Decision-Making Strategies for Dual-Career Couples

By Caroline Ceniza-Levine '93BC of the Columbia Career Coaches Network
Originally published on

As a recruiter, I've seen many job offers fall apart over the significant other. For example, in a relocation, the candidate was willing to make the move, but the partner nixed it. Even in an offer situation for the same city, a partner's hesitation could derail the deal. A deal-breaker raised by the significant other was so common that one of my recruiting colleagues always included a dinner with the partner during the selling process. 

It makes sense that couples would include each other in their career decision-making. After all, your career moves impact the ones most close to you, especially if you share a household, finances, and/ or children. At the same time, you also want to prioritize your personal fulfillment and individual professional goals. What if your best next move requires a relocation, extensive travel, or a period of long, volatile hours? While there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to career decision-making (especially decisions made for two), here is how I've seen other dual-career couples decide on jobs that impose sacrifices on the other person:

Take Turns

One couple who met at one of the top business schools and each navigated C-level careers while raising two children, consciously do not make big moves at the same time. At one point, the husband heard about an opportunity he really wanted, but his wife had just taken on a new role, so he waited a year before pursuing. Perhaps you made the last move (or several, as taking turns doesn’t have to mean 1-for-1 exactly). If you're in a relationship and your partner is asking you to make a sacrifice, could it be your turn to prioritize your partner's next move?

Negotiate The Timing

Another couple faced a relocation for the wife and opted to do it in stages. Due to the nature of the opportunity (launch of a new group), the timing was pretty fixed but their timing as a family was also fixed as they had school-aged children in the middle of an academic year. The husband stayed behind for the remainder of the school year, while the wife kicked off her new role. He took on the kid duties; she took on the move duties. They built in a schedule of visits so the family wasn't apart for too long. Perhaps your next career move can be done in stages—part-time graduate school, a business on the side, a flexible schedule at the start with your new company—if you need to fulfill commitments at home. If your partner has more flexibility, perhaps s/he takes up household commitments you normally share. It's not only the person making the career move who needs to adjust.

Prioritize The Unique Opportunity

One couple moved from a big city where they both had roots to a much smaller town because the husband, an artist now teaching, got an artistic director post at a regional theater. Another couple relocated when one partner got a senior position at a high-growth start-up (this company is a media darling so the time to join is now). In both cases, the career opportunity for one partner was deemed too unique to pass up. Is your next career move time or location-specific? If you need to convince your partner about your next career move, look at the unique characteristics of the opportunity because some jobs can't be easily duplicated, if at all.

Prioritize The "Best" Opportunity

The reality is that there are pros and cons to every decision, and there will be different pros and cons as you consider your individual and shared goals. Write all of your shared and individual decision criteria down and compare everything against the career move at hand. This will give you and your partner a framework to openly discuss what each of you thinks about move, what each of you wants for yourself, and what each of you expects from each other. You can enroll a mutual friend to facilitate the discussion to make sure you each get equal time and voice. By using a decision matrix that includes individual and shared criteria you can choose a move that is best for all parties involved.

However you decide to decide, you want to talk about the decision-making process well before you need to make your next decisions. One search I worked on fell apart at the offer negotiation stage when the husband, who had said all along that he was willing to relocate, decided that in fact he was not. The opportunity was a move into the executive levels for the wife and with an organization that united several of her disparate interests. It was a significant step up and a unique opportunity. She had picked up and followed her husband on several of his moves, so she also felt this was her turn. While she turned down the job, the last I heard, they were in marriage counseling and it was not looking good. I don't think career derailed the relationship, but I do think career sparked a long overdue discussion. Don't wait that long before discussing with your significant other how you will decide your next career moves.



Caroline Ceniza-Levine '93BC is a member of the Columbia Career Coaches Network. For more career resources, visit her website, SixFigureStart, career coaching by former Fortune 500 recruiters.


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