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Dr Isabelle Hung

Guest blogger and clinical psychologist, Dr Isabelle Hung, discusses the importance of discussing your career goals with your other halves. 

It’s a well-known fact that our careers can adversely affect relationships with our other halves. The long hours, the related stress and constantly having to cancel social engagements at short notice. Such relentless disruptions can often result in petty squabbles, which in turn morph into bigger bust-ups or worst still relationships completely breaking down.

We talk far less, however, about the impact our relationships at home can have on our careers.  A recent study by researchers at City University revealed how husbands feel a buzz if a pay rise widens the gap between their earnings and those of their lower-paid spouses.  In stark contrast women get no such kick if the roles are reversed (Dr Vanessa Gash & Dr Anke Plagnol, 2020).  In essence, it would seem that whilst women have enhanced their earning potential through gaining better education, men’s attitudes appear not to have kept up pace with this enormous sea change.

This finding has real implications for ambitious career women.  Your partners might not be as supportive as you had initially hoped for, or indeed, expected in today’s progressive society.  Many men may not even realise they hold such an outdated attitude until your career properly starts taking off.

There are also many other reasons why a partner of either gender might not support your career ambitions.  For instance, they may think it takes you away from family commitments too much or too often.  Whilst if you have matching jobs, or are in the same profession and on similar career trajectories, they might even start covertly competing with you.

There are some subtle tell-tale signs that your partner may be resenting your career success.  For instance, they may advise against going for certain opportunities, encouraging you instead to embrace parenthood. They may also play down your achievements or simply be in a bad mood if you have to work late.  Alternatively, your partner might start pushing themselves harder, trying to keep pace and/or close the pay gap.

A different study from Bath University, on the other hand, showed men are most stressed in relationships when they are the sole breadwinners and the majority felt comfortable when their partners earned 40% (but not more!) of what they are paid.  That leaves women in bit quandary – are they earning too much or too little?

Attitudes to family life have also changed for both men and women alike.  Men increasingly want to be more involved with childcare but may feel the pressure of being the sole breadwinner.

Money aside, men and women are likely to have different and indeed potentially conflicting ideas about their respective roles in a relationship.  And what these studies confirm is that it’s not enough to assume both sexes believe in equality.  It remains the case that many women do the lion’s share of housework and childcare.  This is one way to sustain the gender pay gap, as it distracts women from their careers, while men are able to keep pursuing their career ambitions.

It’s essential for couples to openly discuss with each other their career ambitions and attitudes to any potential pay gap between them, especially if the woman already earns more or will do so over time.  For instance, how else can the man in a relationship find ways to feel more valued at home, and enable him to maintain a sense of purpose and self-esteem?

With some careful thought, couples can help each other in reaching career goals. But often they are not sufficiently explicit in what support each of them needs.  It is typically never enough to assume your partner will want whatever makes you happy.  It is also not sufficient to simply say, “I want you to take equal responsibility for housework” and then assume everything will automatically fall into place.  For starters, you might have very different attitudes to cleanliness or childcare. You may also have different levels of culinary or ironing skills!

It can be arduous to sit down and divide up chores, and to be specific about your needs. In my work, however, I regularly see individuals who expect their partners to “mind read” their needs and are then left disappointed.

If your career is important to you, the key is to approach and discuss your home life goals and responsibilities, in the same way as you would want clarity over your job description and an employer’s expectations of you.

Dr Isabelle Hung is a Clinical Psychologist who is part of the Schoen Clinic and the University College London multidisciplinary teams.  She also Dr Hung studied at Oxford University and Essex University with a particular focus on adapting different therapies to best suit the needs of the individual. She specialises in working with adults and adolescents with anxiety, depression and relationship difficulties, as well as working with individuals with chronic pain.