Thoughts on spouses and careers

Get Rich Slowly did an article about a woman who is a self-proclaimed “sugar-momma.”

The person in the post is to be commended… she’s doing what she wants to be doing in the career of her choice and building experience and credentials, and she’s also supporting her DH allowing him to fill his career goals through more education.  This situation sounds like it is going to work out.

One thing I would caution for women in general is not to sacrifice their own career goals for their husband’s education. As an academic, I know plenty of couples where the woman worked at what she considered to be a temporary job to put her husband through school, but rather than return the favor later (as implicitly promised), they got divorced. Sacrificing one’s own ambitions puts a lot of stress on the marriage, no matter which spouse is doing the sacrificing.

Apparently that situation is not limited to academics.  Plenty of folks in the comments chimed in about other situations of both sexes when one sacrificed and then they divorced.  I doubt that most couples going into that kind of a situation are planning to use their spouses for easy living followed by trading in for a younger model.  However, resentment (or guilt) can build when one member of the couple feels like he or she is sacrificing for the other.  On top of that, school changes people.  While one is working at a dead-end job, the other is becoming a different person.

Even though it may take more loans and definitely less spending, why can’t both people pursue their goals at the same time?

Sometimes that kind of joint pursuit is not possible (for example, if one member of the couple cannot get a visa in a foreign country).  But oftentimes the joint pursuit really is possible, except that both people have to sacrifice some not just one sacrificing a lot.  Is it better for both to sacrifice, even if the total sacrifice is bigger (imagine a world with no fancy cheese)?  Or is it better for only one person to take all the sacrifice?

What do you all think?  Did you make sacrifices for your partner?  Did your partner sacrifice for you?  Or were you on your own in the pursuit of education and career?

Looking for more stories than you find in the comments here?  Try our guest blog cross-post at Scientopia for takes from academics.

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26 Responses to “Thoughts on spouses and careers”

  1. First gen american Says:

    I agree. Anyone selfish enough to allow their spouse to carry them financially and emotionally while they pursue their own personal dreams is also many times the same type of person that will not want to compromise for their spouse later on. If they no longer need the spouse financially, why stay?

    Marriage without compromise doesn’t work and if the compromise is all one sided, sometimes it’s hard to reverse that trend especially if it goes on for years, like in the case of schooling.

    I wouldn’t do it. My dad expected my mom to do everything….dating someone like that would just make me think of him and recoil in fear.

    • Thisbe Says:

      I am being supported through school right now. I will want to compromise later on because I want my partner to be happy; his job right now is okay but not something he can see himself doing for the long haul, and I would hate to see him miserable. When I have my degree and need my partner less financially, I will stay because we have a fantastic relationship and are very happy together.

      • First Gen American Says:

        I think it’s fine if they are your collective dreams to go this route, but not if it’s someone’s singular dream (ie, not as a couple). There is a difference between being supportive and coming to a decision together vs being asked to be the supporter. There are give and take relationships that are great and I’ve seen it work and it’s wonderful, but there are also a lot of relationships that the give and take only goes in one direction..there’s a giver and a taker. I’m definitely not saying that all single income households are like that.

        I’m sure part of my perception is because of my familial baggage. My mom used to say she was the mule trying to pull the cart forward while my dad pulled it in reverse. She did everything..took care of the house, the kid and worked full time. He was constantly in and out of work, gambled, drank. Yup, so I’m paranoid about it all.

      • Thisbe Says:

        I guess I just can’t make sense of what you are saying; maybe it is just an alien mindset to me. I was a financial supporter in a different relationship in the past; that ended badly but I don’t feel bad about the support. In the current situation, I am not sure what the default better option would have been. We could have never started dating because my partner is wealthier than I; I could have given up my plan for school (a plan that notably increases my earning power and employment flexibility); we could have lived in different towns on principle to avoid my being financially supported to the extent that I am; or we could have broken up for no real reason. All of these options are obviously (to us) inferior, and were thus discarded. It might have been different if my partner had turned down a dream job in order to finance me – but he didn’t.

