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Navigating Career Imbalances Within Relationships

When it comes to you and your partner, is one of you more ‘successful’ than the other? If you worry that career imbalance is straining your relationship, you are not alone.

In today’s busy world, ‘a stable career’ can feel like an oxymoron. The average person will switch jobs ten times before the age of forty, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that number is projected to rise.

So it’s safe to say that your partner may become more or less financially “successful” than you are at any given time. ‘Breadwinner’ status may go back and forth as the years go on. This might trigger some conflict, especially if the goal is a 50/50 partnership. But depending on how you choose to look at them, financial imbalances and career disputes can become opportunities to grow stronger as a team.

I’ve been in relationships where resentment grew when I was more successful. I’ve also been unemployed while my partner worked long hours. These scenarios can be hard to navigate, but I’ve found some great ways to cope.

So here are some tips on working through common career-related dilemmas.

Disclaimer: I am not a therapist, and my advice should never take the place of one. For serious disputes, I highly recommend couple’s counseling.

Scenario #1: The Breadwinner Feels Overburdened, While The Under-Earner Feels Un-empowered.

It’s unfortunate that modern society holds money as a primary power symbol. But when it comes to love, there are ways to change this dynamic.

One way to start is taking time to examine how each of you contributes to the relationship. Love is about more than money, after all – and if it’s become the primary issue, focusing on more positive aspects might make for an easier fix. Approach each other with an open mind, making mutual appreciation the primary goal.

Perhaps you pay the utility bills, but your partner spends hours running important errands each week. In this scenario, you offer money while they offer time. In the grand scheme of life, the two balance each other out quite nicely. Thank each other for your contributions, and ask for more ways to be helpful.

Maybe your breadwinning lover works a high-stress job, but you spend considerable energy providing emotional support and doing chores they don’t have time for. You’re both contributing to the partnership, and that’s worthy of acknowledgement.

By opening a dialogue about your contributions, you may find that your relationship is more balanced than you think. On the other hand, you may notice some significant imbalances that need to be worked out. And it’s okay! Like your careers, life has an ebb and flow. Find ways to balance your contributions.

Scenario #2: Resentment and Jealousy.

If the breadwinner works full-time and does all the cleaning and makes all major financial decisions, the lower income partner may feel they don’t have a purpose. Do you feel jealous of your partner’s success? Begin by recognizing your own contributions (see Scenario 1). Note what’s currently out of your control (the job market, perhaps) and take charge of what you can change, such as communicating better or committing to self-care.

You may find your partner resents you for doing less, or making less money. This is because of imbalance, and it’s important to resolve this conflict before it grows unmanageable. If you’re doing too much, ask for help. If you feel like you’ve been left in the dust, find ways you can balance the other.

An empowered lover is a happy lover, and respect goes both ways. Talking about your feelings and committing to finding solutions can help alleviate stress on all sides.

Scenario #3: The Breadwinner Makes All The Decisions

Author Deborah Price suggests giving the lower-income partner more control of financial decisions, or at least 50/50 participation. This creates a more healthy dynamic where nobody has full control of the other, and neither one makes all the decisions.

If one of you won’t make any decisions, that’s another story. Ask each other why this is, and work together to find balance.

Scenario #4: The Lower-Income Partner Feels Entitled to Do Less

If your partner feels they have nothing to contribute, they might lack motivation across the board. It’s okay to encourage them and ask for more help. Asking your partner to step up (in a mindful and compassionate way) will only help both of you grow. And appreciating their contributions, no matter how small, can go a long way.

Scenario #5: You Worry You’ll Leave Your Partner Behind (Or Vice-Versa)

Talk. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk! When I was faced with the prospect of confronting my partner or letting the relationship crumble, I made the mistake of suppressing my feelings. Surprise, the relationship failed!

Sometimes, things aren’t meant to be. But if you wish to succeed as a team, it’s important to be open about your fears. In my current relationship, my partner and I motivate each other to succeed (in all areas of life). When imbalance inevitably appears, we’ve learned to face it head on and work together to fix it. It’s never easy, but it’s worth the work we both put in.

Love may not be your “career,” but it is an equally important full-time job.

Everyone’s priorities are different. But while you may hope to keep your job for ten years, your relationship can last a lifetime and give you what your job can’t (emotional support, anyone?). It’s common for career imbalances to occur, regardless of gender or relationship status. When partners commit to each other with compassion, persistence, trust and openness, success in love can have a positive impact on other aspects of life…including your career.

You don’t have to choose one or the other. Choose success in every area that matters most to you.

Final tip: I cannot recommend counseling enough. A professional can work with you individually to address your unique situation. The scenarios listed above may be common, but each individual is different. Similar to how education can help your career, counseling can be a valuable investment for your love’s long-term success.

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