Career + Couples Decisionmaking Anxiety
February 5, 2020 8:11 AM   Subscribe

For the first time in my life, I'm thinking about a committed relationship where career/location decisions become about "us" and not "me." This is causing more anxiety than I expected, and I don't think it's all logical. Any suggestions for reframing / rethinking this?

I have been rewriting this question to add/delete detail about our lives and our desires, but I think this question is really about my anxiety about money and stability, not the specific details or specific decisions. I spent most of my life up through my 30s establishing career/financial stability. This probably sounds more dire than the reality: my family had lower-middle-class money, but not more than that. I was encouraged to go to college and grad school far away, and after spending most of my 20s broke, I moved even farther for a job, and then a few years later, even farther for another job. At this point I'm in my mid-30s, have a successful career with a focus I like (R&D in real-time graphics), no debt, and some fairly robust savings. At the same time, I have several close friends who have experienced real hardship (medical, etc), so I am perhaps over-aware of how tenuous stability can be. I also know that I'm picky about job roles, and have a fairly specific background/niche. I've got alll my "real" jobs through personal connections and I'm not sure how successful I would have been cold-calling, because my resume is a bit non-traditional.

I'm currently in a long-distance relationship with someone who lives near my first 'real' job. We've known each other for close to five years (not all of that dating), and I really think she could be the one. To resolve the long distance thing, at least one of us has to move and find a new job near the other, eventually. We're looking at least a year into the future on that, because we both have significant things we want to accomplish where we are, but we're starting to try and figure out how we make this work. Her ask in all this is that, if she relocates (to my city, or if we both choose to find somewhere new), we relocate once and try to stay there a long time.

My success so far has been so connected to ability to pick up and go for a new job/role/challenge that I'm scared of what happens to my career if I agree to stay in one place. It sounds silly, but I've never job-hunted in a geographic area. It's always been "Well, where are cool people that I know doing cool things? Can I get there?" Which, again, is a lot of privilege. Probably an unreasonable lot of privilege. I stress a bit about not having a network in her city (it has tech, I just don't know people there yet) but really what I think I'm reacting to is the big change in career strategy. Like, I've been focusing on my career for my entire adult life. Who am I if I'm not out there finding hard problems to solve with cool people? Which sort of sounds ridiculous, but at the same time, it's how I've defined my life and it's hard to let go of. I think some of it is FOMO (like, what opportunities that I don't even know about am I giving up?) and some of it is fear of the unknown (what if I can't find roles that play to my strengths in her city? What if she moves here and then the bubble bursts and we need to move elsewhere, and she resents me?)

I'm not sure how much of this is legit concern and how much is anxiety-brain, and how to think my way out of it. Any thoughts?
posted by Alterscape to Human Relations (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You might be interested in the book Couples that Work, which basically deals exactly with the question you're asking. Specifically she talks about three transitions that couples generally go through - you are going through the first transition, as you go from making decisions as an individual to making decisions as part of a couple. She emphasizes the importance of thinking consciously about what kind of a couple you intend to be and having up-front conversations about these things, particularly to avoid the kind of resentment that might arise if one partner feels that they have drawn the short straw during the decision-making process. I think it would be really helpful and give you a framework to think about this question.
posted by peacheater at 8:49 AM on February 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

To put it bluntly, when you become part of a family, you have to put aside putting your career first, and think about everyone. For example why would you expect your partner (I'm assuming female, sorry if I'm wrong) to move not once, but twice, for your career? There are many gendered assumptions there. If what you want is a wife/girlfriend who will put her career and interests second to yours, you can actually find that, but that may mean compromising on the actual person.
posted by schwinggg! at 9:54 AM on February 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

(and to clarify, by "compromising on the actual person" I don't mean that women who want to stay at home or follow their spouses are inferior. I mean that you would have to put finding a woman who would agree to that at the top of your list when seeking relationships, which means compromising on any other personal characteristics that might also be important to you.)
posted by schwinggg! at 9:56 AM on February 5, 2020

Best answer: It sounds to me like the concerns about your identity are the main driver of your anxiety, rather than any actual economic hazard.* I empathize. Changing the story you tell yourself about who you are is hard!!

