Episode 120: Does Your Partner Support Your Success?

Show transcript:

 Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…two career couples are everywhere. It’s the norm in much of the western world. But does each half truly support the other?

“I'm hearing that more and more, that not only is there a reluctance or a discomfort when women are making more than men in a relationship but it's actually hurting relationships.”

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised…

“The 20th century was the rise of women, the 21st century is the adaptation of everybody else to that rise…companies, countries, and men, and it’s gonna be a little complicated, right? It’s gonna take a few more generations. People who keep thinking that this is gonna happen in one generation, no way.”

Coming up, how careers and relationships intertwine.   

A few months ago I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review with this provocative title: If You Can’t Find a Spouse Who Supports Your Career, Stay Single. When I got in a discussion with some of you about this on Facebook recently – and you were all women…your responses varied from, well of course…to ‘support can mean a lot of different things’ to ‘men just see it as a given that women will support THEIR careers.’

And as I was starting to work on this show, one of you introduced me to my first guest.

AM-T: “So just to kick off, tell me for the record, tell me your name and what you do.”

“Diane Reichenberger, and I’m the CP global vice president for Mattel.”

CP stands for consumer products and Mattel is the toy company that gave us Barbie, among other many other brands.

Diane is based in LA, she’s 57, and she mentors a lot of younger women at the company.

And she says it’s a common theme among her highly educated, ambitious mentees that their boyfriends are…not exactly celebrating their progress. She says one young woman she mentored was dating a guy who was in the military – he’d been in Iraq…she waited for him, they talked about marriage…

“And when he returned after I think two tours they moved in together. Her career continued to grow and bloom, she was growing exponentially, and he shared with her that he did not want to get married until he made more money than she did.”

Diane was stunned. For one thing this woman had supported her boyfriend for years while he was abroad. But yes, the woman was earning more – and Diane says that was gonna be the case for some time, given he was starting from scratch after leaving the military.  

“And she had a very good job at this point making quite a bit of money for someone her age because she was so good, and we had promoted her several times. So it really got me thinking about is this something that's common or is this something that you know is somewhat unusual? So as I've been working with many young women and mentoring them, we mostly talk about careers, but certainly their personal life comes into it as they're thinking about and advocating the start, navigating the start of a family. And I'm hearing that more and more, that not only is there a reluctance or a discomfort when women are making more than men in a relationship but it's actually hurting relationships.”

That particular couple – they ended up breaking up. And she’s heard plenty of other stories like that from her mentees. And some newer survey data shows younger millennial men have more traditional views about women staying home than a previous generation did.

But data on this topic can be contradictory. I just saw a survey from the website Fairygodboss about money in heterosexual relationships. According to that survey, the vast majority of women and men said they WOULD choose to be in a long-term relationship with someone who earned a lot more then they did. But when the question was flipped – would you choose to be in a long-term relationship with someone who earns a lot LESS than you? 80% of men said sure, only 51 percent of women did.

There was an interesting piece in Refinery 29 last year about millennial women’s discomfort with being the main breadwinner in their relationships. On the other hand, some of you told me you earn more than your husband or boyfriend – and that it’s fine, or great. One listener said it did feel like a lot of pressure, being the main earner, but that she and her husband were true partners, each bringing different strengths to the relationship. A few of you said it had taken some getting used to, this dynamic, but that it was working well for your family. Someone else said she loved earning more and her boyfriend was happy because he loved his low-paying job.

Talking of support, Diane is the main breadwinner in her partnership…

“I am actually married to a woman. And it is amazing, and I love her very much and she has a job but not a full time job, so she is in the entertainment industry and she works on TV sets, and so consequently she has hiatus from time to time that she has time off to really do a lot of projects around the house. And overall though she is the one taking care of the household. I work longer hours and full time and travel, and she does the grocery shopping, she does the cooking. She packs my lunch every day. She makes wonderful dinners. We have a dog, we have no children. She takes care of the dog, who's a senior dog. But she also does all the cleaning, she does the house maintenance, and we have a very nurturing and loving relationship."

AM-T: “It does sound fantastic, but you truly do have a wife, she’s your wife, but you also have a traditional wife – the person who looks after everything outside of work.”

“Yeah, it's amazing [laughs]. I’m quite happy about it. I know. My mother often says to me, Well, what would you do if you and Sharon weren't together? I was like, I would have to hire full time staff, I would have to have a house cleaner and a cook and a car mechanic, a handyman. So yeah, I feel very fortunate. And it's just a really nice balance for the two of us. And she's doing what she loves and she likes what she does in her career. But also she loves to be home and she really wants to contribute in a way that's meaningful for our family to be healthy and happy. I never feel guilty for my success and for what I need to do for my job. And it takes the stress completely out of any of those moments. I feel really grateful.”

