How Your Marriage Can Make or Break Your Career

How Your Marriage Can Make or Break Your Career | Tips for balancing marriage with the career you want.

In my coaching work, I’ve developed a framework called the “3M’s” – Marriage, Motherhood, and Military Life. The bottom line is that military spouses who want a sustainable career need to find a fit between career and these three potential pulls on their time and commitment. When any one of these factors is out of alignment, establishing or maintaining a career will feel like an uphill battle. Marriage is the first key to career success, because being on the same page with our spouse is a vital part of realizing the life we want for ourselves.

Two participants in my research study bring the relationship between marriage and career to life. Olivia is the wife of a senior NCO, who has worked regularly at each assignment during their 26-year marriage. She stayed home briefly while their children were young, but it was her husband who said to her, “You aren’t happy when you aren’t working. You need a job.” From that day forward she always held a job and her husband made the commitment to be home with the children when she worked evenings. Looking back on her achievements over the years, she says, “Thank God I have a husband who wants me to be my own person.”

On the other hand, Brenda is a spouse who is frustrated by her situation. She gladly left her accounting career to stay home with her children for a few years, but then was eager to work again when they were in elementary school. She found a job that met her needs for flexibility and allowed her to work from home, and still be available for her kids after school. To her it was an ideal scenario and she loved the work. However, her husband didn’t like the new routine or how chaotic the house seemed as a result. He asked her to resign, and she complied reluctantly. Now she believes she may never attempt to work again. She regrets falling into a pattern where she became the one that had to “pick up all the stuff” for the family, and her husband felt no responsibility at home because of his “excuse job” in the military. She wishes she had listened to the advice she received when she first got married: “If you don’t want to mow the lawn for the next 40 years, don’t start doing it now.”

So what can you do if you find yourself feeling like Brenda but would like to be more like Olivia?

The real answer is communicating with your spouse and not holding back what your needs and expectations are. And of course listen for his needs and expectations as well. Find common ground and question the assumptions you might be holding about each other. Forging and keeping agreements about how you will both contribute to housework and childcare is essential to your sanity and to your ability to have a career.

Of course the challenges of aligning marriage and career are not unique to military spouses. I was inspired to write about this after reading a recent article by a former professor of mine. (See Robin Ely et al., Harvard Business Review, December 2014). Ely’s study found that a high percentage of business school alumnae have suffered dissatisfaction with their careers because they expected egalitarian marriages, but instead found themselves in marriages where they have taken on the majority of the childcare. Ely notes that the prevailing wisdom these days is to tell women to “lean in” to achieve career success. In contrast, she focuses on the marriage part of the equation, and tells women not to let their husbands off the hook. Her advice is “make your partner a true partner.” I couldn’t agree more.

Michelle offers individual and group coaching for career-oriented military spouses. Contact her for your complimentary coaching session.

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