Conversations about work are 'not in the bedroom, not last thing at night and not at breakfast.'

Getting ahead in your career can be a tough task for anyone, but for couples who share a career path, navigating can be even trickier.

Of course, there’s an obvious upside: such couples can tap into each other’s networks, be more understanding of the demands of the other’s career and help each other rise the ranks.

But these twosomes — think two lawyers working at big firms on the partner track or two professors both seeking tenure — can find themselves at odds or filled with resentment when one partner gets promoted and the other doesn’t or when one has an opportunity that impedes on the other’s career growth. If not carefully managed, it’s easy for resentment and unhealthy competition to set in.

As workplace norms on romantic relationships have relaxed, many couples find themselves seeking advice on how to get ahead. Understanding how to balance the professional connection and competition, while avoiding trouble at home, is key.

“You have an interlocutor for your entire life, someone who knows the demands and pleasures of your work,” when you work in the same career, said Londa Schiebinger, professor of history of science at Stanford University, who has studied academic couples. At Stanford about 13% of faculty are partnered with another faculty member. On the other hand, it can be easy to feel like you’re lagging behind your partner’s success when you share a career path.

When Zuzana Galova and Peter Sedlacik, both advertising executives in Croatia, moved to Sydney, they started an agency together to help small Australian businesses with their advertising needs. Galova said each of them now has a greater understanding of the other person’s professional needs, making it easier to feel OK about late hours and other sometimes-tricky work situations that couples in different careers might face.

Then there are the drawbacks and guilt. When, say, Galova works more hours than Sedlacik, he often feels he isn’t contributing enough — and vice versa. What’s more, working in the same field, at the same company and living in the same house makes it difficult to find time to simply be alone, Galova said.

“We are still trying to get some work-life balance,” she said.

The benefits

For many same-career couples, one big benefit is an expanded network. Together, they’ve got the power of two professional networks, Schiebinger said.  

“In my experience a lot of women still network with other women and men tend to network among men,” she said. “Now, you could cross those lines.”

For many people, working with strangers creates trust issues that don’t arise when working with or in the same industry as your significant other, said Christian Garcia, co-owner of Vero Patisserie in Florida.

For example, Garcia’s partner, Mark Edmonds, is in charge of the baking, while Garcia runs the front of house. When customers don’t like a new product or have other criticism of the food, he can give Edmonds an honest critique without seeming malicious or out to get him.

“It helps us have a much more well-rounded look at what we’re doing in our business,” Garcia said.

Tricky balance at home

Personal relationships can be tough to maintain when couples have the same career, Jennifer Brunner said. She and her husband are both attorneys. The couple, married for 35 years, avoids talking about work during quality time at home, said Brunner, who is also a politician and an appeals judge in Columbus, Ohio, in the US. Conversations about work are “not in the bedroom, not last thing at night and not at breakfast,” she added.

At the same time, Brunner said, there’s an inherent understanding about the demands of the job, which can help each person feel less guilty when work demands rise. For example, when their daughter was involved a school bus accident years ago, Brunner’s husband Rick sprung into action while she was at an important deposition. “He didn’t say, ‘why don’t you go get her,’ he understood immediately,” she said.

Because people spend much of their lives at work, too-similar careers can present another problem: too little to be excited about, said Lisa Marie Bobby, founder of Growing Self Coaching in Denver.

“For couples who have so much overlap in their lives, [the relationship] tends to get stagnant pretty quickly,” said Bobby, who works with clients in the US and across Europe. “It makes couples vulnerable to ‘emotional fusion’ — the experience of being overly dependent on and reactive to each other's ups and downs.”

Focusing on different hobbies and interests outside of work than one another can make for more exciting dinner conversation and create more intrigue in the relationship. Cultivating different hobbies and relationships can help partners retain a sense of individuality, which can later be shared with the other person.  

Healthy competition

Same-career couples can use their status to their advantage by harnessing a healthy sense of competition with each other. Knowing your partner is achieving additional success can subtly push you to work harder, Bobby said.

“Sometimes competition can help,” she said. To keep the competition at healthy levels, rather than constantly comparing yourself to your partner, Bobby recommends that each person set individual goals and celebrate their own achievements. “Ask yourself, ‘how am I doing compared to where I was six months ago?’” she said. This can help avoid comparing yourself to a partner’s success and dismissing your own — and becoming resentful.

Stanford’s Schiebinger, whose husband, Robert Proctor, is also a historian of science at Stanford said there can be a teamwork element to a same-career relationship, something she and her husband have achieved. They celebrate one another’s successes. Looking back, she said the fact that they’ve both built successful careers, even if it wasn’t always equal, has cut down on feelings of resentment. Cheering each other on has been a part of that.

“We are both incredibly distinguished, so we saw [each other’s successes] more as the whole ship rises,” she said.

Throwing in the towel

At times, having the same career can actually spell real trouble for a marriage. For one, unequal salaries can bring on a constant feeling of resentment. When it comes to comparing financial success, having empathy is crucial.

“Imagine how you would feel if their accomplishments were yours, and use that to express genuine happiness for them,” Bobby said. Rather than being jealous of a spouse that earns more, use the higher salary as inside information to help negotiate your own pay increase, she added.

With varying levels of career success, it’s especially common for partners to start feeling toxic emotions toward each other. To ease friction at home, it can sometimes be necessary for one partner go into a slightly different direction and eliminate the direct career competition.

Not all partners are willing to sacrifice their career, Bobby said.  Frequent fighting, hyper-competiveness and constantly hurt feelings can all be telltale signs that it’s time for a drastic change either at home or at work.

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