But what about couples who both work fulltime?  Studies suggest that in many same sex couples, there’s a more equitable division of labor at home than there is in heterosexual couples. The study I looked at online was by the Families and Work Institute from 2015. And what they found was that among male and female couples, gender, income and hours worked predicted who did more stereotypically ‘male’ chores vs. ‘female’ chores at home, including childcare. And in same-sex couples they found that income and hours worked…those weren’t reliable guarantees of how each half of the couple spent his or her time at home. It was notable how much more likely same-sex couples were to share routine childcare and sick childcare – in male/female working couples the woman was much likelier to be the one spending most time with kids.

I corresponded with a listener in England about this. She’s in her late twenties and she told me she and her wife share pretty much everything at home. And she said they are equally supportive of eachother’s careers. She told me each of them had talked about moving abroad for the other’s job.

Diane says among the female, dual-earner couples in her life…

“I will say what I love about a lot of these relationships is just the care and nurture with which, how they're conducting their lives, especially with women…we in general tend to be more caretakers, nurturers, and so consequently when you're in a healthy relationship with another woman at least the women that I know, there is a lot more give and take and a lot more flexibility. And there's not the competition or the threat and the worry that you're being perceived as weaker than or not enough or not as good because the other person is successful. I think it's kind of like how you operate even in the workplace when you set your ego aside, and it's really about all of you rising together and everyone doing well and the collaborative team environment and really complementing and being excited about your colleagues or your team members who are successful and growing, I mean when everyone's doing well everyone's happier and it’s a much more pleasant environment to work in and to live in.”

Coming up, how do you achieve that kind of equilibrium in a partnership…and why flattery is so important – both at work, and at home.

Avivah Wittenberg- Cox is a Canadian who’s spent most of her adult life in Europe. She lived in Paris for 30 years, now she’s based in London. She runs a company called 20 First. It works with businesses to get their leadership teams more balanced, gender-wise. She’s been on the show a couple of times before, and our conversations have always been stimulating. The first time was in episode 41, Stop Fixing Women, Start Fixing Companies.

Her latest book is a bit of a departure from her usual theme of gender in business. It’s called Late Love – Mating in Maturity.

Avivah married in her late 20s, and had her first child at 30. She and her husband both had successful careers. But in her forties, she began to feel restless and unfulfilled. At 50, she left her marriage. 5 years later she is re-married and living in a new country. Her experience got her thinking and writing about how dual-career couples weather the years together – how their relationships change over time, who supports whom, and in what way.

AM-T: “Before the book came out you wrote this piece in the Harvard Business Review and the title is, ‘If you can’t find a spouse who supports your career stay single’…talk about that for a minute, it was total clickbait for me.”

“Well I didn’t write that title, it’s actually less prescriptive than it sounds, it’s simply something I’ve noticed. For all the successful career women I’ve tracked, as I watch their careers evolve I’ve noticed that was the choice they ended up with in life – either their partners were really excited by their success and helped them and were full partners in applauding and championing them. The other kind of partner some of them had were a little bit more challenged by their success or resented a little bit the limelight their wives enjoyed. Those were the types of, the kinds of partners and marriages that ended up breaking up. So it’s not that I’m telling women to check all this out before they hitch up – and it’s very hard to predict, even the men involved I think don’t necessarily know how they’re going to react if their wives hit the bigtime.”

AM-T: “When you were researching the book, you mention in this piece in particular that you were talking to women of various different ages. Because one of the things I was going to ask you is, is this just relevant to people who are in their 50s, who are like you, who did things the ‘right ‘way, the way women are told we’re supposed to do it…have kids young, while you’re still fertile…is this only relevant to people who have done that and are now looking around them in their 50s or 60s, or are there younger women you met who are facing some of the things you faced?”

“Well I think we all face it, right, whether or not you’re going to transition through relationships or make your relationship stick is always a question no matter where you are in life; part of the book is about learning to transition better through relationships, how to leave well,  how to love better the next time around, you learn from every relationship, that you can grow and get deeper and get more of what you and other person need in your next relationship…it’s mostly a book that explores and validates the whole idea that transitioning emotionally in our personal lives might become a little more common, as it is in our professional lives. We used to stick to one career or employer for many decades. That has changed quite dramatically. I think we might see a parallel evolution in our emotional lives and on the partner front, although I note that despite what the media keeps saying, among the educated, divorce rates have plummeted over the last 30 years, and what the book is pointing out is that the only increase in divorce is in this age group of the 50s and 60s…and I do think most women do choose if they can to stay pretty committed during the childrearing years because that’s what priority is, to get those kids whole and healthy and grown. But then the choice becomes a little bit more, what’s good for me?”

