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Sharing the load in a working marriage

Amid the avalanche of news around Kamala Harris, what has got eclipsed is that by Inauguration Day, her husband Doug Emhoff, the 'second gentleman', will give up his private law practice to support her (Photo: Reuters)Premium
Amid the avalanche of news around Kamala Harris, what has got eclipsed is that by Inauguration Day, her husband Doug Emhoff, the 'second gentleman', will give up his private law practice to support her (Photo: Reuters)

  • What does it take for the man to pack his bags and move with the woman, whose career demands it, without feeling diminished in any way? Dual-career couples are increasingly having to navigate these waters
  • It is vital both partners have unreserved acceptance when exploring alternate career options for the accompanying spouse

Kamala Harris’ path-breaking milestone, one spanning gender, race and ethnicity, in US political history was quite naturally welcomed with loud shout-outs. What got eclipsed was a significant piece of related news—that by Inauguration Day, her husband Doug Emhoff, the “second gentleman", will give up his lucrative private law practice to support her career and focus on his role at the White House.

As the vice president-elect and her husband prepare to move into No.1 Observatory Circle, the “gender switch" and visible spousal endorsement triggers many different prototypes of dual careers in a marriage/relationship when the wife’s’ career is poised for a significant take-off.

Here are some examples from my “experience war-chest":

Case I: She walked into my office all excited with a coveted opportunity in the US. The bets were big enough, they jointly decided, for the husband to give up his steady job in the public sector and move. After all, the visa status allowed for spousal work. But the reality on the ground was different. His past experience did not really provide for career resilience. The combined struggles of a single salary, a sudden stay-at-home-dad status and settling-in pressure of a new continent put undue strain on the family. Result: a premature end to the assignment and a return to India, broken in spirit, with a tough job search on hand for the husband.

Case II: She was in the Foreign Service, he worked in publishing. The contours of the marriage were known when they finally took the plunge. She would relocate and he would follow suit, working virtually from whichever country they called home. But within a few relocations, as the reality of “uprooting and restarting" dawned on him, the cracks began to appear. Taking a cue from the 2017 Harvard Business Review article, “If You Can’t Find a Spouse Who Supports Your Career, Stay Single", that “professionally ambitious women really only have two options when it comes to their personal partners — a super-supportive partner or no partner at all", she decided to call it quits on the marriage.

Case III: In a spoiler alert, I must say in this case the arrangement has been a success. The wife has moved countries, in a fast rising MNC career. His conscious decision to switch to a “portfolio" career, that is location agnostic, and even unrelated to his academic degree and his unstinting support in shouldering a large part of the household tasks, have been critical success factors, both in marital harmony and her career progression.

Gender roles they play

In the evolution of dual-career marriages, traditionally it was the woman who always moved if the man took on assignments in other locations. For example, a whole generation of women in banking and insurance chose to remain in the clerical cadres since promotions meant transfers and rocking the marital boat. They also gave up exciting prospects if it meant moving out of the current home (read man’s) location. Now, as the economic stakes have grown, and social equality too, dual-career couples are increasingly choosing to live in different locations if their careers so demand without either one having to give up a good prospect. But what if the family wants to have the cake and eat it too—in this case, progress a very lucrative career for the woman and get to stay as a family unit? What does it call for the man to pack his bags and move with her without feeling diminished in any way? What worked and what didn’t in all the cases above?

The first and foremost is an unreserved acceptance by both parties that this is the way forward for a defined period of time, an acceptance based on a desire to ensure the wife has the career she loves, it best meets the economic aspirations of the family or even allows the man to shed the traditional responsibility of “providing" for the household and explore other interests.

It also calls for self-confidence and conviction, especially from the man, in addressing gender stereotypes—“voices of dissent" may come from many quarters, not least from the immediate family—while, of course, actively sharing the housework load.

An open mind is absolutely critical when exploring alternate career options for the accompanying spouse. Sabbaticals do not always mean stay at home. A high-profile banker took to teaching what he always loved, English literature, when he moved continents with his wife. Another took to football coaching and someone embraced boutique catering.

Organizations too are getting increasingly aware and sensitive to these dimensions, helping in finding either within or in the physical vicinity suitable work opportunities for the man. In a famous example that shall not be named, an academic institution in its quest to retain the woman, secured a fellowship for the spouse who was himself a highly ranked administrative official.

These diverse experiences not only enrich the competencies of the person but also, in the practical sense, allow him to stay relevant and au courant should he wish to re-enter his traditional career stream.

Of course, it’s not all smooth sailing. Mutual empathy is the name of the game. Watch out the signs—withdrawal, mood swings, passive resistance, non-stop TV watching or gaming, they are all lead indicators that everything is not hunky dory in the supposed paradise the family has relocated to. They need to be identified and addressed jointly without an escapist attitude.

In an article, “How Much Ambition Can a Marriage Sustain?" in The Atlantic, the authors found that many high-achieving women have husbands who have opted out of or scaled back their careers. Truly, there are men who are willing to give up their jobs and accompany their wives across the globe, supporting their ambitions and career trajectories while either quitting their job or putting it on hold or starting afresh in the new location. These spouses are fully aware that they may not find employment in that city or country or in even in the industry they prefer. Yet, there they are voting with their feet. Of course, while the choice may be easier when the stakes are high, it can and does work for others too.

The important call-out here is not about the decision to work or not to work, or who focuses on a career and who does not. It is about how couples address the woman moving into a significant role change, which disrupts the partner’s experience system, and how they navigate those waters. Finally, it is about how they are able to look at it not as two separate careers but as a single one, with each supporting the other, depending on the context.

Hema Ravichandar is a strategic HR consultant. She serves as an independent director and advisory board member for several organizations.

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