How to work with a spouse without damaging your marriage
Can a relationship survive when professional jealousy takes hold?
Ten years ago, Kylie Lewis was on top of the world.
Her boss had just given her the go-ahead to start a new department, she got to lead her very own major project and she got her dream office.
“When they gave me my own team, we moved to this hub, where along the back wall … it was just all glass, overlooking the city,” the 38-year old recalls. “It was where all the ‘important’ people had their offices and, finally, I got my own.”
Soon after, her husband applied to work at the same company. When Ms Lewis’s boss asked her if that would be OK, she said it would be fine, as long as he didn’t, “work on my floor or have the same boss”.
But after six months, her husband gradually migrated to her floor, and then to a desk outside her glass office. And then Ms Lewis got pregnant with their first daughter.
“I went on maternity leave for a year, and arranged to come back part time for two days a week,” she says.
“They didn’t know what to do with me: I was too senior to be demoted, but working too few days to go back to my old role. So they made me the project manager of some random project instead”.
The worst, however, was the moment she was shown her new desk: right outside her old office.
“They just sat me in the same spot my husband had occupied before I left for mat leave, and he had taken over my beautiful glass office. I also lost my carpark, which really upset me — I fought really hard to earn those perks.”
Gender roles still entrenched
Ms Lewis is not alone. With women today more educated than ever, their qualifications, expectations and desire to work in fulfilling professional roles are the same as men’s.
Highly educated women also tend to marry men of similar education, resulting in more relationships comprised of two professional equals, often holding similar career and work aspirations.
And while there are many positives to such arrangements, they can also bring with them a uniquely contemporary problem: when you have two similarly ambitious and educated individuals, what happens when one’s career takes off — and the partner’s stagnates?
Women, for decades, have been sold the idea they can do whatever they want.
In Australia, they have also been outnumbering men at university since 1987.
According to the latest Housing Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, traditional gender roles are still firmly entrenched when it comes to men earning more money and women caring for children — and having a less-lucrative career.
In recent times, a disproportionate share of income has gone to jobs that women can feel excluded from — long-hour, inflexible jobs in “greedy professions”, such as law, finance and consulting.
And while women are more likely to be employed in the early stages of their career, when it comes to senior positions, they drop off.
This means many smart, talented women can end up watching their partners working their dream jobs.
No point resenting your partner
Paul Wiseman, a counsellor at Relationships Australia Victoria, says it’s important for couples in these situations to sit down and talk extensively about what each other needs.
“At the end of the day, a lot of it revolves around each person feeling that they can table some of their thoughts, concerns and experiences, and that those concerns get listened to and acknowledged and not watered down and minimised,” he says.
“It’s very hard to generalise, but I do think an awful lot of it is about the extent to which one feels they talk about whatever the issue happens to be, and that they can be reasonably confident that that’s going to be responded to in a validating way, rather than a reductive and minimising way.”
Career counsellor and psychologist Tina Papadakos says while it can be difficult to be with a person who is doing your dream work, it’s more productive to focus on, “what you want, identify the steps you might need to take to get there, recognise the potential obstacles that make it difficult and adopt a growth mindset to explore possible solutions”.
“Rather than resent your partner for doing what they are doing, take action,” she says.
“My suggestion is to stop comparing yourself to your partner, or others. We often look at someone we deem to be exceptionally successful, think that they have it all together, envy their position and aspire to be in their shoes.”
Not just, but mostly, women
While women overwhelmingly bear the brunt of professional stagnation, it can happen to men too.
For Andy Moylan, 49, it can sometimes be difficult to hear about his wife’s job in fine foods and wine marketing.
A local government employee in South Australia, Mr Moylan has been in his job for close to a decade. And while he enjoys his work, his passion has always been agribusiness, from paddock to plate.
When his wife, Ali, got pregnant, Mr Moylan put his dreams on hold.
“My vision of where I’d be going changed quickly and I became quite risk averse, meaning that I wanted to settle into stability,” he says.
“A job came along in local government which paid pretty well, had stability and was also a dynamic job, working with good people.”
Ms Moylan, meanwhile, stayed at home and looked after their sons for the next seven years, only getting back into the workforce a few years ago. The job, however, just happened to be in her husband’s dream field.
“I loved hearing about her work, because there was a big supply chain, different stakeholders, the marketing had to be quick and dynamic to respond to whatever was happening in the culinary industry,” he says.
“When she talked about it I would be running ideas through my head, thinking this is how I’d approach it. I wanted to know it all: what was innovative, the strategic direction they could be taking, or understanding their financials to a certain point.”
And while Mr Moylan enjoyed the intellectual challenge of thinking up strategies for his wife’s job, he admits there is a little envy there, too.
“There was a bit of angst and I wish I could have even had a bit of a role there, pick up a project they were working on, work on that gratis, have a bit of direct understanding about the work.”
From the ‘boss’ to ‘Trent’s wife’
For Ms Lewis, watching her husband’s career skyrocket took a big toll on her mental health.
“I know it wasn’t his fault but he is a middle-aged, white, straight man, and here’s me looking after his babies watching his career skyrocket,” she says.
And while she was proud of her husband’s success, she eventually decided to leave the company for the sake of her own wellbeing — and the good of her relationship.
“It was one of those situations that made me resentful on the inside — towards my husband’s career and the situation in general — but not at him personally,” she says.
One of the more difficult aspects of being back at work part-time was the transition from being introduced as the boss to, “Trent’s wife”.
“I saw the shift from my husband being introduced as “Kylie’s husband” … even though I’d been there for 15 years and once had his job,” she says.
Structural change needed
Mr Wiseman points out the system itself is generally not set up to support women going back into the workplace.
“There needs to be structural change. Leaving it up to the individuals and couples to work out with not a whole lot of structural support is not ideal,” he says.
Many couples don’t even talk about who will stay home “until the parenting equation comes into the picture.
“Each person can be working away at their employment and things are reasonably simple, but when you throw children and parenting into the mix, it becomes a lot less simple, quickly.”
Mr Wiseman says that today, it’s still women who tend to bear the brunt of the “who stays at home” dilemma, which results often in them either leaving the workforce entirely or finding a part-time job while the man’s career takes the front seat.