Jump directly to the Content

Can You Have It All?

When it comes to balancing career and marriage, something has to give—right? 'Wrong!' says Alan Loy McGinnis

Conventional wisdom says you can't succeed in a fast-track career and excel as a spouse and parent. Either you settle for middling professional achievement in favor of a superlative marriage, or you commit to your career at the expense of your home life. It makes sense that something has to give.

"Hogwash!" says California-based family therapist and corporate consultant Alan Loy McGinnis. In The Balanced Life: Achieving Success in Work and Love (Augsburg), McGinnis argues that rather than competing, work and marriage actually benefit each other. The working world provides valuable lessons for your family, he says, while your family serves as a needed base of support to help you succeed at work.

It sounds too simple to be true. He must be describing those rare, but highly successful, career-and-family stalwarts, the ones who get everything done by surviving on four hours of sleep. Nope. He insists he's talking about ordinary mortals like the rest of us. In an effort to win over skeptics such as myself, McGinnis outlined his "four laws of success" for career and marriage. Here's how they work.

You can endure a lot of stress in a highly intense work situation if you have a deep set of relationships outside the office.

Your first law of success is commitment, but the working couples I know are pulled between dual commitments. They feel as if they're constantly deciding what to neglect, work or family. But in your scheme of things, they've missed the point.

Most people don't realize that work and family is not an either/or proposition—you need to be committed to both. If you want to succeed at work, you'd better take care of your marriage and your family. That runs counter to much that is being written about work and home. A cover story in Fortune, for instance, concluded that if you devote yourself to the people you love, you won't remain on the career fast track very long.

The best research I've seen shows just the opposite. One study has followed nearly 300 men since the 1940s, when they were college-age. Some became CEOs; others died as alcoholics. There was no correlation between their college academic performance and their eventual level of career success. What did make a difference was their ability to develop and maintain intimate relationships. The people who were unable to establish close friendships and maintain long-term marriages never even made it to middle management.

But what about a guy like Donald Trump, who's on his third marriage?

There are exceptions, of course. But God made us with a need to be loved and to love others. The people who live only to work may excel for a short time, but they will burn out because they lack a support network. You can endure a lot of stress in a highly intense work situation if you have a deep set of relationships outside the office. For most people, that's a family to go home to, which becomes the keel that keeps them steady.

No matter how much you love your spouse, though, it's often hard to disengage from work. Why is it so difficult to shift gears when you get home?

Some people, men more than women, look upon their home primarily as a place to refuel and rest up for the next day's work. Very few men put as much energy into the ongoing maintenance and sustenance of home life as their wives do. We are programmed to turn up our energy level when we go to work. But we turn it down when we come home. Now each of us should have a right to be incommunicado for a half hour and rest up, but it gives a bad message to our family if we're half vegetating and then when somebody from work calls, suddenly we have a lot of energy.

How can we turn that tendency around?

We need to evaluate how much, or how little, energy we're putting into our relationships. Energy is part physiological, but far more of it is psychological, which means we have control over it—we can increase and renew our energy.

The first step is to build our lives on the deep pilings of prayer. Many times, the things that are most crucial are not the things we spend the most time on. For instance, you may spend ten hours a day working in your business; but the 15 minutes a day you spend in your devotional life is far more significant. And it's essential in adding energy to your life.

A second way to enhance your energy level is to spend time with high-energy, highly motivated people. Some of their energy will rub off on you. Conversely, don't hang around too much with negative individuals, because that, too, is contagious.

The third way is to identify the areas in your life where you're getting bored. If your hours at home are not as exciting as your working hours, then stir things up. Start spending time with different people, or try out some new hobbies or other activities with your spouse. You'd be amazed how energizing change is.

You're talking about couples taking charge of their lives, which leads to your second law of success, discipline. How does that apply?

Marriages often go awry because the spouses haven't learned self-discipline. If you are a workaholic by nature, ask your spouse and your kids to help you exercise more discipline over your work habits. It's sad to see people take cellular phones with them on vacation so they can check their voice mail; or a laptop so they can keep up with their e-mail. Those people need their family's help.

I'm a driven guy myself, so I check in with my wife, Diane, pretty regularly. I just ask her: "Honey, do you think I'm working too much? Am I traveling too much? Am I helping you enough at home?" Sometimes she tells me I need to cut back. She might put it in terms of my own well-being, or she'll say, "I don't feel as close to you as we once were. Let's go out to dinner." I need the discipline to drop what I'm doing and spend time with her.

What you're describing sounds so appealing. But if home life is so great, why are so many people driven to work such long hours?

