“What do you do?”
I love to ask this question when I meet someone new—at parties, at the gym, at the dog park. I’m insanely curious about how people make a living, especially when their world is so different than my own.
But the question, “What do you do?” takes on extra meaning when we become interested in someone as a potential mate. What they do—his or her line of work, level of ambition, earnings, the stress and hours of their job—all affect us.
Career-related conflict is common among couples. It’s often not pretty.
Your company wants to transfer you to Calgary as a promotion? But I’m up for a promotion here in Halifax, and moving would kill my own career.
Why are you on my case? You knew when we met that I wanted to make it as an actor. I know we can’t afford a vacation, but that’s life.
This is the third night in a row you’ve worked late. What’s more important? Me or your job?
So, how can couples have an honest conversation about what they expect from each other’s careers? Here are three questions to ask your partner.
Do you care about the type of work I do?
Ask your partner whether your line of work matters to them. Would they support you (both emotionally and financially) in taking a job that paid far less if it fed your purpose, or would they expect you to earn as much as possible so you can take nice holidays? Would they feel the same pride whether you were a senior executive at the bank or the assistant to the senior executive? How ambitious do they expect you to be?
Would your partner feel comfortable if your job required you to be flirtatious with others, like a bartender, or one that is less safe like a machine operator? What about the ethics of your job—if you make a lot of money selling products that damage the environment, would they love you just the same? And if your work required long days and weekends, would they keep the home fires burning, or want to set you ablaze when you walked in the door?
Do you care if I have the bigger career?
Ask your partner whether they would feel jealous or resentful if you had bigger ambitions, or made more money than them. It used to be a given that the male partner (in a heterosexual relationship) would have the bigger career. Now, women are gaining ground in both education and income and more and more do not want to be taking a back seat to someone else’s career. Some men and women still don’t feel comfortable when the woman is the higher earner. One study found that women are less likely to marry men who earn less, but when they do get married they seek jobs below their potential—perhaps not to upstage their husbands.
Will you make sacrifices to support my career?
Ask your partner what sacrifices they are prepared to make to support your career ambitions. For instance, would they be willing to do more housework and childcare if you worked more hours, had a longer commute, or greater work demands? Would they be willing to move to another city, and uproot their life and possibly stall their own career? Would you expect them to? How will you work it out fairly if you both have a high need for career advancement?
Of course we fall in love with our partners for who they are. But what they do is important too because it makes such a big difference to our own life and career.