  2. Practical Parsimony Says:

    1964-started to school. (1)
    1965–met future husband at school
    1966–married him and he forced me to not go to the same school he did (2) I caught him cheating on Bible verses memorization tests!
    1967–pregnant and incapable of sitting up because of morning sickness that lasted 9 months and dropped out.
    1968–gave birth. Our mutual plan was for me to stay home, raise our child. He would continue in school. Then, I would go back while he cared for the child.
    1969–He wanted to drop out because he could be a minister without school. I said emphatic NO. He continued. I got pregnant again.
    1970–gave birth July.
    1971–moved in January. one semester in school and he moved again. (3)
    1972–moved again; he graduated
    1973–Went to school for two semesters and he wanted to move. (4) He put house on market and told me to quit schooland keep it clean for buyers. I did not quit but worked like a slave while he refused to help with children or house one bit.
    1974–moved to small town with no school within reach.
    1975–gave birth
    1976–no school, he orders. I tried one semester in a junior college but it was not a good school. (5)
    1975-1980–too busy with children, infant, and trying not to go crazy from abuse
    1981–divorced. He made sure he had my car towed while I was 50 miles away at school (6), knowing children would be lost when I picked none of them up from school. Quit school to support myself and fight for custody.
    1982-1989–Struggled while he called jobs and literally got me fired from several.Started my own business to survive.
    1990–My father died and I realized I needed to fulfill my goal of getting BA, MA, and PhD
    1991–Started back again to school. (7)
    1993–1st BA
    1995– 2nd BA while I worked on MA and slowed down to work a bit.
    1996–dropped out from sheer exhaustion
    1997–Went back to school
    1998–MA

    During our marriage I supported him by cooking from scratch, making my clothes and clothes for three children, never went anywhere, watched as churches fawned over him, ignored my needs. Finally, I could take no more and had to get out. No, I did not work and bring home money for his support while he went to school. He told me that I had to get a job and pay for my education like he paid for his, that childcare was my job since I had the children, that he refused to babysit for me while I shirked my responsibilities.

    My mother noted that each time I went back to school since I married that I either got pregnant or moved. That his me like a thunderbolt.

    Finally, we argued when the youngest went to kindergarten and I wanted to get a job. He said he did not know how to control me. (Pregnancy and infants had worked, I supposed) He said he did not want me to get a job because he was afraid i would leave him….light bulb moment…hey, that’s not a bad idea. I did.

    No, he did not leave me. But, he did not fulfill an explicit promise to let me go to school. “Let” is his word. Even though he had a BA, he knew I was more intelligent and more educated than he was. His school was a sham, preacher college. I was going to state universities or places like Kentucy Wesleyan. He feared my intelligence and power if I ever had the PhD. He molested my daughter, lied in court, lied our whole marriage from the pulpit until finally the children called him on it, had girlfriends that I finally figured out. I had to hospitalize our infant and he was not where he said he would be. Yes, he continued in the ministry after the divorce because he said I lied about all he did. .

    So, this is long and there are mistakes, but it is after 4 am!

    • Funny about Money Says:

      OMG, PP. You make my heart hurt!

      This is really a story of abuse, not of “we didn’t make it because one sacrificed so the other could… (etc. etc. et-selfabsorbently-cetera).” And when you said “he forced me to…,” you made me hear my own voice. Luckily, I got away from the man who felt he could “force” me to do things against my financial and psychological interest (only because one day in the middle of a crisis my best friend stared at me as I was carrying on and said, “No one can force you to do anything!”). When a man thinks he can own you, he’s an abuser, plain and simple…no matter what level he’s abusing you on, whether he’s hitting you or finding other ways to make your life miserable, he’s abusing you.

      I’m so glad you got away.

      • Practical Parsimony Says:

        Remember hegemony?

        The abuse started on our honeymoon. Actually, “forcing” me to change schools is the best thing that ever happened to me. The school graduates preacher boys and church secretaries. I was not supposed to take Greek. I was the only female in the class. Back to the school. It was unaccredited and brags that since its inception in 1959 it has graduated 36 preachers. Okay, quit laughing. I rebelled and complained most of the time about all his abusive ways. Yes, someone can force you when you have a baby in your arms. You have no marks and seemingly a good life and no one, not even parents are willing to support you in any way. It is also a tale of abuse by the church and religion. Spendng 29 years on a BA shows my determination. He hates that to this day.

        I was trying to be a good Chistian, not disappoint my mother, be a successful wife, do what society expected of me, NOT GO TO HELL. Yes, hegemony goes a long way. I got over all of the things in the last sentence. No, church is abhorrent to me.

        My second BA is Social and Behavioral Sciences–Women’s Studies.

        Not one soul supported me in any way when I did get up the nerve to leave, not even my parents.

        The point is, he never fulfilled explicit promises. From our marriage vows on, he made up the rules. He is a sociopath.

  3. Que Sera Says:

    My husband had a different take on this. He figured if he didn’t support my desire to go and get my PhD that he would have to deal with the consequences of my “what ifs” and regrets later on in life. He didn’t want that. We lived apart for a couple years while I was in classes and I moved home while researching/writing. His working also allowed us to have our children since neither of us felt it would be responsible to have them without health insurance. Now I’m finished and willing to support him if he would like and he’s deciding whether he wants to take a new career path or stick with his job. I think that there is no one correct answer to this question. It depends on the couple and their goals and relationship.

    *I should add that I had fellowships and grants to pay for my research/living expenses while away/child care, so I wasn’t completely supported all the time, but without his higher salary we couldn’t have lived together in the same way.

  4. Cloud Says:

    My husband gave up a job he really liked to move to the US to be with me. His first job here wasn’t so great. Now, he has a job he really likes. We aren’t moving again until he says he wants to! Or until he gets a good 10 years in this job…

    Neither of us has ever supported the other financially, unless you count the times I’ve been laid off or the fact that we used money I made from some company stock to finance our four month leave of absence to travel.

    But we do make sacrifices for each other. I think the key to making that work is that the person making the sacrifice has to be sure that is what he/she wants to do, and there has to be an understanding that the other person will sometimes sacrifice, too.

  5. GMP Says:

    My then boyfriend, now husband, and I dated fairly briefly when I got pregnant. I just started grad school at a top school and he was at another. It was easier for me to move to a lesser school than for him to upgrade schools, so I did. I also switched programs, because with a PhD in physics from the lesser school I could kiss professorship goodbye. I switched to an engineering program, which is very good at the new school, and ended up working with a top-notch advisor. This is what enabled me to be super productive during my PhD, finish with 4.5 years with lots of publications, and get a professorship at straight out of grad school at a school better than mine; getting a TT position right put of grad school was really important considering that we had been raising a baby on two student stipends and were really broke…

    So I did downgrade PhD schools for family, which probably forever eliminates me from getting into some top places (until perhaps late in the career if I am a superstar); I also switched fields a fair bit (from physics to engineer), but on the upside I had a very productive PhD and have a great job at a great school, and didn’t have to go through multiple postdocs which are now the norm in physics. So I did get my dream to become a prof, but there were compromises along the way.

    I also spent the first two years of my TT alone with my son, as hub was trying to finish his PhD at our PhD alma mater; he wasn’t able to (combination of poor advising, low motivation on his part due to separation, and sheer bad luck). However, he now has a great staff position with my university with his MS degree. I suppose we both sacrificed some, but we like the place we are at now. So things can work out, but you have to be flexible.

    I have always been very ambitious. One thing that my husband has that my previous boyfriends didn’t is that he does not stand in my way. He helps as much as he can, but he really does not hinder me and has gone along with most big decisions that I made for both of us. He tends to be kind of passive when it comes to big decisions (clams up and waits for things to resolve themselves through the passage of time; drives me crazy!); however several of my previous boyfriends were similarly passive in the face of life’s decisions, but the fact they had no plan and no idea what they wanted didn’t prevent them from shooting down my plans and ideas and generally undermining me. My husband seems to recognize my proactivity as a big strength and is happy to have me take the lead for both of us when he himself does not have a better plan.

  6. Ally Says:

    the potential for problems is why I never understood people getting married while in college – too many things that might keep it from happening, whether intentional or not. It’s one reason I wasn’t looking for a guy in college because I knew I wasn’t going to be ready to get married anytime soon (but hey that backfired, now I can’t even seem to meet any guys my age who aren’t married, but it’s still better than never finishing school!)