In The Time Bind (Metropolitan), Arlie Hochschild notes that although people say they feel guilty about not spending more time at home, they actually view their job as an escape. If your marriage is not going well, or if financial burdens are dragging you down, it's easy to work late because you don't want to face the pressures at home. But we need a higher perspective. We must discipline ourselves to recognize how absolutely crucial marriage and family are in God's economy.

What about the people who stay at the office for a different reason—to get their work done? Some jobs demand long hours, and you can't just blow off the job that supports your family.

Maybe not, but you can say to your family, "I'm going to have to work a lot of overtime this month. It's going to be miserable for all of us. But when it's over, let's all go on a special trip." Most families can endure hardship more easily if they know there's going to be an end to it, and if they can look forward to a reward when it's over. But some companies ask their employees to sell their souls, and if that's the case, there's no question what you do.


You quit!

C'mon. Just like that?

Remember the place of marriage and family in God's economy? Well, jobs come and go; but families are forever. The good news is that most enlightened companies realize they get the best work from people who have a good balance to their lives—those with a rich family life. So before you resign, try to negotiate a more reasonable pace of work and scope of responsibilities.

You've been talking about excelling both at work and at home. Isn't it more accurate to say that if we're going to devote so much commitment and energy to our spouse and children that we probably will never realize our career goals?

It depends on how you define career success. The Bible is clear that if you seek greater accomplishments because they bring more wealth and recognition, then that is basically pride. It's wrong to aim for that type of career success.

But there are people I regard as highly successful whose careers didn't follow a steady upward climb. There is one man who became like a father to me. He and his wife raised four children, all of them now quite successful in their fields. But the father never made it big in the business world. He worked his way up to foreman in a steel mill, but later realized he was in over his head. So he asked to have his old job back. I regard him as highly successful because no matter how far you progress in a career, you will accomplish more if you make sure you balance your work with deep outside relationships.

So you're saying success at home is more important than success at work.

Again, it's not either/or. You need to succeed at both. I'm a great believer in finding work you love and then really giving yourself to it. The problem of being overwhelmed is not usually caused by people devoting themselves too much to work. Instead, people often are scattered in too many other areas. They might need to drop a lot of the good things in order to do the best things; namely, excel in work and in their love relationships.

Family experts used to tell us not to bring our work home. But you recommend just the opposite. What's the deal?

My third law of success is collaboration, which means you should talk about work at home. Having a mate who supports you is a powerful force in helping you reach your goals.

Now if dinnertime becomes a gripe session about office problems, that will pull everybody down. But if our kids hear about our accomplishments, and see that it helps us to talk out our problems, that makes them feel good. If they see that we support each other, that we're there for one another in success and in failure, then they learn a lot about how a healthy marriage and family work. Plus, it might give you the solution that has eluded you.

It's not always easy to talk about career frustrations. How can spouses draw each other out?

Think about what keeps many couples from talking. They read the paper over breakfast, and that night at dinner, after asking each other what they had for lunch and saying "Pass the potatoes," or making plans for the weekend, there's very little communication.

Most couples limit their conversations to straight facts, the least-revealing level of communication. "Phil's installing this new computer system at the office." The second level, which goes deeper, is opinions, such as "I don't think this new computer system is going to work." But the deepest and most meaningful talk involves sharing feelings. "If Phil's computer system works, he's going to be a hero; and I'll be the goat. I'm really fearing the outcome."

Many men say to me, "I know my wife's opinions about everything. What is there to talk about?" Well, if you're only talking about facts or opinions, maybe you do know each other pretty well. But we all have so many different feelings every day that to convey those makes you feel close. And there's a richness there that always provides something to talk about.

Another common complaint is "we're not as close as we used to be." That's where your fourth law of success comes in, adaptability.

This one is critical. By the time most couples come to me for counseling, their lives have diverged. They say, "We've grown apart. We don't have anything in common anymore." They have both changed, and they don't like where they ended up.

I would guess that careers have a lot to do with spouses growing apart. How can adaptability help prevent this gradual drift?

It has to do with correcting faulty assumptions. People believe that if they marry the person God intended them to marry, then they'll get the relationship they desire. They begin their marriage thinking their bond will just remain strong from then on.

Well, the law of entropy says that won't happen. Without the investment of new energy, any marriage will disintegrate. To prevent that, you need to adapt in some way. You can choose to change and do whatever you can to meet your mate's needs. Diane and I have a good marriage in part because we have a fairly even swap of meeting each other's needs. That's what pumps new energy into your relationship.

Ron R. Lee is senior editor for WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. He is also the former executive editor of Marriage Partnership and Christian Parenting Today magazines.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter to help you make sense of how faith and family intersect with the world.

Balance; Marriage; Success; Work
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 1998
Posted September 12, 2008

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters