How important is it to be "work-equal" in relationships?
April 3, 2016 2:03 AM   Subscribe

Snowflakes inside.

I'm a 29 year old guy. I've had a few relationships but now I am single. All of these relationships were relatively stable and lasted respectively 1, 4 and 3 years. The last one really left me heartbroken but I am ready to move on.

I've been thinking a lot about the type of relationship I want and what I actually want out of my life partner. One thing struck me and that is that I was missing some ambition from the previous girls I was dating.

I want my "ideal partner" to be ambitious as well so we can support each other in our dreams. I would really like it if they run their own business (like I do), or have a specific profession they specialized in.

I don't really care about the money aspect of a career too much (though it helps if you want to live in certain places; and I don't want to foot all the bills) but rather about making a change for the better. I feel that it's really important that she does something I can get behind. For example, if she would be a greedy money grabbing day trader, I wouldn't be able to get behind that. But if she was a doctor with a just set of beliefs; or an interior architect designing really cool spaces, I could support that.

One of my best friends is an architect, and his wife is an architect. They seem to be on a similar skill level and I think they are upping each other's game while having a loving relationship. I am kind of envious about this.

In a way it feels weird to talk about this as an important aspect of a relationship. Obviously I would want us to connect in a lot of other areas.

I wanted to ask about how important it is to be "work-equal" in a relationship and your feedback on this.

P.S. I am maybe using the wrong term for this since searching online didn't yield any results.
posted by fka to Human Relations (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There is nothing wrong with wanting a partner who has a similar level and type of ambition as you, as well as similar values. However, the more specific you are ("must own business and/or work as a degreed professional but not in banking" etc.), the less likely you are to find someone, and you are setting yourself up for disappointment when you find that perfect-on-paper person and the two of you just don't work. You're also very likely to overlook the imperfect-on-paper person with whom you could actually be happy.

Also, you've mentioned that you want your partner to have a similar level of ambition to you which I assume means working hard, long hours, whatever it takes to get ahead. That's great, but someone's got to make sure that the toilet is clean and there's food to eat when you get home after your long days at work. In my experience, even when both partners work similar hours at similarly difficult jobs - and even when the female member of the couple works harder/longer - it's almost always HER, not him, taking on most of the responsibility for keeping the family home running. So - are you willing to make sure that it's a complete 50/50 partnership at home, as well as at work? What about if you have kids- are you going to take a completely equal share of all parental duties, including time off work to equally share maternity/paternity leave, time off work to pick sick kids up from school, picking up/dropping off/attending games, recitals, teacher meetings, etc.? Because if you really want a relationship with someone who is highly ambitious, it would be completely unfair for you to expect her to take on the role of primary parent/primary caretake of the home and sacrifice part of her own professional ambition in the service of yours. I'm not saying that you WOULD expect that - but it's something very important to consider.
posted by cilantro at 2:31 AM on April 3, 2016 [80 favorites]

I think it's reasonable to want a partner with similar levels of ambition to you.

But when I hear men say they want an ambitious partner, I also think of all the men I've known who have said something like that, but when the chips were down and they got into a situation where one person had to sacrifice their career a bit ( have kids and someone has to take more time off to care for them, or one of you gets an amazing job offer in a completely different city, etc), then a lot of those men just expected their female partner to automatically make those sacrifices so that they could get ahead in their careers.

In my opinion, if you really want an ambitious partner, then you've got to be prepared to make sacrifices too sometimes, and to be ready to do your fair share of child-rearing, housework, etc, and not just assume that she's going to be career-oriented and ambitious until it's inconvenient for you.
posted by colfax at 2:43 AM on April 3, 2016 [35 favorites]

Thanks for the answers so far - I think it's important to note that while ambitious I do typically work a 40-45 hour work week, and I can mostly choose my own hours. This will theoretically make things a lot easier when there are kids in the picture. When I'm talking about ambition I am talking about a longer game plan for your career not about extreme hours.
posted by fka at 3:50 AM on April 3, 2016

Reading your question made me wonder whether "ambition" is the right word here. It seems to me that what you are seeking is a partner whom you admire: in terms of her work ethic, her passion, her values. And that, to my mind, is indeed an essential part of any high-quality relationship. I.e., you should want to partner with someone of whom you can be proud (and vice versa). To me it sounds a bit like you didn't admire your previous partners in this way.

Anyway, this is all to suggest that you might want to break down what, exactly, you mean by "ambitious": Do you want to be with someone who works 80-100 hours a week? Do you want to be with someone who puts work before all else? OR perhaps is it more that you want to be with someone whose work is their passion (but perhaps not their only one), and it is a passion you find interesting/admirable?
posted by Halo in reverse at 4:01 AM on April 3, 2016 [9 favorites]

Wanting a relationship that actively supports and fosters your careers is not unusual or unreasonable. It isn't a particularly important attribute for me but it sounds like it is for you. It doesn't strike me as weird at all.

Very good points above about sharing work & sacrifices within that kind of relationship. I had a dear friend who fell in love with a colleague - they ran their own businesses in the same field - and, after some time the guy really wanted kids except that he was adamant that children were not going to impact his career in any way. When my friend baulked at sacrificing her career, he dumped her for someone who would and was a father within 18 months. To make sure you're not that guy, I recommend giving this aspect of your desired relationship a lot contemplation.

I think it's worth being open to how cool people can be in ways you weren't looking for too. You might be surprised and delighted by the other great things someone might bring into your life and the things you can offer them.
posted by mewsic at 4:07 AM on April 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think it's fine that this is something you feel would enrich your relationships, but I think there's a huge caveat here: life is long and unpredictable. People get laid off. People get sick or disabled and can no longer work in their chosen fields. People burn out on their careers and want to do something completely different. In any relationship that lasts long enough, you're not going to be "equal" in this way at all times. The balances will shift back and forth; that's just how life works.

So I think it would be a bad idea to get too caught up in this as a specific thing that you need in a relationship. But maybe there are things underlying this desire that are more about personality traits - a strong work ethic? A belief in committing deeply to one's goals? Someone who supports you in a specific pushing-you-to-do-better way? Those things are less likely to change, and you may end up happier if you focus on those things than specifically on "must have X type of career." Personalities are less likely to change over a lifetime than careers.
posted by Stacey at 4:26 AM on April 3, 2016 [40 favorites]

To me, it's less about equality in work and more about respect for the other person's intelligence and capacity to grasp concepts, understand ideas, appreciate the same types of humor, etc. Even if one person is a CEO and the other is a janitor, the key is having a shared mentality and ability to communicate. You have to "get" the other person, and be able to occupy a shared space in which the two of you resonate. And that means you connect on all levels, only one of which is work.

Perhaps you are aware of this need, and may be expecting to only find such a person/connection among those who display "ambition" via traditionally accepted signifiers like working long hours or having "cool jobs" like doctors, architects etc. I can see how that seems logical. And it may be true... where does a smart person find other smart people, and engage them to see if they are compatible? It's a small pool. But anyone can be smart, driven, "ambitious" etc. so don't discount that.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:54 AM on April 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'd say that it's good to match ambition and great to be with someone you admire, but beware of taking jobs at face value. When I met Mr LB, he was working in Canary Wharf for an international bank and lived in Central London and I thought EW, I won't like him, but he didn't fit my stereotype at all. So just be aware of that. Also if you both own businesses and work from home, that can be annoying (or wonderful).
posted by LyzzyBee at 5:22 AM on April 3, 2016

I absolutely agree that this a thing worth looking for and it is definitely something I find attractive in my wife!

However I would caution being too exclusive in how you define what the the signs are and what is acceptable. For instance you mention them being a greedy day trader wouldn't satisfy you but what if they did the trading because they got a massive kick out of the mathematical challenge of the trading process? Or if they were pursuing it to retire at 30 and live like mr money moustache?
posted by Albondiga at 5:47 AM on April 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

There are different types of ambitions, and not all of them are career based. I know several very ambitious stay at home moms, who spend their days volunteering in their community and following their creative urges. They are happy, motivated, and very interesting women, and their children are blessed to have them fully available to them when needed.

Driven, motivated, and ambitious are personality traits, not career paths. Look for someone who you could see holding hands with while you watch your grandchildren play.
posted by myselfasme at 6:14 AM on April 3, 2016 [12 favorites]

My 8 year relationship (engagement) ended in August.

One issue that kept coming up was that I was an ambitious Type A and she was a laid back European hippy.

I'm not saying that it could never work, but it is hard when people aren't on the same "wavelength" as far as ambition is concerned.
posted by kbbbo at 6:39 AM on April 3, 2016

I have consistently been the more educated, more ambitious, better-earning person in my relationships (I am a heterosexual woman), with the exception of my current relationship with my husband. At various times, I have earned more than him, he has earned more than me, and he has fully supported me financially while I stayed home with our children.

In my previous relationships, my ambition or my interest in making a certain amount of money or achieving a certain level of success within my industry has caused tension, even when I didn't want it to. So I do think that it's important to address this issue in relationships. However, I don't think you need to be "matched" to the other person per se - I think it's more important that your individual goals are complementary with or can be supplanted by family goals. My husband and I are a team, and we plan to be together far longer than we'll be at any particular job or even career. So it's more important that our ambitions reflect a shared reality. Our jobs impact where we live and how we live - we need to be on the same page or else our shared life will not work (the #1 city for my industry and the #1 city for his industry are on opposite sides of the country, for example - but we have a shared goal for our lives that helps us live in a third city altogether and we are happiest with that option). We talk a lot about what kinds of things we want to do in the future, and we acknowledge that there are certain paths that are now closed to us because we don't want to make the sacrifices jointly that it would take to have those achievements - even though if we weren't together and didn't have kids, we'd absolutely go down those paths. It's having a middle road that gives us both a bit of what we want and sets us up for a life that we are happy with that works for us - both of our careers are important, but that means both of our ambitions have had to be quashed a little. I think that's important to realize.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:40 AM on April 3, 2016 [7 favorites]

You need to break the question down into two parts.

First -- is it important that a couple start from a similar place in terms of ambition and engagement? Yes, definitely. Ambition, responsibility and intelligence are not areas where opposites attract with a lot of sticking power. And the trick to achieving this for yourself is "Just Say No" -- if a woman doesn't match up here, don't date her, no matter what sparks you might feel or how annoying it may be not to have a date for your cousin's wedding.

Second -- it is important that a couple stay on equivalent career paths? Absolutely not. Very few couples manage to do this. Kids come along and that requires or encourages one spouse (usually the wife, but not always any more) to downshift or even leave their career. Sometimes one spouse just gets bored or disenchanted with their fast track career and can't find another one. Sometimes one spouse fails so spectacularly, or is on so sharp of end of economic changes, that they can't get back on the fast track even they wanted to do so.
posted by MattD at 6:56 AM on April 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think it's totally reasonable to want a partner who's on your wavelength in this way. But perhaps some other descriptors to consider might be "passionate", "motivated", or "engaged", instead of "work-equal". I myself tend to be attracted to people who could be described as motivated or ambitious and have long-term career goals, but what I think the real pull for me is, is to be with someone who is engaged with the world around them. They want to know more, question things, and are overall curious.

As many have pointed out above me, work/job is fluid, and can change in a million unexpected ways over a lifetime. I'm a lady who's dated dudes who liked that I am engaged and passionate about my work, and that I'm committed to a long-term career path. The kicker in that, is that there were times where they saw that path moving differently than I did, and it caused conflict. Just because I didn't take the path that they thought was best, does not mean that I'm not ambitious or motivated to move's just a different way of doing it than perhaps they would! I would hope that my partner would know that being motivated and engaged in my work is a part of my personality, and that because they know that, they would respect the choices I make concerning my career. To me, an ideal partnership is one where we can both support each other in whatever stage we're in.

