Investing too heavily in your career can endanger your marriage. But there's another side of the story. Making use of your abilities in meaningful work can actually strengthen your marriage, according to educators and authors Judy and Jack Balswick.
The Balswicks are co-authors of a number of books, including The Dual-Earner Marriage (Revell). Not only do they research and teach about the topic (Jack is a senior professor of sociology and family development; Judy is senior professor with the school of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary), but they've lived as a dual-earner couple for much of their 51-year marriage. We asked the Balswicks about the pros and cons of dual-earner marriages, and here's what they had to say.
Why do dual-earner couples often get such a bad rap?
Jack: We often hear from some conservative groups, "God doesn't want both spouses to work, he wants the traditional marriage." Our position is that Christians need to be careful how they define a "traditional" marriage. Traditional doesn't necessarily mean biblical.
The model of the husband working outside the home and the wife staying in the home emerged as part of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. Prior to that, the family—not an individual worker—was the basic economic unit. Until this is understood in its historical context, a lot of dual-earner couples will continue to feel unnecessary guilt.
Would you say dual-earner marriages are here to stay?
Judy: While couples are very creative about how they approach the dual-earner option, I think many couples today perceive, for a variety of reasons, that both people working is an economic necessity.
Jack: These days, corporate downsizing and mass lay-offs are a reality. People are finding they have to retool and change careers.
Judy: The dual-earner marriage allows for a financial buffer while one spouse may be training for a new career. When you have both partners bringing in an income, one of them being laid off isn't such a blow.
That's true, but being in a dual-earner marriage myself, I know that having both myself and my husband working creates extra stress. Why are some couples able to handle this challenge while others seem on the verge of burnout?
Jack: The couples who successfully manage their dual-earner marriages exhibit certain personal and relational characteristics. For instance, if a man is secure in who he is as a person, then having his wife work or earn more than he does won't be a threat.
While the process is slow, I see men redefining themselves and rethinking what makes them feel good about themselves. For so long, we've accepted the secular model that you're a success if you earn so much money or get so many promotions. If men finally begin to say, "I'm a success when I have a vital, nurturing relationship with my wife and a strong, deep emotional bond with my children," then we'll let go of some of the more superficial, and false, definitions of masculinity.
That may be true for men. But what about the women out there who secretly resent having to work outside the home? How does a negative attitude toward working affect a couple's success at managing two careers?
Jack: What's happening in that case is what we call the "push-and-pull factor." Sometimes a spouse is pushed into becoming a second earner—the husband's wages simply can't meet the basic living expenses and so the wife must work as well, even though they'd both prefer that she didn't.
Other times, couples are drawn into a dual-earner situation. When our kids were in grade school, Judy really wanted to return to college to earn her doctorate. While she loved being an at-home mom, she also wanted to teach. We felt if we could divide up the household duties fairly and support one another, then Judy would feel more fulfilled as a person and ultimately that would improve the quality of our marriage and home life.
Judy: Even if there are a lot of stressors, there are also a lot of wonderful rewards for both partners since they have fulfillment in life outside the home. But if you have one spouse reluctant to go into a dual-earner arrangement, that couple will have more trouble dealing with the stress and pressures of both spouses working.
If one or both spouses are feeling uncomfortable with their status as a dual-earner couple, what changes should they make?
Judy: In that case, they should see if they can make do with less. For a while, when our kids were young, we lived on very little in a tiny apartment so I could be at home while Jack was getting his theology training. It was hard, but the sacrifice had meaning—it was more important for me to be home with the children when they were little and for Jack to get his degree.
What are some of the secrets you've found to keeping stress manageable?
Judy: In recent years, what has helped us the most is meeting regularly with other couples who also are in dual-earner marriages. Sure, it takes time; but we need to talk with others who understand the stressors we're facing. We hold one another accountable for the health of our marriages, the intensity of our emotional togetherness and the fairness of the decisions we make.
However, I think women, especially, have to realize they can't be superhuman. One woman we know who worked full time was able to arrange her schedule so she could help with her kids' after-school activities. She kept her house spotless, entertained a lot, and volunteered in her church. One day, when she was particularly exhausted, she balked at the idea of driving her teenage daughter and her friends to cheerleading practice. When she suggested that one of the other moms could drive them, her daughter exclaimed, "They all work!"
Her daughter's sobering statement made our friend realize she was living a charade—she couldn't do it all. And so, with the help of her husband, she cut back on some commitments and they divided up the household duties more fairly.
It would seem that dual-earner couples have more opportunities for conflict due to increased time pressure. Is that the case?
Judy: I wouldn't say there is more conflict, but because so much is happening, normal differences or conflicts blow up more quickly. So much of a person's energy is expended at work that often the family gets the leftovers. We're all kind of frayed at the end of the day—the kids have been in school, you've both been at work. At our house, when everyone got home we each needed our own space for about an hour.
Jack: When there are arguments, most often it's about roles and the feeling that there isn't enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Both spouses come home and think, He should have started dinner, or She should have taken out the garbage.
In a single-earner marriage, since the roles are more clearcut, there isn't as much need for negotiation. But for dual-earner couples, there is greater role ambiguity. That calls for more negotiation, which then invites more opportunities for conflict.