She says in her own marriage her former husband was supportive of her career…

“...in all ways he thought he could be and was raised to be. I do think there’s a slightly threatening element which is largely unconscious for I think many of the men I interviewed…is when the dinner party chatter starts focusing on the wife’s career or the wife’s themes…I also work in gender issues which is a hot-button topic at any dinner party, and people can understandably get tired of that, and I do think that we are – my husband was very focused on the family and wanted to draw more attention to the family at a time when kids were growing up and leaving and it was time to re-focus on the couple, and we didn’t do that well enough in my mind and he wasn’t as interested in exploring those opportunities I was. So. And what I’ve heard, I think these boomer men were raised with a very different set of expectations…to work hard, to be bread winners, to be responsible co-parents, but they have not been raised to be emotionally open, sensitive, intimate and sharing and I think in our later years when we are mating in maturity I think that’s what a lot of older women are yearning for – deeper, broader, more intimate.”

AM-T: “You do talk actually about – you were at a dinner party with 8 women, 35 to 74, one had a promotion in another country, had really struggled to get her husband to join her, another, had decided to save her marriage she had to take a sabbatical and go back to school because she didn’t think the marriage had room for two careers, and there were other stories like that…so maybe this is still happening across the board with younger couples?”

“Yeah, well the whole dual career issue is absolutely fraught, right, especially with a corporate world that’s asking more and more and more of its people, and you throw a few kids into the mix, and two corporate careers in parallel are almost impossible. My next HBR blog is about different models of family careers that will work better than these two competitive, parallel tracks. But I think you have to be clearer than most couples are about how are we gonnna manage two successful careers, what are the terms of engagement, what kind of support do we need from eachother, what kind of timings do we want, what kind of parents do we want to be? What are the rules of engagement? And to make them as explicit as possible so there aren’t misunderstandings. Because I think very commonly – I teach an MBA class in France – what struck me was all these kids, who are an average age 28, come from traditional families, parents, so bread earner father, caretaker mother for 80% of them, all of them expect to be in dual career couples with two kids. And that’s not that easy to design successfully…and some of I think, what I’m pointing to later, what happens in the 50s is that resentments that have built up over decades sometimes come out much later.

It’s fine, you park priorities for a while, you focus in on work and career and getting children raised, but then it’s absolutely the quality of the couple underlying those decades that then comes to roost in your later years.”

AM-T: “It was interesting you mentioned your class, I was going to say, I think a lot of us think guys in their 20s…they’re so enlightened, they’re going to be totally supportive partners and on board with a truly egalitarian relationship but that isn’t…studies don’t necessarily support that view, which I’m always depressed to read.”

“Yeah, no, I think the issue is women want to marry up, men are still willing to marry down. Women tend to have a different point of view, they want a spouse and partner who’s at least as successful and intelligent as them…and the fact that we still tend to marry men slightly older than us almost across the board, which gives them what seems to be an infinitesimal advantage at the beginning, but over time that grows…if he’s a few years older than you are, often when children come he’ll be a bit higher paid, then the choice of who should take the lead is often a financial one, and then you give it to the guy because he’s earning a little bit more, and then and then and then…it keeps accumulating over life, and you just have to watch that kind of thing. Also on all the parenting studies we see, in countries like in the UK where parental leave is starting to replace maternity leave, men are encouraged to take as much time as they like, the pickup has been low among men in part because the world hasn’t caught up with men and women. The laws, company policies, today it’s still easier for women to take flexibility at work and not get career-punished for it…we’ve made some progress in flexibility around women and maternity leave. What we can’t say is men are condoned and allowed to take their parental leave…that usually signals you’re not that committed to the work – that’s the way their boomer bosses still interpret it. So we’re still catching up. The beginning, I mean I’ve always said the 20th century was the rise of women, the 21st century is the adaptation of everybody else to that rise…companies, countries, and men, and it’s gonna be a little complicated, right? It’s gonna take a few more generations. People who keep thinking that this is gonna happen in one generation, no way. Men are going to take generations, as it took women generations to get these new models into our minds and we’re not entirely there yet. It will be the same for men. We’re in a massive shift in what does masculinity mean, what is it to be a good man, I think young men are confused, women aren’t always helping them to understand…so yeah, we’ve got a lot of work still to do.”

I told Avivah about my conversation with Diane Reichenberger, and the stories she was hearing from her mentees – that many of their boyfriends were reluctant to commit to a woman who earned more than they did.