Your question got me thinking about a Dear Sugar episode I listened to the other day, so I'm going to drop it here. Primarily what I think might be of interest to you is when Cheryl Strayed's husband is interviewed about how they (two highly motivated and creative people) have handled years of career struggles and changes together as a team.
posted by gollie at 7:35 AM on April 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

We are comfortable and I am a stay at home mom. I don't think my career ambition is important for us. I am raising our children and home making, but we are intellectual equals and best friends. We share the same goals as a couple. I think that's what's important. I think some guys like their wives to reflect well on them to others and prefer professionally successful women.... I had other things to bring to the table that made me a good package and was quite optimistic about my choice in a mate.... and so I chose to date men who were successful on their own and were looking for a partner with whom to raise children, because that was my ambition and I'm very happy doing that. My husband is thrilled and proud of me and we are super connected soul mates. So, there's no right answer, just what's right for you.
posted by catspajammies at 7:36 AM on April 3, 2016

If the type of person you'd enjoy being partners with is a person with similar career goals and ambitions as you, then that's fine. I do think that you should keep in mind that life is unpredictable and ideally, what you're looking for are shared values, not necessarily similar job titles. Job titles can and do change; people get laid off; people develop health conditions; people decide that their vision of changing the world can be better accomplished through poetry (or whatever).

Also, if you are looking for a serious, values-driven, and ambitious woman for an equal partnership, and you are almost 30, you would do a lot better to think of and refer to potential partners as women, not girls.
posted by wintersweet at 8:42 AM on April 3, 2016 [11 favorites]

I would look at the qualities and worldview behind these sorts of jobs (passion? Focus? Intelligence? Generosity?). Not the jobs themselves. That strikes me as sort of rigid and snobby/shallow, as starting your own business or entering med school or becoming a designer are not realistically accessible to everyone but the privileged. And yes, please be aware that "ambition" for women is a culturally loaded thing-- it's looked down upon by many, and even when it's not, we're often expected to pack it in at some point.

I don't think there's anything wrong with realizing your ideal match would be career-minded but I've never found the "ideal match" criteria to pan out unless it's about innate qualities, rather than circumstances, because circumstances change. Say you decide a doctor with mermaid hair is your ideal match. Long hair and being a doctor are circumstances that can change throughout a woman's life. Focus on physical appearance and hard work and a scientific mind are qualities that transcend a particular look or occupation, and you could find these qualities in a woman who works as a homemaker, you know?

I see the logic in limiting one's dating pool to specific attitudes about work if that is important to you, but-- maybe I'm a romantic, or just practical, being 36-- I feel like imposing these sorts of artificial limitations like job type often means missing out on some surprisingly good matches.
posted by kapers at 12:47 PM on April 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

There are two articles/concepts about relationships that I return to over and over again because to me, they help define what can be very hard-to-identify personality and mental characteristics that only reveal themselves over time. And sometimes that time is a long time, and by then you are entrenched or otherwise "trapped" or angry that you "wasted" time with someone you "should have known better" about:

The Fixed vs Growth Mindset
Busy vs Productive

When I consider the concepts in these articles as they relate to people in my universe, invariably it turns out that the "fixed mindset" people and those who show themselves to value "busy" over "productive" are NOT people I resonate with or find any real degree of compatibility with. They just do not "get" me, nor I them. We will never agree. These are dealbreaker mentalities.