People who grew up in single-earner families didn't have role models showing how they should function in a dual-earner marriage. How can they work out roles without having a good road map to follow?
Jack: Who does what in a marriage evolves over time, and it may take years to perfect the roles—if you ever do perfect them. Dual-earner couples need to do a lot of experimentation—trying it this way and that way, sometimes failing until you gradually get it right.
But accepting and then following through on a certain responsibility won't work unless both the husband and wife are willing to make adjustments. The adjustment we see men making most often is moving from merely helping out at home—like when his wife asks him to lend a hand with dinner—to being the one who makes the dinner start to finish.
What adjustments are you finding women having to make?
Jack: Women have to realize they can no longer be the only one who sets the standards in the home—usually for household chores or parenting. The standard is now open for negotiation, as was the case in our marriage. When we decided I'd take over the vacuuming, I set the standard at once a month.
Judy: And I decided that wasn't acceptable.
Jack: Judy said, "I've always vacuumed every week, and that should be the standard." After some discussion, we finally compromised at every two weeks.
What kind of changes happened in your parenting?
Judy: Relaxing my parenting standards didn't come easily. I kept trying to tell Jack how to parent. Finally, he looked at me like, "Butt out of here." He said, "Unless you let me be the father I want to be, this co-parenting thing won't work." I was getting in the way of him establishing a relationship with our children.
But once I admitted he had the capability to parent—admittedly different from my style—I started to respect our differences. Only then did our kids become very much connected and attached to Jack. But I had to be willing to leave a gap and then let Jack fill it in his own way.
In a dual-earner family, the husband isn't the only one who needs to take on additional responsibilities, right?
Judy: Right! Don't forget the kids. When I went back to school, our kids were at the age where they could share in the work of running the household. They started doing the laundry and more of the cleaning. We began to think as a family how we could make it all work.
How did you manage to work out the details?
Judy: What helped us keep things on track was our weekly family council meeting. We had a certain time we'd meet each week—usually for 15 or 20 minutes. We'd look at how things were going. Who's discouraged with the chores they're doing? We considered roles and duties interchangeable. Knowing one person didn't have to be stuck with something all the time was helpful.
When I was working on my dissertation, the rest of the family would say, "Since you're so busy, we'll take on some extra duties."
Jack: Not feeling locked in is important; and so is not feeling locked out of something. For instance, if we realize we're not entertaining as much as we once did because of hectic work schedules, we know the situation isn't permanent. Schedules and responsibilities will change and open up free time again later on.
Obviously, a sense of flexibility and adaptability is essential. What else comes into the mix?
Jack: In a dual-earner marriage, where work roles are separate and spouses function independently, they're less likely to depend on one another. And while this fosters healthy autonomy, it can also make it more difficult for you to develop a sense of emotional closeness.
Judy: You have to work intentionally to develop a sense of cohesion so you won't be pulled apart. For some it might be family vacations, a birthday celebration or a certain holiday ritual.
So when my family watched Babe on video last night we weren't wasting time—we were building a stronger family.
Judy: Exactly. And, in a sense, our family councils were a way to do that. We were connecting every week. When our kids were younger, they even said, "We want you to be committed to Friday night as our family time."
Whenever Jack and I were invited out on a Friday night and we didn't meet that commitment to our kids, they'd call us on it. Following through on our commitment, especially when we had to turn down an exciting business engagement, required some sacrifices. But we knew if we wanted to build a sense of closeness we'd have to stick to our family traditions.
I've read that intimacy is one of the first things to go in a dual-earner marriage. Why is that?
Jack: The time factor is what most frequently erodes all types of intimacy. You ask most couples how their intimacy was when they were on vacation, and they'll say, "Great!" That's usually because they were finally together.
Spouses in dual-earner marriages need to intentionally allow time for, and even work on, building a sense of intimacy. If you're not finding time to be alone, then you've got to be adamant about scheduling it.
Judy: The wife and husband are the architects of the family. If the marriage relationship doesn't stay strong, you've got problems. Your relationship has to be a priority. God wants you to keep the boundaries of your marriage intact, which means making time for emotional and sexual intimacy.
We know that's important, yet we tend to put nurturing intimacy on the back burner—especially if we have kids at home. Why is that?
Judy: One reason is that people are afraid of intimacy. The fear is this: If I let my partner know the "real me," I might be rejected. So it's easier just to go about our busy lives without really connecting. It feels safer.
Jack: On the other hand, research shows that intimacy doesn't happen automatically in the marriages where only one spouse works outside the home. In fact, some studies indicate that when the economic burden is solely on the husband, the wife complains much more about intimacy.
I could build the case that there's a greater potential for intimacy in the dual-earner marriage because couples are encouraged to get away from the control issues. We're convinced that to the extent one spouse controls the other, rather than empowering one another, you erode the basis for true intimacy. One strength of a dual-earner marriage is that a lot of these control issues have to be worked through when spouses are negotiating new and changing roles.
Judy: Instead of unhealthy dependency, dual-earner marriages help husbands and wives develop a healthy inter-dependency. There's a deep sense of fulfillment when couples figure out together what it will take to make their dual-earner marriage work.
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.