  7. Bryan at Pinch that Penny! Says:

    This is similar to the position that my wife and I are in now. Last Friday, I heard that I was just accepted to a reasonably prestigious school to get my PhD in a subject in the humanities (though they’re still figuring out financial aid). I will do my utmost to ensure that I can stay at my day job as long as possible because I don’t particularly want to be a leech on my wife (not that she necessarily sees it that way; she has been very supportive and encouraging thus far), but given that a good portion of the funding for the program comes from TA-ing, I’m unsure how long my traditional 9-5 M-F job will put up with my new schedule.

    For what it’s worth, my wife is three classes away from getting her MBA, and she has a career in business that she more or less enjoys and is exceptional at.

    Even though the program and the field I got into are basically the dream options for me, the fact that I will both immediately and career-long-ly(?) face reduced compensation, I’m having a hard time being as excited as I thought that I would be. I’m pretty certain that I will join the program, but I’m just a little uncertain about the ramifications (and how much control I can have over them).

  8. Liz Says:

    My partner and I are at a point where or the other of us is going to have to sacrifice either career advancement or desired living location so that we can be living in the same city and both have at least decent job options. It is tough. I would hate to have to make sacrifices in my career but I would also hate for my partner to be miserable because of a sacrifice he made for me.

  9. Foscavista Says:

    We were lucky – my partner and I graduated with our PhDs on the same day.

  10. femmefrugality Says:

    OH MY .GOSH I’m one of those women you know who worked at crappy jobs to support a spouse’s education then got divorced and gyped. Appreciating this post.

  11. arc Says:

    I chose (the wrong) grad school to be with the guy I was dating, but rectified my mistake about 6 months in by transferring far away to my 1st choice school. But then again, it turns out that grad school was totally not for me anyway (and neither was he). Thank goodness we were not married when all this transpired.

    I think this idea of sacrifice/compromise happens *all the time* in marriage, and the key is making sure both partners are reasonably happy (not “I’m taking one for the team now and he owes me later”). Not because you’re planning for doom, but because that resentment can (and will) build up slowly over time if one person feels they’re doing all the sacrificing.

  12. Melete Says:

    My ex- supported me through graduate school because in the world that was peculiar to him, a wife with a Ph.D. was a type of trophy wife. It showed how smart he was, and how much smarter he was than me because he could have me.

    It was not a sacrifice for him. He was making a ton of money and could easily afford the in-state tuition, especially since I defrayed a fair amount of it by TAing every semester.

    He did what he wanted. I did what I wanted. Eventually we went our separate ways.

  13. Thisbe Says:

    On further reflection, I think it is true that a lifepartnership cannot work unless both people are acting like teammates. That can take many forms. But sacrificing one’s own satisfaction to further the satisfaction of the other partner isn’t necessarily being a good teammate; the goal of the team player really needs to be furthering the overall satisfaction and joy of the partnership.

    Obviously it all depends on the situation. But it seems like a bad idea to “give” something if you will resent it, and a bad idea to take if you know you will be resented.

  14. anon Says:

    I did this. For years. I made my career decisions solely to make more money to support him. I didn’t care, initially but as the years added up with nothing to show for my work and nothing to show on his end (he didn’t finish much, when he did finish school it wasn’t in anything that would launch a career), I said I’d divorce if he went to grad school. Because we’d have to live apart, I wasn’t going to move and leave my job to hope to find one where he’d go to school, and damn I’ve paid my dues. Everyone in both our families thought I was a terrible person to say such a thing. I’m not keeping him from going but I’ve given up over 10 years of my life in pursuit of someone else’s ever changing goals. I’ll be damned to do that another 10 years while he gets a PhD in a field where there are no jobs.

    It’s not been easy since, we’re still trying to work things out. I’m trying to sort out what I want in life for the firrst time ever. I know all about the sacrafice and I finally said enough’s enough.

  15. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    The only time PhysioWife and I ever had to adapt our own individual career goals to our relationship was when I was searching for faculty positions at the end of my post-doc. Her position was “I am not leaving our city”. Fortunately, I was able to secure a faculty position at an outstanding local medical school, as I don’t know what Plan B would have been had I not.

