How Much Ambition Can a Marriage Sustain?

Power couples are a rarity. Instead, many high-achieving women have husbands who do their own opting out.

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

This is the fifth story in a seven-part series looking at women’s ambitions in the years following college.

Gloria Steinem famously quipped that some women “are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” Forty years later, Sheryl Sandberg argued that the most important decision a woman makes about her career is whom to marry. But neither Sandberg nor Steinem have said much about what men’s careers look like in this scenario. Steinem did note in a 1984 commencement speech that she had “yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career.” And the implication in 2013’s Lean In is that women should strive for marriages like the one Sandberg had: two hard-driving careerists who found it acceptable to live in one city and commute to another on weekends, or who routinely returned to work after a brief family dinner interlude.

We expected to see many marriages in the Sandberg model—power couples consisting of two equal partners with equally big careers, both suiting up in the morning, shoving laptops into compact roller bags, and jetting to assorted meetings around the country. These types of couples tend to get splashed across the media, and given that our classmates had been ambitious and aiming for prominent careers, it stood to reason that they would meet and marry spouses on the same career trajectory.

A 2016 study by Robert Mare at the University of California, Los Angeles, lent credence to our expectation. Mare found that there has been an increase in assortative mating in recent years—spouses are more likely to have similar levels of education today than they used to. Logically it would seem that similar levels of education should lead to similar levels of career success. That is, when two MBAs get married, both are poised to become business executives and produce lots of little MBA-procuring children. But of the 39 women we graduated with who are either married or partnered, only 4 fit the classic power couple description: A chief marketing officer at a bank married a corporate real-estate vice president; a sought-after screenwriter married a music executive; a wealth manager at a large investment bank married a brokerage executive; and a prominent doctor married a general counsel at a brokerage firm.

We believe that couples often behave as though there is a set limit on the amount of ambition that can be contained within one union. Sometimes this limit is clearly articulated; sometimes it is unspoken, and the ambition can be distributed in different ways. Some couples consist of a high-achieving woman married to a man who has chosen to stay at home with the children, and sometimes it’s the reverse. Sometimes both members of the couple have careers that they’ve decided to scale back in order to be more available to children, or to pursue other passions like volunteering or hiking. But with only a few exceptions, our former classmates either consciously chose or happened into marriages that supported what feels like a finite cap on career ambition.

But, the assortative mating theory still holds. While nearly all of our highest achievers paired off with men who had comparable degrees, once they became parents ultimately only one person in the couple ended up with a classically successful career. The other spouse opted to stay home with the children, or to have a career with flexible hours that enabled them to be the primary caregiver. It is almost as though, in families where someone has a big job, all of the career ambition has been allocated to one person. So while nearly all of our stay-at-home contingent are married to high–achieving spouses (which in some cases led them to choose to stay at home), our highest achievers are almost exclusively married to stay-at-home fathers or men who have scaled back their careers.

In terms of numbers: We have eight high achievers who are married with children; five of them are the sole or primary wage-earner in the household. None of our former classmates who are Scale Backers or Opt Outers are married to stay-at-home fathers. A 2015 Pew Research study reports that 7 percent of American fathers are stay-at-home dads, which is roughly in line with the 8 percent of our former classmates married to men who do not work outside the home and are the primary caregiver. But for this group, only the high achievers are married to stay-at-home dads.

In some cases these women had conversations with their spouse about who would stay home and whose career would take precedence. An insurance-company executive met her husband back when they were working at the same management-consulting firm. They both knew they wanted their children to be raised by a stay-at-home parent. When she became pregnant she was earning more than her husband, and both spouses felt her career had better long-term prospects, so they decided together that he would leave work and she would become the sole breadwinner.

In other families, husbands seemed to slip into stay-at-home fatherhood due to circumstances that made working difficult. A banking executive met her future husband—a British citizen—when she was working in London. When they decided to move back to Chicago to be closer to her ailing father, he struggled to find work, and ultimately became a full-time stay-at-home father and part-time freelancer. Ten years on, the couple has never really articulated their division of labor. “We haven’t consciously had that discussion,” she told us. “I have been the primary breadwinner. If I did scale back or even step out of my role it would be a huge lifestyle change for us financially.”