So when I am learning about new people, or forming deeper relationships with people, I try hard to look for the behaviors and attitudes that characterize these 2 concepts. They take me a long way toward better decision-making about how I choose to invest my time, energy and other personal resources.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:29 AM on April 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I can't help but bring up that you seem to have some unexamined gender stereotypes in your question - you seem very dismissive of work and ambition that takes place outside the workplace, that your last few girlfriends may have had. I know it sometimes seems like endorsing "equality" to be asking that your girlfriends have similar earning status to you, but in an unequal world, you are actually asking for more. It is much harder for women to be in the same business place as men - and they often have twice the drive to get to equal places. As others have noted, ambitious is not generally considered a positive word for women, and so many may be hiding their light under a bushel. But you need to consider whether this is really what you want, or if you're looking for something else when you say that. How would you feel if someone said they were ambitious for kids? A good home? Ambitious for you? If that makes you think less of them, this is not about ambition.
posted by corb at 7:43 AM on April 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

in an unequal world, you are actually asking for more

I have to agree with corb, that something about your question rings off-key for me. I'm also hearing "ambitious enough to want you", meaning that you want someone who will secure their stake in you no matter what... because it's clearly not 'achieving world peace' ambitious or 'pioneering medical research' ambitious that you're seeking. It's 'makes me feel like a successful man' ambitious, 'doesn't have hang-ups over inequality crap going on for herself' ambitious and 'rejects her own feminine nature for masculine norms' ambitious (which, btw, that last one certainly does take ambition. As a thought experiment why don't you try being 'successful' by giving up your masculine nature for feminine norms and see how that works for you).

For sure it's my defensiveness speaking out from my own shitty shit life here, but you sound very entitled to a very privileged and perfect woman who hasn't been stupid enough to collect any baggage from living (I'm sorry but you want a doctor or an architect? It sounds more like you really want a 'girl' who does a great job making you look cool enough to get her, so it's really 'is masculine enough to not make me feel uncomfortable' ambitious and 'makes me feel like a cool successful 29 year old dude' ambitious that you might actually be looking for.)

It's inherent your desire for perfection in your female other that's making me feel uneasy about your request. To be very frank, you sound like a typical 29-year old who would not be worth my time at this phase of life. You sound like you would be impatient and disgusted with my shitty shit life (no matter now 'ambitious' I actually am) and bored to tears over my very real life reasons for having channeled my ambition the way I do and the sacrifices I've had to make to sustain it. I may be totally misreading what you've asked, but since you did ask for feedback, here was mine: When you're saying 'work-equal' and 'ambitious', you might really only be speaking code for 'Stepford wife' -- which is okay, if that's what you're being honest about wanting. I don't know. It could be I'm too jaded to offer meaningful feedback for your question, but I read your description of what you want and it sounds like a modern gilded cage to me.
posted by human ecologist at 10:15 AM on April 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

The word "ambitious" seems to be striking a lot of nerves here.

Personally, I have a good career, and I only looked for partners to have a good career too. This does not mean long extreme hours, but, something in his life that is more than just family and domesticity.

I want children, and so does my partner. However, I have personally seen what most* people who have made their families their sole and primary focus, and I want something more.

My immediate family, my partner's immediate and extended family are made up of stay-at-home wives and working husbands. And, ugh. Our conversations with them are limited to what did Child X do today, or how cute was Child Y when they did Z gesture, various tv shows, and general talk that revolves around a domestic sphere. When there is a larger world out there, and self-driving cars! Economy! Fin tech and bitcoins! Shipping! Etc! And when my work has some relevance to these larger trends in society.

To each his or her own, but it's okay to want a partner who has the same type of drive to be part of a larger world.

* if said generalization does not apply to you, please feel free to ignore. Only speaking from my experience here, just as you are too

** Also, people get laid off, get sick, etc etc. But you can plan for what you can see now. Just like when people get married, they don't immediately make plans for divorce.
posted by moiraine at 10:22 AM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Building a bit on some things that corb and human ecologist pointed out...

I probably qualify as one of these ambitious women you're interested in -- phd engineer, blah blah blah. I'm 31, so let me tell you why I haven't settled into a permanent relationship in the last 5 or 10 years: it would have hampered my ambitions!