  16. bogart Says:

    This is a tough one. I welcomed my spouse into my life together with his two teenaged children. Not that he sprung them on me, but to say I felt like I was riding on an unsteerable battleship, at times, would be an understatement — but it’s not like I got to choose a childfree version of the same man (and just to be clear, I loved, and love, the kids — now adults. But I suspect that marrying a person not in possession of ethical, emotional, and legal commitments to dependents is very different from and, I dare say, easier than, marrying into an extant family). We lived apart (during the academic year) 4 of the first 5 years of our marriage and then I left my really quite lovely TT SLAC job (for a job not really in my “field”) so we could live together. By then, the kids were out of the house and in principle he could have relocated, but that would have cost us both a small fortune in (his) pension benefits and (except for the SLAC) I didn’t like where I was living. And honestly now that we have a kid of our own, living near my mom (which we do) is pretty much priceless. And DH endured (though mostly it was me enduring) an absurd amount of infertility treatments and our paying for same to conceive DS which was a sacrifice to him (as he had no strong desire to add to our family and was quite happy as an empty nester). Though I wanted 2 kids and am still not sure I’ll always be at peace with having given that dream up.

    And in most ways I enjoy being the breadwinner (DH is now retired, with pension). Though we both miss the income he used to bring in.

    I don’t know. Not every moment is perfect, but for most of this most of the time, I’ve known he is committed to me, and I to him, and us to us and to the commitments we’ve made to each other and to others, regardless of who’s giving up what in the moment.

    I don’t know, though, what other than the endpoint distinguishes that from getting “taken” (how I knew I wasn’t, or know I’m not). I mean, I can look back over the over a dozen years we’ve been married and see things I’ve given up and things he’s given up and where we are and what we do (and don’t) like about it and what we are (and aren’t) doing about that. But I still jumped in with both feet on faith and held on tight. Though I will say it was always 100% clear to me that the man loved his kids and that if X years into the marriage I walked out or got shoved out, it was really his kids and not him I’d have been “supporting” (I don’t just mean that financially, though that too), and while that’s not itself a perfect answer, there were worse ways I could have spent my late 20s and 30s than providing for the two people who are my stepkids. Better ways, too, perhaps, but definitely worse ones.

    I’ve just reread your query and see that as usual I’ve answered a different one (fie!) or at least brought something in that was omitted, but kids, work,and career have been inextricably linked for us from the beginning. I did, however, marry the dude only after I’d finished my schooling (by 1 month), and he was long done with his formal education. That wasn’t really planning, though, it’s just how things worked out.

  17. mareserinitatis Says:

    I worked while my first husband went to school. Halfway through the year, he ended up being kicked out because he wasn’t going to any of his classes. I was more than a bit POed. A couple years later, something similar happened at a different school.

    Later on, I went back to school the same time he did (at a third school). He again failed out (same reason) but then had the audacity to claim that it was my fault as I should have been supporting him. You see, I was putting my career before family concerns. Unfortunately, his family took his side and told me what a horrible wife I was on a regular basis.

    By this point, I realized that if either one of us was going to have a career, it was going to be me, and I needed to finish school. We got divorced, not solely because of me refusing to support him any longer, but because he saw me as a lesser person, and I didn’t need to deal with it any longer. Funny thing is that I’m almost done with my PhD, and he still hasn’t finished his bachelors.

  18. J Liedl Says:

    I married a fabulous man who wasn’t an academic. However, his skill-set and education weren’t well-suited to follow me to small northern town and retain decent employment. Add a special-needs child to the mix and we were screwed for his prospects of secure employment. It’s twenty years on into our partnership and one of my great regrets is how much he’s sacrificed for our partnership. He’s pursuing a third degree which will qualify him for a job that he’ll never get a chance to take given the on-going financial restraints and the reality that we can’t move the family to where he’d be more employable.

    It’s vital that you can respect each other and support each other. My income is much larger than his will ever be but we consider all the money we bring into the household as our joint income. We also feel that we both need to step up to support the other in what they’re doing.

  19. Carnival of Personal Finance #351: Women’s Personal Finance Edition Says:

    [...] from Nicole and Maggie: Grumpy Rumblings of the Untenured presents Thoughts on spouses and careers, and says, “Nicole and Maggie discuss when one member of a couple sacrifices his or her [...]

  20. Carnival of Personal Finance #351 Says:

    [...] Grumpy Rumblings of the Untenured: Thoughts on spouses and careers [...]


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