I would:
1) Ask yourself: do you want to be a person who derives the core of your identity from work, and prioritizes your work over deep personal relationships? This is a question about your values. It's independent of how achievable the values feel, or whether they imply changes that provoke anxiety.
2) Reflect on the fact that you can't fully control the outcome of this relationship, the state of the tech bubble, who you meet in your new city, etc, and no matter what choice you make, it's possible that Things will Go Wrong and you will end up in a situation that's not what you wanted. The goal is not to eliminate risk, it's to take risks that are worth it. This is where it's useful to fall back to thinking about your values. If you make a choice that's aligned with your values and it doesn't work out how you wanted, at least you can feel good about the fact that you acted with integrity and authenticity and took risks in the name of becoming the person you want to be. This feels much better than ending up in a bad situation due to decisions made out of inertia or anxiety.

Having a social identity of "person with cool interesting job" has its perks, for sure. I used to have cooler jobs than I do now, and it was an easy way of broadcasting to like-minded people that I was worth getting to know. However, there are a bazillion different ways to feed your intellect and make interesting friends. If your work becomes less of a useful shortcut for that, in time you will find other ways, and probably discover new things about yourself and end up with a richer life in the process.

Also, if you move somewhere with a decent tech scene (which seems like a reasonable/feasible thing for you to negotiate with your partner), you will almost certainly find stuff that is still interesting, even if it's not the #1 most interesting thing in the whole country. It's also easier to build networks with people you're geographically close to, and as you do that, you'll still be able to pick up cool work through your new friends.

* It's true that the economic hazard is always non-zero, but as a skilled tech worker, you are way above-average employable, and with some years of specialized experience, will probably stay that way even if there's a market correction.
posted by introcosm at 12:02 PM on February 5, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Hmm, would a different framing help? You worked really hard in your 20s and 30s so you could have take advantage of opportunities to like this, to develop a healthy, intimate relationship with someone you love, and so that work wouldn't always have to be the main focus of your life.

Also, at the end of life, would you really want to look back and think, "Wow, I'm so glad I never gave that relationship a real chance so I could focus on my job!"?

Also, given your propensity to move and re-establish yourself, I'd encourage you to think about relocating to her city. It sounds like your industry is there. Imagine how great it could be to be building your network and have a solid relationship already? There can be a lot of stress in dating long distance, and you won't have that anymore.

Also, it sounds like you're doing great in your job. The worse case scenario here is ... your relationship doesn't work out (it can happen, and it's probably healthy not to think that there's a "one" out there) and you move to a new city and build a new network, which you've been doing a lot! So you can totally have that as a reasonable fallback plan.

What an exciting time for you and your partner! Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 12:24 PM on February 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the answers so far! To be clear, “I move to her city” is 100% on the table (there may be a followup in here about making inroads into the scene in that city!).
posted by Alterscape at 12:44 PM on February 5, 2020

Best answer: So let's pick out the 3 concrete fears here:
-you stay, she moves, you get bored/antsy with the jobs available in your current city
-she stays, you move, you get bored/antsy with the market there
-you both move, you get antsy and want to move again in a few years

Does that make it easier to see that no matter what choice you make, your fear is that you don't know if you'll be happy about it in a few years? This is oddly enough a path to freedom. Any choice will have risks/pros/cons and you will have no way to know until you're in it. Pick one and give it your best shot.

If all choices have the same unknowable risks, I would try the following experiment:

-It's 2023. You stayed in your current city with partner. You see Cool Job open up in Cool City. Do you feel remorseful that you didn't try living somewhere new?

-It's 2023. You moved to a new city with your partner. You see Cool Job open up in your old city. Do you feel regret that you left your network behind?

If you spend some time on it, I think you will know, in your gut, which one you regret LESS.
I say this as someone who had to make a similar choice back in 2017, and as much as I miss Old City, I knew I would regret not trying something else.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:51 PM on February 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have done this a few times for my partner! Sometimes it's been amazing and opened me up to opportunities I never would have even have thought of! And sometimes it's been awful! Sometimes, really, really awful!

That said, I've never regretted it. My partner is my partner. My life is not my life without him. Making these sacrifices became easy because of that.

