3 questions to ask yourself if you're considering giving up your career for love

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

This month, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex traveled to Ireland. While greeting admirers in Dublin, Meghan Markle encountered one fan who said she missed the duchess’s television show, Suits.

Meghan replied, “So do I.”

That’s interesting. Does the newest royal actually miss her career? Was it bittersweet to know that, after accepting a prince’s proposal, she’d likely never again be able to accept another movie or television role? What about the fact that her marriage to Harry meant she had to shut down her lifestyle website?

Obviously, this is an extreme example. Meghan cannot participate in much of public life — career included — thanks to some very old royal traditions. She also got a seemingly dreamy life in return for turning in her SAG card as well as a new job as duchess, which will allow her to focus on her humanitarian work.

Regardless, it does bring up an interesting question for the rest of us: Should you give up your career for love?

I wrote a book examining the love lives of career women — women who regularly ask themselves this question. I remember one woman in particular who had worked hard to get into a top business school when out of the blue she met the love of her life. He was set to attend business school in another state, much to her dismay. She’d waited at least a couple decades for love like that, and they talked it over. After much back and forth, they decided she’d defer and go with him while he pursued his post-graduate education.

Even though they stayed together for the better part of a decade, the decision frequently haunted their relationship. His career was first, always. In the relationship, she was never allowed her moment to pursue her dreams. They eventually broke up.

Women are frequently caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to career and love. With two ambitious people, paths tend to diverge. There’s a job offer in a different city, a Ph.D. program in another state and travel requirements in another country. And there’s a lack of time, because you’re on opposite schedules and have limited energy. Something’s gotta give. Women are often put in the position to (potentially) give it all up.

Does this sound familiar? Are you wondering if you should sacrifice your career for love? Don’t do it before you ask yourself these questions.

Why is your career the one being abandoned?

I would never tell a woman that giving up her career is the wrong choice, but I’d definitely advise her to think about how she arrived at the choice of love over career.

It’s very different for a woman to choose to give up her career for a relationship’s overall prosperity than for her partner to suggest she should. If your partner gets a new job or needs to move away from the area, is it a discussion about how that will impact the relationship and what moves you’ll both need to make? Or is it assumed that you’ll give up your career and follow — or, perhaps worse, if you don’t, the relationship will dissolve immediately?

Some time ago, Marina Adshade, an economist at the University of British Columbia, introduced me to the concept of “bargaining power.” Giving up your career without discussion or compromise sends the signal that your partner’s desires are more important than your own. That dynamic often continues beyond this decision. Bottom line: Make sure you’re advocating for yourself and your dreams during the process of making big changes.

Will you get a turn to focus on your career down the road if you want to?

Two super-driven people in one relationship often leads to a tough road, because opportunities in competitive industries typically are not endless.

If you are choosing to give up your career or sacrifice your current position, you have to determine your personal road and role in the relationship after the decision has been made. Are you okay with staying home? Will you find a new job? Are you okay with a pay cut, or with switching industries altogether? Will your partner support you when you start to work, right away or in the future? Will you “get a turn” to pursue your goals?

You need to discuss all these things before making any major changes so that you and your partner are on the same page. One of the most devastating interviews I ever conducted was with a woman who gave up her career to follow her boyfriend. She expressed a desire to go back to school and get an MFA if she gave up her business track, but there was no agreement on when or how that would happen. Her “turn” to chase her dreams never came, and they eventually broke up. Make sure your partner supports your personal goals and helps you somehow achieve them. Either that, or be sur you’re okay with mutually deciding on new goals as a team.

What will be your role in the relationship? And are you truly OK with it?

Deciding to make a major life change or move for your partner’s career is often a turning point for a couple. If you weren’t previously aware of it, now you’re building a life together. So, make decisions together and discuss your values in determining who takes what role — especially if you don’t want to stay home.

I interviewed a young engineer who was on the fast track in his career and said he’d struggle to date anyone who didn’t just want to stay home or follow his lead. This was not because he wasn’t attracted to independent, career-minded women, but because if someone wasn’t following his lead, he would worry that the relationship would be all ambition and no glue. He said he had yet to find a person who wanted to compromise this way.

He has a point: What do you do if ambition is paramount to both parties and no one is holding things together on the home front? I’d advise women to have a clear discussion about why they’re stepping back in their career or stepping into the role of nurturer, especially if they don’t feel naturally inclined to be in this gender dynamic.

When career people couple up, it’s more important than ever to define what your “team” dynamic looks like, and who will take on what role when.

My last piece of advice: Remember that emotions fade.

Partnerships take time to form. Everything is exciting and emotional in the honeymoon phase of a relationship, which can last as long as two years. So what happens if a career crossroads occurs during this time frame? You may want to jump in headfirst, but think twice before following the knee-jerk reaction of your heart.

You might do something willingly early in a relationship — like making a move or giving up your career — that could lead to resentment or regret later on after hormones and emotions fade. My best advice is to make sure you’re an established couple and understand each other’s long-term needs and goals, and that, above all else, you’re on the same page in terms of values.

Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love (Grand Central Life & Style, out now).

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