Married with Children (Adison Taylor Book 2)
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Doing this together is important; couples that make this arrangement work, I found, make choices openly and jointly, rather than implicitly and for each other. The ones I studied who had never addressed their core criteria struggled in later transitions, because those criteria never go away.
I call it couple contracting, because to shape their joint path, partners must address three areas—values, boundaries, and fears—and find common ground in each. Values define the direction of your path, boundaries set its borders, and fears reveal the potential cliffs to avoid on either side. Sharing a clear view in these three domains will make it easier to negotiate and overcome the challenges you encounter together. First, take some time on your own to write down your thoughts about each of the three areas. Then share your reflections with each other.
Next, note where you have common ground and where your values and boundaries diverge. No couple has perfect overlap in those two areas, but if they are too divergent, negotiate a middle ground. Openly discussing your values will make it easier to make choices that align with them. Setting clear boundaries together allows you to make big decisions more easily.
Consider three types of boundaries: place, time, and presence.
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How would you feel about our taking jobs in different cities and living apart for a period? For how long? How much work travel is too much, and how will we juggle travel between us? But sharing these fears allows you to build greater empathy and support. If you know that your partner is worried about the role of your parents in your lives, for example, you are more likely to manage the boundary between them and your partnership sensitively. Likewise, if you are interested in a risky career transition but worried that financial commitments would prevent it, you might agree to cut back on family spending in order to build a buffer.
What are your concerns for the future? What do you dread might happen in our lives? Next, couples must discuss how to prioritize their careers and divide family commitments. My research shows that couples can feel fulfilled in their careers and relationships whichever model they pursue, as long as it aligns with their values and they openly discuss and explicitly agree on their options. To work past their deadlock, Emily and Jamal finally discussed what really mattered to them beyond financial success. They identified pursuit of their chosen careers, proximity to nature, and a stable home for Aisha where they could both actively parent her.
They agreed to place their geographic boundaries around North America, and Jamal suggested that they both draw circles on a map around the cities where they felt they could make a home and have two careers. Their conversations and mapping exercise eventually brought them to a resolution—and a new start in Atlanta, where they would pursue a double-primary model.
Three years later they are progressing in their careers, happy in their family life, and expecting a second child.
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Psychological theory holds that early in life many people follow career and personal paths that conform to the expectations of their parents, friends, peers, and society, whereas in their middle years many feel a pressing need for individuation, or breaking free of those expectations to become authors of their own lives. This combined personal and professional crisis forms the basis of the second transition. Camille and Pierre, whose story began this article, were in the midst of it.
As each partner wrestles with self-redefinition, the two often bump up against long-settled arrangements they have made and the identities, relationship, and careers they have crafted together. Some of those arrangements—whose career takes precedence, for example—may need to be reconsidered to allow one partner to quit a job and explore alternatives.
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It may be painful to question the choices they made together during the previous transition and have since built their lives around. Couples who handle this transition well find ways to connect with and support each other through what can feel like a very solitary process. The second transition often begins—as it did for Camille and Pierre—when one partner reexamines a career or life path.
That person must reflect on questions such as: What led me to this impasse? Why did I make the choices I made?
Who am I? What do I desire from life? Whom do I want to become? He or she should also take time to explore alternative paths, through networking events, job shadowing, secondments, volunteer work, and so forth.
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Such individual reflection and exploration can lead couples to the first trap of the second transition:. Living with a partner who is absorbed in exploring new paths can feel threatening. Painful questions surface: Why is my partner not satisfied? Is this a career problem or a relationship problem? Am I to blame?
Why does he or she need new people? Am I no longer enough? These doubts can lead to mistrust and defensiveness, which may push the exploring partner to withdraw further from the relationship, making the other even more mistrustful and defensive, until eventually the relationship itself becomes an obstacle to individuation, rather than a space for it. In such a situation, people should first be open about their concerns and let their partners reassure them that the angst is not about them or the relationship.
Next, they should adopt what literary critics call suspension of disbelief —that is, faith that the things they have doubts about will unfold in interesting ways and are worth paying attention to. Finally, they should understand their role as supporters. Originally identified and described by the psychologist John Bowlby, the secure base allows us to stretch ourselves by stepping outside our comfort zone while someone by our side soothes our anxieties about doing so.
In some couples one partner consistently supports the other without receiving support in return. Their lives were so packed, however, that Camille had trouble finding the energy to return the favor.
Transition 1: Working as a Couple
It is important to remember that acting as a secure base does not mean annihilating your own wishes, atoning for past selfishness, or being perfect. You can be a wonderful supporter for your partner while requesting support in return and taking time for yourself. In fact, that will most likely make you a far better and less resentful supporter. In my research I found that couples who make it through their second transition are those in which the partners encourage each other to do this work—even if it means that one of them is exploring and providing support at the same time.
Once the exploring partner has had a chance to determine what he or she wants in a career, a life, or a relationship, the next step is to make it happen—as a couple. Take Matthew and James, another pair I spoke with, who had risen through the professional ranks in their 18 years together. When Matthew realized that he wanted to get off what he called the success train—on which he felt like a mere passenger—both he and James had to let go of their identity as a power couple and revisit the career-prioritization agreement they had forged during their first transition.
Initially Matthew was reluctant to talk to James about his doubts, because he questioned whether James would still love him if he changed direction. When they started discussing this, however, they realized that their identity as a power couple had trapped them in a dynamic in which both needed to succeed but neither could outshine the other. Acknowledging and renegotiating this unspoken arrangement allowed James to shoot for his first senior executive position and Matthew to transition into the nonprofit sector.
It was the culmination of two years of immense change for her and her husband, Jeremy, who were in their late fifties. Jeremy is a digital visual artist. Though he was sad, he had become confident enough to feel excited about whatever might come next. Now she was being asked to take an early retirement deal. She felt thrown on the scrap heap despite her long commitment to the company. No career, no parents, no children to care for—who was she now? She felt disoriented and adrift. The third transition is typically triggered by shifting roles later in life, which often create a profound sense of loss.
Careers plateau or decline; bodies are no longer what they once were; children, if there are any, leave home. Having raced through decades of career growth and child-rearing, couples wake up with someone who may have changed since the time they fell in love. They may both feel that way. These changes again raise fundamental questions of identity: Who am I now?
Who do I want to be for the rest of my life? Although loss usually triggers it, the third transition heralds opportunity. Life expectancy is rising across the globe, and older couples may have several decades of reasonably good health and freedom from intensive parenting responsibilities.
As careers and work become more flexible, especially for those with experience, people can engage in multiple activities more easily than previous generations could—combining advisory or consulting work with board service, for example.