Both women have seen their careers flourish, as did others married to men who work but are also the parent shouldering more of the child-raising and household duties. A senior rabbi whose husband is the director of development at a Jewish summer camp said that she and her husband had a frank discussion about whose career would take priority. “We fully articulated it,” she told us, explaining that in the early days of her marriage she’d kept her career ambitions modest in order to spend more time with her children. But after evaluating her own career possibilities, and factoring in her husband’s professional trajectory, she decided to make a move to push her own career ahead. “I was tired of making things happen for other people,” she said. The family moved states for her job, and she and her husband agreed that he would become the primary caregiver as he had a more flexible, lower-stress job. The level of ambition within their marriage stayed constant; it merely shifted from one spouse to the other.

It’s not surprising that nearly all of our stay-at-home contingent are married to high-achieving spouses. Many of them met their husbands at work, and then chose to stay at home in part because they found the challenge of managing a two-career family overwhelming, and in part because they had the financial ability to do so. But what we found surprising was that our Scale Backers were almost exclusively married to men who had also chosen scaled-back careers. In these couples both spouses work, typically full-time, but they’ve consciously downshifted their careers, or decided not to go for a big promotion, in favor of sharing child-raising duties, making homemade lunches or having free time to hike in the mountains.

A lawyer in Atlanta who removed herself from the partner track in favor of working from home one day a week is married to a man who had made the same decision. A nonprofit lawyer married to an information architect at an advertising agency described flexible schedules for both partners that allowed them to limit their paid childcare and spend time with their children in the mornings and afternoons. Both spouses liked that their jobs didn’t demand tons of time away from the family, and neither spouse was interested in moving into a higher position at work that might mean more hours, even though it might also mean more money, prestige, or new challenges to tackle.

And in a few cases, couples have switched roles over the course of their marriage. A lawyer for the State Department married to a man pursuing a graduate degree in International Relations came home one day, after years supporting the family and their four children, and told him that she was done juggling a demanding career with parenthood and that it was his turn. So did a woman in Connecticut who had been moving up the ladder at her corporate-training job while her husband stayed home to care for their son. And a former-teacher-turned-stay-at-home-mom outside of Chicago, married to a trader at an investment bank, told us that she and her husband had talked about trying to get her screenwriting career going so that he could slow down and possibly switch careers. She’d recently received a prominent screenwriting fellowship, and was optimistic about her chances in that industry.

So is it the case that modern marriages with children, and without access to unlimited expensive childcare, can only support a constant level of ambition? And if so, how conscious were the couples’ decisions to shift ambition across partners? Did the bulk of our high achievers knowingly marry the type of man who would be willing to scale back his career in favor of hers, or was it random? Does the personality type that creates a strong, successful executive gravitate toward the type of partner who might be more interested in staying home and raising children?  Or, perhaps a high degree of career success is only attainable if one spouse stays home. Maybe today’s work and parenting worlds are so all-encompassing and demanding that there is only room for one person to have a big career while the other takes on the full-time responsibilities of running a home and raising children. Most of our former classmates weren’t sure.

“What would my life have been like if I had an equally ambitious partner?” wondered the senior rabbi, shrugging. “I have a husband who may not buy me diamonds from Cartier but who is incredibly supportive in sharing the parenting, and who gets to do work that he finds meaningful.”

Several others thought that their career success had been driven by a combination of financial need and personality, but were mixed on the degree to which having a stay-at-home spouse had benefited their career.

“If [my husband] were here he would say he’s been my rock, he’s been my sole champion and sponsor, but I really feel I probably would have done it anyway,” the banking executive said. But she did acknowledge that logistically, having her husband home with their daughter meant she was able to handle last minute meetings at odd hours. “Knowing he was home, and having that flexibility to stay late when I needed to stay late [has been helpful]—my hours are all over the place. Sometimes I have to meet with an executive at  7 a.m. Sometimes I have to stay until after seven.”

And a business development director at a fashion and fragrance company in Barcelona whose partner—a former competitive cyclist turned spin instructor turned freelance video producer—is the parent who takes on more of the responsibility for caring for the couple’s son, says that her personality fits well with a demanding career.

“I’m slightly hyperactive,” she told us, laughing. “I need to be growing mentally, always having new challenges.”

But at the same time, her career is the family’s most stable source of income, so downshifting into a less demanding role isn’t an option. On the contrary, she recently moved her partner and son to Asia for her new job as the marketing and business development director for a global alcoholic beverage company.

“My mom stopped working for six or seven years to watch us,” she remembers. “It’s beautiful and I respect her for it. But at the same time I wonder: Am I doing the right thing? I haven’t scaled back, and where I am, I can’t scale back. It would not be possible today.”

Read the next piece in this series here.