessary pressure on their decisions. If they can allow themselves to think about where they want to be individually and as a couple five or even 10 years from now, there is more room to think creatively. Helping them each be clearer and more specific about individual and collective wants and needs adds depth to the discussion. Reaffirming their support for each other’s dreams lets them both continue to be generous.

I remind them that millions of dual-career couples daily work on similar issues. Most succeed at coming up with a system that works for them. Whatever solution to the “two careers, one relationship dilemma” they come up with can work as long as they are committed to each other and committed to working it out. What matters most is that they work as a team.

Tia and Miles are smart. They’re accomplished. They’re in love and want very much to build a future together. Now that they have learned how to work together when confronting a complicated and important problem, they will figure it out.

Tips for two-career couples

  • Communicate. No matter how well you know each other, you can’t read your partner’s mind. It’s unfair to expect him or her to read yours.
  • Look at all options. Let yourself really try on various ideas before judging them.
  • Be clear about the difference between wants and needs — for example, you may need to make a move to advance your career but you may only want to live in a particular city. If you compromise on wants, there is more room for needs.
  • Take the long view. Look at a five-year plan. Make sure both people’s career goals are being advanced over time.
  • Build in time to nurture and support your relationship. A good relationship is even harder to find than a good job.
  • Appreciate sacrifices. Make sure you take turns making them so neither gets resentful.
  • Don’t come to closure on a decision too quickly. Take the time to get to a decision you can both live with.
  • Respect each other’s dreams and share the daily support tasks that make them possible.
Teamwork for Two-Career Couples

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Teamwork for Two-Career Couples. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.