When you think of career, a romantic relationship probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Although often treated as separate areas of life, career and relationships are interconnected – and research suggests young Canadian couples treat them as such.
For many 18-to-29-year-olds, career and relationship decisions go hand in hand. Consider, for example, a young person faced with the decision of whether to attend post-secondary in a different city than their partner. Decisions such as this one are incredibly common and can have lasting impacts on these young peoples’ careers and their lives. The current world of work requires career practitioners to apply a holistic lens that includes considerations of clients’ relationships.
To address this need, we provide an overview of career-relationship intersections, as well as some tips for practitioners and couples who find themselves caught in these intersections.
Young adult career and relationship development
Young adulthood is often a period of exploration and decision-making in both career and relationships. During this period, individuals are required to make choices that will lay the foundations for their careers in the years to come. Research indicates romantic partners can be both a positive and a negative influence on young adults’ career development, including providing support or taking attention away from career.
With dual-career couples (i.e. couples where both partners are employed) on the rise in Canada, many young couples are faced with pursuing not just one, but two careers. According to a report from Statistics Canada, due to increased numbers of women entering the workforce, the number of dual-income families in Canada nearly doubled between 1976 and 2015. Ultimately, today’s couples must find a way to pursue their lives together while balancing their individual career goals and the needs of their relationship. For many, this balance can feel more like a “juggling act.”
Unfortunately, individual career paths may not readily align. Dr. Jennifer Petriglieri has conducted research with over 100 dual-career couples in their mid-twenties to mid-sixties from different parts of the world. According to her work, young adulthood tends to be a period during which couples figure out how to integrate their two lives and careers, rather than approaching them separately. Developmental literature has similarly suggested a stage of romantic development during which young couples seek to merge their lives and careers.
For couples: The role of choices
In pursuing their careers, young couples are faced with multiple decisions. For example:
- What are our other life goals (e.g. marriage, children, interests, where to live)?
- How do we prioritize and balance our individual career opportunities?
- What do we each want out of a career (e.g. fulfillment, steady income…)?
- Am I willing to make career sacrifices for this relationship? Or relationship sacrifices for this career?
It is well recognized that dual-career couples may come up against decisions that require one or both partners to make sacrifices in their career. Those decisions can have far-reaching consequences for their lives. To complicate things further, there may be no clear “best” choice.
When it comes to tough career decisions, Dr. Petriglieri proposes, “It’s not what couples choose, it’s how they choose.” Her research provides insights into how dual-career couples can be intentional in their decision-making, so their decisions feel more balanced in the long run. She recommends couples:
- Discuss future goals regularly, and write them down, before it’s time to make a career decision.
- Set boundaries to help rule out career options that are not aligned with the life they envision together (e.g. around time investment, work-related travel, locations for work).
- Stay in conversation about decisions to make sure they don’t always favour only one person.
For career professionals: tips for career practice
The following are recommendations for career practice, based on two informative book chapters about (a) career counselling with young adults and (b) the connection between career and relationship during young adults’ transition into the workforce:
- Determine the influence of the relationship on an individual’s career. Do not discount the fact that a relationship may be influential. Romantic partners may be a source of emotional, financial or instrumental support for career development or offer a unique perspective on their partner’s career challenges. On the other hand, relationships may act as a barrier to career development, such as when a decision is made based only on relationship goals, without also considering each partner’s career goals.
- Consider a referral to couples’ counselling. Sometimes at the root of a career concern is a relationship problem or conflict within the couple. For example, couples may differ in their values or expectations for how to best pursue their respective careers alongside their two lives due to differences in their childhood family experiences combined with conflicting communication styles. In some cases, it will be more effective to address underlying relationship dynamics before working through career challenges.
- Invite romantic partners into the career counselling process. Since career decisions often involve and impact both members of the couple, why not have both members weigh in? In his comprehensive book on career counselling, Dr. Norman Amundson proposes partners can be asked to join appointments in real-time, or to provide their perspectives through take-home assignments.
Finally, here’s one tip informed by recent research on young women’s career-relationship intersections:
- Encourage couples to reflect on their goals outside of work, and how a given career path does or does not align with those other life goals. Career professionals may need to problem solve with clients around potential conflicts.
Ultimately, career professionals should explore the influence of relationships on young adults’ careers. While the existing research into this area is limited, new work is being published regularly. Practitioners should also keep an eye out for and address these intersections as they arise in career counselling and practice. It may also be helpful to normalize clients’ experiences as a natural part of the career development process. Careers occur in the context of life, and career practitioners need to be on the lookout for how those worlds intersect.