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Career couples fight over who's the 'trailing spouse'

  • Story Highlights
  • Study: It's common for couples to place more emphasis on the man's career
  • Book author battles with NASA pilot over whose career is most important
  • Wife found herself dealing with subtle power plays at home
  • Possible fixes: Long-distance marriage, trading places, honest conversations
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By Sarah Jio
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(LifeWire) -- Misti Guertin was a publicist with a full roster of clients and a growing salary when her husband, Gary, 56, was offered a job managing a luxury resort on a private island in the Caribbean.

"It takes some heartfelt conversations to begin balancing the career scales in a marriage," says an expert.

"It takes some heartfelt conversations to begin balancing the career scales in a marriage," says an expert.

"My career was just beginning to bloom," says the Stuart, Florida, resident, "but we both placed more emphasis on Gary's career."

Misti, 47, was raised to believe that the man's career comes first. So she went, taking a token title as co-manager of the resort. But less than a year after their arrival in 2005, a fire ravaged the resort and Gary's contract was terminated.

"The strain on our relationship was sizable," she says. The couple returned to Florida, where Misti went back to work as a publicist and Gary as the general manager of a yacht club and marina. Her income this year, she says, will exceed Gary's.

It's common for couples to place more emphasis on the man's career, according to a 2007 study of more than 9,000 married men and women ages 25-59. The researchers, from the University of Iowa and the University of California-Davis, also found that when couples relocate, the husband tends to get a salary boost -- $3,000 on average. But the wife loses $750.

"When couples migrate, they are [typically] doing it for the benefit of the husband's career, and so the wife is what we call the 'trailing spouse,'" says study author Mary Noonan, associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa. "She may have to take a job in the new location that is a less-than-ideal match for her skills [or] qualifications."

Expert: 'Things are moving slowly in the right direction'

Why do couples, even today, let the woman's job take a back seat? Blame it on socialization, says Noonan.

While it may not be true for every relationship, more often than not, she says, "men and women are taught to play very different roles within marriage. Women are socialized to play a homemaking role within the family, whereas men are encouraged to focus on their careers and breadwinning." See how one dad has taken on child-rearing duties »

Daniel Buccino, a psychotherapist and faculty member at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, agrees.

"Until more men are willing to say, 'You know, honey, you shouldn't have to change your name or sacrifice your career, and I'll stay home with our kids and aging parents,' progress will remain glacial," he says. "But things are moving slowly in the right direction."

After Dayna Steele, 48, published her first book in March and began making the media rounds, she found herself dealing with subtle power plays at home.

"I have tried very hard to schedule around my husband's full-time job and keep him posted on my schedule, confirming dates before I book them," says Steele, a former radio host living in Seabrook, Texas. "Then, he started scheduling things over mine without telling me.

"It turned into a battle when I first tried to point out to him what he was doing -- trivializing my new career after promising to support it because he had a 'more important' job."

Steele knows her husband's salary and benefits are important but says her career deserves respect, too. "We're not quite all the way there, but we're making some progress," she says. Steele's husband, Charles Justiz, 55, a NASA research pilot, says he does his best to show he values his wife's career, but it can be challenging, especially with two children. "We've had some collisions," he admits. "I can't call NASA and say, 'Excuse me, I can't come in because my wife has a book signing.'" See how CNN journalists juggle careers with motherhood »

But they're both working on being more flexible, he says. "I love my wife, and the old saying is true: 'If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.'"

'Balancing career scales'

Experts have some tips for couples clashing over a career move:

Trade places. "It takes some heartfelt conversations to begin balancing the career scales in a marriage," says Les Parrott, a clinical psychologist and faculty member at Seattle Pacific University. "It requires both spouses to be honest with their feelings."

Parrott asks clients to list what's important to them about their careers, assigning each element a value from 1 to 10. After each spouse makes a list, they try to guess how much their partner values each item.

"It's almost always an eye-opener," says Parrott. "It helps them empathize. It helps them trade places. And with that new perspective, they are ready for a more honest and grace-filled exploration of their options together."

Try the "package deal" approach. When a couple is considering relocating, Buccino says, one spouse should see what the new company can do for the other.

Switch off. Buccino says the fluidity of today's job market gives couples "opportunities to evaluate and re-evaluate and hopefully switch off between whose career takes priority at various phases along the marital life cycle."

When neither is willing to budge, there's always the long-distance marriage.

"I have seen two-career couples that live in two different cities," Buccino says, "because neither is willing to pass up great career opportunities."


While such an arrangement may be a good interim move, it can take a toll on the relationship.

"Some couples have not made it," Buccino says. "If they're committed to each other and the relationship, and otherwise so busy with work when apart, then it can work. But I'm not sure I'd recommend it as a first choice."

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Sarah Jio is a Seattle-based writer who has contributed to "Cooking Light," "SELF," "Glamour" and many other publications.

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