Male-female relationships that do not swim against the tide of cultural expectations are advantageous for a man's career while dealing a blow to a woman's career. I would not be nearly as succesful if I'd been diverting a portion of my efforts to taking care of some guy. I'm not saying it's impossible to cultivate a relationship that nurtures both partners' careers equally, but it takes a lot of emotional labor (there's a thread to look up) to do so. And that's a risky investment when plenty of couples in their 20s break up for no-fault reasons.

So my advice to you would be to think about how to demonstrate to this demographic of woman that you're interested in how you will further her ambitions. Because the default course of events she likely expects is that you will derail them; she may not even be looking for a relationship.
posted by ecsh at 5:25 AM on April 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

Wow, thanks for the huge amount of answers. Lots to think about.

What I want to say is that I guess I am looking for someone with the same values around work. And most likely these values extend to their other values.

I want someone that has big dreams and passion. I have these ideas about what I want to do in 10-20 years and I am working towards that.

What I find interesting in the Dear Sugar episode that gollie posted that it was about this women who fell for a "career guy", who then ended up following his dreams making a whole lot less. She wasn't so much in love then anymore. I absolutely want to avoid this scenario. The field I am in now is relatively well paid but I am pretty sure that if I really pursue what I want I will be living with a lot less income and stability.

I have this friend who makes a lot of money but he couldn't care less that his job is not very constructive to the world. He wants to retire at 40 and just spend his time travelling. I couldn't imagine that being fun for longer than a few months. At 50 I'd love to still be working every day. This guy is one my best friends but our "core" values really don't align so much.

Maybe what I am also looking for is good conversation around certain topics with my life partner. After all, you are spending so much time together. What moiraine points out is exactly what I feel: we need to be able to talk about bitcoin. And if you don't know what bitcoin is by now, sorry, maybe we don't match.

That's interests, and then there's passion. I can admire someone who spends time studying up on their field a few weekends per year. Someone who always has a side project going on. There's people who really care about the job they are doing, about their craft, about learning new things - and there are people who don't.

I work in the creative field (somewhat) and I read this article in the NYT called Old Masters (at the top of their game), and it was about people who are 80 and who are still doing their thing, still getting better. For me that's something to admire.

I think some of the later answers took my initial question a bit far... and are making too many assumptions. I am not some woman-hating guy who is looking for a cool architect/doctor so I can show off how cool I am myself, get kids with and then force her to stay at home while I work on my career. I can admire people who are teachers or nurses or whatever job, as long as they have some drive within that job that goes beyond "just doing their job".

There's a lot of comments pointing out I am privileged to be male and it's not so easy (and even frowned upon sometimes) for a woman to try and have a career. I am not oblivious to this fact; and when the age old question of "who stays home for the kids" comes around I am pretty certain I won't be the guy who says that my partner has to put her work aside.

Obviously not every life story is a happy "let's work on my career while I have the backing of a stable family, and no shit ever happens". Everyone has his or her story and for example it would be quite a dick move to not take care of your family when bad things happen and obviously this can affect careers. I am not looking for someone with a perfect track record that I will rate on how far they are in their career. Rather I am looking for someone with the same values when it comes down to it.
posted by fka at 11:45 AM on April 8, 2016

I think you answered your own question with the phrase "For example, if she would be a greedy money grabbing day trader, I wouldn't be able to get behind that." I struggle with the idea of work-equality in my own relationship, mostly due to jealousy on my part. I see you've pointed out that it's not really about how much money you make, but being able to respect what your partner does for a living. I think you're limiting yourself in wanting to find a partner who owns their own business however. There are a lot of very driven people out there who don't want to be all about their jobs. There are also a lot of people who are ok with a moderate amount of success and mostly view their jobs as something to take pride in, but not something they want to place above all else.

I think it mostly comes down to values. Is your partner a hard worker, in whatever field, and can support you and vise versa? Your post makes me think you already know what you're looking for :)
posted by Firestorm 2018 at 8:37 AM on June 4, 2016

« Older PMDD, PPD, or just D?   |   How do I stop lashing out? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.