That said, take turns if it's not working out and don't be committed to THIS IS THE MOVE; we've both uprooted for the other at different times in our lives, and it's avoided a lot of resentment.
posted by caoimhe at 1:40 PM on February 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's impossible to tell in advance how things will work out. It seems that you value your freedom to move (believe me, I get it) so I wouldn't lock into the "we can never move again" or "at least not for the long haul." I think it's reasonable that any choice is given a real chance without this weight on top of it. I would hope you would want to do this anyway and that your partner would trust/know you enough to understand you would do this. A useful way to think of it might be to think of three entities in the relationship: you, your partner and the relationship. Future decisions could be made that would favor at least two of the three. If you are capable of speaking of these issues openly together without feeling bad for your preferences then that bodes well.
posted by mossy_george at 2:57 PM on February 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with caoimhe. My wife and I have both followed each other, sometimes for good (like where we are now) and sometimes for ill (New Hampshire). Moving as a couple (or sometimes not as a couple, I know plenty of folks in academia who have spent long periods living in different places from their spouse) is a big decision and can represent a big sacrifice, but it is just a difference in scale from the tiny daily decisions and sacrifices that come with having a partner (what's for dinner, what do we watch, should I grow a beard). You get used to it, and it usually feels pretty natural.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:23 AM on February 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are different ways to think about this.

Traditionally, most couples picked one person (usually the male in a hetero couple, though some now think about it as "whoever has the most earning potential based on their field/jobs"...unfortunately that can also be more often the male), and always prioritized that person. This was perceived as the best for the two of you, in terms of setting your team up to make the most money. The person who had a "job" instead of a "career" usually took on more workload in terms of the home/shared responsibilities, including child-raising if applicable.

Obviously, this can set the other person up for resentment over time, if they feel like their potential to contribute to the world wasn't fully expressed. So, many couples are now trying to balance the careers of both people. This is hard stuff! Props to you two for doing it.

If your career requires moving, and hers requires being in one place, can you pick a shared "home base" and just accept that you may be leaving for months or up to a year at a time for project work? Many married couples make regular periods of long-distance work (see senators, astronauts, military, truck-drivers, authors who go on long book tours, people who work on Hollywood films filmed overseas, international journalists, management consultants who are out of town 4 days of every week, etc etc...). I may be biased because I had one parent in the military who was often gone for months at a time, but there are ways to do this!

I also want to say that in my experience, in MOST fields, being in a single region and staying there for a long time allows you to climb the career ladder in a way that moving doesn't -- for exactly one reason you pointed out, personal connections and networks. The longer you are in a place, the deeper your roots grow and the more people you know and have worked with. You might be surprised by the career benefits of establishing yourself in a community! (There are personal and social benefits, too, if you are in a place that is a good fit for you.)
posted by amaire at 12:15 PM on February 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I identify a lot with you. For a long time, my primary driver in life was "where is the most interesting job I can get?" and I got those jobs mostly through my networks. In my late thirties I actually realized that I didn't want to live like that anymore - a bunch of things changed in my life and I realized I wanted to stay where I was more than I wanted to chase the next big job. I was single, but it still precipitated a big identity crisis, and a lot of career/logistical questions when the job I had at the time was no longer worth staying in.

In my case, I wound up switching to freelancing, which has been great as I can work with clients all over the country (and even the world). It was funny, the day I went from working my full-time job to working for my first freelance client, I realized that was the first time in my life I'd switched jobs without moving across the country!

I don't know if going out on your own like that is an option for you. But the bigger point that I wanted to make is that there's nothing wrong with the way you've been living your life. And there's also nothing wrong with deciding you want to prioritize other things, even if it means less interesting work (I love freelancing but the work I get is not as meaty as the Big Jobs I used to have). But I think it really has to come from within. You have to really feel that your priorities have changed. You have to feel that you'd rather live with your partner and build a life with her, even if it means giving up potential Big Jobs in the future. If you're not there at the moment, you're not there.

You could probably talk yourself into getting there, and it may actually work. Once you live in the same city, you may find that your life together makes it worth it. You may not. It's kind of an unknown, and the research shows we humans are very bad at predicting what will make us happy. So I think all you can do here is be really honest with her and with yourself, and know that whatever path you take, there are risks and unknowns. Just be kind to your partner - don't lead her on if you're not all-in.
posted by lunasol at 12:27 PM on February 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

« Older I need a very simple habit tracker   |   Witness to car accident - how to contact owner? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.