“That’s a harsh reality too many women forget about men. The issue for men isn’t what women think of them, it’s how other men react to them. And other men would react negatively to someone who earns less than his wife, they’d joke, make him uncomfortable, make him feel small, and if that’s how you start you can imagine how as women’s careers get increasingly successful, how it’s gonna end, right – if he’s uncomfortable with your bigger salary in your twenties, he’s gonna be even more uncomfortable in his 30s, 40s, 50s…”

AM-T: “I’m curious, you have a son in his twenties, do you know how he feels about all this?”

“Yeah, well I do think our sons are especially well educated in this matter. He’s enlightened and I count on his ability to manage strong, intelligent women, it’s certainly what he’s looking for and I don’t think he’d have an issue with a differential in pay…but you know, he’s a very competitive young man so again, maybe it’s stronger than we think, right?

Towards the end of her book Avivah lists some strategies she recommends for couples to try. And this kind of underlines her assertion that there are parallels between our work lives and our personal lives.

She says as partners we need to use vision, active listening and feedback (which she also calls flattery).

“Most of us do this at work all the time. We know how to build teams and motivate people, we just never use those same leadership skills at home. All I’m suggesting is do the same thing you’d do with your team, right – build a vision, align on what it is, do you share it, is everyone bought into the vision, how far forward is that vision gonna take you…and I think for couples it’s good to go a little further than they usually do, not just the next two or three years but the next two or three decades is an interesting conversation to have. The whole active listening thing is really important for both men and women. When you look at research you see women don’t feel heard, and men don’t feel appreciated. So that’s what these two points are – active listening is for women, sit down, listen to your partner carefully, give them time and attention, look them in the eyes, put phones and children away, have regular appointments where you can be really heard…active listening means you have a structured conversation where you feedback what you heard, to check if that’s actually what the person said, which remarkably it often isn’t. People hear their partners often though a veil of interpretation. So this structured listening can be very helpful; and feedback - when partners don’t feel appreciated they get very demotivated just like people on your team do – flattery, feedback, positive admiration, stroking, and lots of it is wonderful at work and very under-utilized by managers, and it’s even better at home, people just want to be worshipped, adored and admired…do it. It’s free and it saves you a lifetime of frustrated partners who don’t feel you’re properly seeing them.”

AM-T: “I think you said something like 5 times as many positive things as quote, constructive comments, in other words negative comments.”

“I think you see this in couples unfortunately. Any couple goes through frustrations and disappointments with the other half, living with another human being is always an adaptive process. And too often and with women particularly, when we don’t feel appreciated we can become pretty passive aggressive…we can start complaining, rolling our eyes, criticizing and turning very negative. And men often react to that by stonewalling and shutting down a bit. That’s a pattern you see in too many couples, right? When actually a little more serious sitting down and asking for what you want, which is difficult for a lot of women, we have not been raised to ask for what we want, is a much better way out of that kind of pattern. As soon as we get into negative patterns they tend to escalate pretty fast and you dig yourself into ruts. One of the joys of late love is that you begin to understand your own patterns and how you co-create patterns with another human being you live with, and how to become much more intentional about shifting out of them if you need to.”

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox.

I’m gonna be releasing a mini-show next week, an extra that sprang from my conversation with Avivah. It’s about the cultural differences around masculinity and femininity. This from a woman who lived in France till just recently. It really got me thinking but it was too off-topic to include in this episode.

Before we go, I want to tell you about a compelling new podcast series I think you’ll enjoy. It’s personal and raw and a lot of it happens on a ship at the bottom of the world.

It’s called This is our Time, and the first season takes you on a journey to Antarctica. Lots of women scientists together on that ship for three weeks…facing questions about climate change…about leadership, and about themselves.

And at one point in episode 7, an advocate for the oceans, a well known man, comes aboard to give a talk. And one of the women hits him up with a question about the barriers female scientists face…

“So we talk a lot here about the need for women to play bigger roles, to have strong voices, and we have trained ourselves. We take sustainability, climate change seriously. What do you think needs to happen to see more women out there, like, so what's your take on this? What do you want for your daughter?"

And he doesn’t really answer her. Instead he veers off into a story…

“So we arrived in the Maldives and we started this swim…” [fade down under trax]

a story about how self-belief will get you where you want to go.

He screwed up.

But amazingly…he admitted it.

“I think I did the complete wrong thing…and didn't properly acknowledge, you know, some of the very serious glass ceilings impacting women in science.”

If you want to hear the rest of this story, or start at the beginning of this 8-episode serialized storytelling podcast, search for This is Our Time podcast...you can find it in Apple Podcasts, or in RadioPublic, if you’re an Android user.

And you can subscribe to my show in those places as well.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.