I read a recent New York Times article that discusses the effect of the narrowing gender pay gap. Couples are typically earning similar salaries (and women are more frequently earning more than their spouses), and this is having subtle effects on the partnerships. For one, wives with higher salaries statistically contribute far more to housework and child care than do their partners. For another, the article provides anecdotal evidence from a psychologist that women will "compensate" by working to advance their husbands' careers, at the expense of their own. The psychologist notes that marital conflict can be especially exacerbated if "the woman loses respect for the man and the man feels insecure about his role in the family."
"Bill Doherty, a marriage therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota, said he had seen women who were more professionally successful than their husbands compensate by building up their husbands’ careers and playing down their own."
This tension was portrayed (in the extreme) in season three of House of Cards. In the finale, Claire and Frank fight over her role in their marriage. Claire ultimately leaves Frank, after saying to him:
For all these years, I thought were were on this path together. But it's not what I thought it would be. What I convinced myself it would be... We used to make each other stronger, or at least I thought so. But that was a lie. We were making you stronger. And now I'm just weak and small, and I can't stand that feeling any longer."
The article unfortunately does not provide any insights or advice to couples who may face these subconscious effects on their partnership. How do you prevent the slow, insidious feelings of insecurity or resentment? What do you do if you think that you are 'compensating' by focusing on your partner's career? How do you tell your partner that you are frustrated that your career is being stalled at the expense of theirs?
My view is that professional couples need be mindful of how their careers and ambitions can impact their relationship. They need to be open with one another about their thoughts, feelings, and opinions about their ambitions. But this can be a difficult topic to broach, especially for the first time. We may not feel comfortable sharing our true feelings, so we may avoid the conversation, or it may devolve into a fight. We may also not be fully aware of these feelings about our "role" within a relationship (roles that are all too often deeply socialized and therefore subconscious). I therefore strongly advocate for professional couples to work with a counsellor or therapist who can help them navigate these tricky waters. A trained professional will have many years of schooling and experience in mediation, and they are especially versed in posing thoughtful questions to tease out subconscious views of yourself, your partner, and your 'role' within the relationship. Talk to your HR rep, because your workplace likely has some form of employee assistance to help you find and afford a counsellor. Counselling with a trained therapist can be extremely beneficial to the health and strength of your relationship, especially if there is any degree of tension being caused by divergent career paths. Even where there are no obvious signs of stress on your relationship, counselling can help you learn to better communicate with your partner.