By Robin Madell (San Francisco)
You’ve just found out that you’re receiving a promotion—along with the extra hours that it entails. Or maybe you’ve been asked to join a new firm, or tackle an assignment abroad. While new career opportunities are cause for celebration, they can also raise complex work/life issues that need to be resolved with family members, particularly your partner or spouse.
Major job changes, while exciting, can also be risky—sometimes even more so for partners and other family members than for the person with the opportunity. Therefore, it can be difficult for ambitious women to announce to their significant other that they are considering a risky career move.
With a PhD in molecular medicine and leading a team of scientists, Teresa Bryan had been on the rise in the biotech industry. Yet she wanted to start a family-owned business. Because the change would entail giving up her current earning potential, as well as career growth and experience in her industry, Bryan was afraid such a drastic and high-risk career change would not be well-received by her husband. She describes the process that she went through in discussing the possibility with him:
“We found it best to talk things out and put all the pros and cons on the table. We also were sure to be completely honest with one another regarding expectations and pitfalls. We knew that we’d be losing a large source of income, likely need to delay having a child, have insanely busy work and travel schedules, and would need to drastically reduce our discretionary spending. But, we were also gaining the opportunity to be in control of our future—this was the most important benefit for us.”
Bryan says the most critical point was to get her husband on board with 100% buy-in to the commitment. “We agreed that this was the risk we wanted to take, and understood the implications,” says Bryan. “He was highly supportive since he realized the new career move was in the best interest for our family.”
Not everyone’s situation goes as smoothly as Bryan’s. What are the best strategies to handle this possible communication powder keg to ensure the best possible outcome for all involved? Read on.
Before you can effectively communicate with your significant other about your potential opportunity, you first need to be honest with yourself about how you really feel about the situation, and your own bottom lines. Sarah Hathorn, CEO of Illustra Consulting, suggests that you ask yourself some tough questions, and dig deep for truthful answers, before entering into a discussion with your partner or spouse:
- How much does this career move mean to you? What are willing to sacrifice?
- Are you willing to leave your partner behind if you don’t feel support? Are you willing to break up over this issue?
- What are you prepared to do in exchange for asking your partner for these sacrifices? Are you ready to provide financial support, for instance, if your partner has to leave a job behind?
- What about children, or how the career change would affect your plans together to have children?
With such a big decision to make, you may feel anxious to announce your news as soon as possible. But you may be better off waiting until you and your partner have the time, space, and energy to have a productive and open conversation. Patty Newbold, president of MOST Performance Improvement, emphasizes the importance of planning for the right moment.
“Pick a good time for dealing with tough news and be enthusiastic about the upside, realistic about the downside,” says Newbold. “Before you bring it up, think through how it will affect his or her career and home responsibilities, and how you can minimize the perceived risks.”
Bryan suggests trying to find a time and environment when you can focus on each other and the topic without distractions. “Career moves are huge decisions, and they deserve both of your full and undivided attention,” says Bryan. “A direct conversation in an environment without distractions, such as kids running around, having the television blaring, and so forth is what I’d recommend.”
While you may feel definitive about the opportunity, remind yourself that your partner hasn’t had the same amount of time to process the information and figure out how it will affect you both. While there may be certain sacrifices that you’ll have to make personally to accept the opportunity, your partner may be in the position of needing to make an even bigger sacrifice to help you get what you want. If you can avoid coming across as though your decision is already written in stone, you may have a better chance of avoiding conflict and reaching compromise and resolution.
Alexia Vernon, author of 90 Days 90 Ways: Onboard Young Professionals to Peak Performance, says it’s important to express your excitement about the possibility without suggesting that you have already made your mind up. “This is important because as women, we often sound fearful or apologetic about opportunities when we are concerned that we might get push back from our loved ones,” says Vernon. “Our worry just invites in the very critique we are seeking to avoid. Also, our partners want to have a say in our decisions just like we want to have a say in theirs. So ask for your partner’s thoughts…early and often.”
“You must be prepared to answer your partner by thoughtfully responding—not simply reacting when your emotions are triggered or you are caught off-guard,” says Hathorn. “Plus if it becomes a negotiation, you need to know exactly what position you are negotiating from and what you are willing to compromise or put on the table.”
Your partner may initially react with trepidation when first hearing about a change to your work life that will affect you both. This is a normal reaction, and may even mirror the way you felt initially upon hearing about the opportunity. While listening to your partner express caution may make you feel as though you’re not being supported in your career move, try to avoid rushing to comment or judge.
“While we of course want our spouses to support all of our opportunities, often the first step is giving them the space to share their feelings and concerns,” says Vernon. “The simple act of putting where they are coming from out into the air and being heard is one of the easiest and most effective ways for them to diffuse fear.”
Feminist scholar Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar agrees that emotional decision-making is often a challenge in discussing job changes with partners. “If you want to vent, do that with someone else,” says Rajakumar. “If you want to explore concrete options, then try to think in logical, convincing terms. These are much more persuasive than ‘I can’t take it anymore.’”
Show a Win-Win
While your new job opportunity has obvious advantages for you, the benefits for your partner may be less obvious. Before making your announcement, take the time to identify ways that the career change will directly help your partner to help clarify how this is an opportunity for both of you.
“Focus on ‘We’ Value,” says Hathorn. “You have to present the change in a positive light by emphasizing all the ways that it will enhance the future in a sustainable way for you and your partner. Make a list of the pros and cons, and present it in such a way that the pros win by an overwhelming margin.”
Vernon suggests, for example, that if your partner has talked about feeling burned out, you could emphasize how a year abroad provides a chance to hit the refresh button. Or if you’ve both been lax on saving for retirement, you could suggest that while you may have less time together immediately after your promotion, you’ll be in a better long-term position to invest in your shared future together.
Once you’ve brought your partner on board with your plans, don’t assume that the challenges are now behind you. Take some time to map out all of the risks and benefits that each of you anticipate may come to pass down the road. While there will likely be more variables than you can imagine, even collectively, having a solid action plan for any foreseeable changes can make a huge difference.
“The laundry may be dirty, the dishes piling up, and each of you on different continents, but if you’ve made an agreement about shared responsibilities, it makes the new work/life challenges much easier,” says Bryan. “Just make sure you both fulfill your part of the agreement! If something is new or bothers you that you didn’t anticipate, bring it up as soon as possible—the worst thing you can do is to let it fester. I always feel best when we’re working together for the family. We are partners, after all.”