I'm more ambitious than my boyfriend -- should I still marry him?

I'm out to beat the world, but he longs for the simple life.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 11, 2005 8:17PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

As an ambitious 24-year-old I recently finished my master's degree, have secured a job in public policy, and have lived abroad for the past three years. I am currently looking into Ph.D. programs and will apply in the fall. My boyfriend of three years, who didn't finish college, has a relatively secure job as a manager in the IT industry but never particularly looks outside his job to see what else is out there. When asked about his long-term goals, he says that he would be happy owning and managing a quiet pub out in the countryside somewhere. Idyllic. I would like to live in the countryside as well, but as a professor at a prestigious university.

We are contemplating marriage, and I worry about whether or not we are compatible long term because of our very different levels of ambition. I've asked him if he ever sees himself starting his own company, and he is rather vague about that. He is currently putting a great deal of his energy into volunteering, which I greatly admire. I would have far less in common with someone inclined toward the corporate rat race. On the other hand, although he often talks about being innovative with his volunteering, starting up some new initiative, he doesn't talk about the steps he will take to get there.

Cary, I'm in bits over this. I love this man and he has so many wonderful qualities. He's smart, gentle, practical and funny, and he treats me like a queen. We took a brief hiatus from the relationship last year, and while I did date successful, well-educated guys, I didn't click with any of them the way I do with him. We want the same sort of lifestyle (we agree that we don't need a lot of money but want to love our work), want to live in the U.K. (he's British; I'm American), want to travel widely and always try new things, and hold the same values.

In prior generations, it seemed the norm for men to be ambitious while their wives didn't need to be or were prevented from being that way. In my own parents' marriage my father was the ambitious one, and I saw how they had less in common over time and how unhappy they were. Thanks to feminism the sky is the limit for me. Shouldn't I choose a life partner who also sees the sky as the limit? Am I being shallow?

Going Somewhere

Dear Going Somewhere,

I don't think you're being shallow at all for asking the question. It's a legitimate concern. But two people don't have to be equally ambitious to work well as a couple. They just have to make room in the relationship for each other. Admittedly, that can be difficult. Certain professional roles demand participation by the spouse. If you become a diplomat, for instance, your husband may be called upon to put in certain appearances that he would rather not put in. He may be required to wear certain clothes and mouth certain platitudes. He may or may not be willing to do it. And if you want to run a large company or a government agency, you may have to keep long hours and not be around very much.

But if you approach your differences by asking what you and he are willing to do to bridge the gap, you may have more success than if you approach it as a question of certain innate qualities. Rather than saying he's not ambitious enough, why not ask whether he is willing and able to accommodate your ambition. Likewise, he ought to ask if he is ready and able to do what must be done to allow you to lead the kind of life you want to lead. It might just tax his forbearance beyond what he can afford. Also, one does tend to overestimate one's capacity for adjusting: It can be harder than it looks. It's easy to say you'll follow someone anywhere, before you see where you're going and what you actually have to do.

And, of course, it's not just about you. What about his desire for an uncomplicated life? Can you help him achieve that? Could you abide it? Or will your own goals eclipse his? Be honest -- although he might not state his wishes as forcefully as you state yours, they are nonetheless just as passionately held.

Keep in mind that sometimes we are attracted to mates for how they differ from us rather than how they mirror us. They might have attributes that we lack, or represent parts of ourselves that are underdeveloped. For instance, if he is serious about starting a new initiative but hasn't spelled out the steps, perhaps he could use some help doing so. It might seem easy to you but not to him. In that way, your complementary skills can allow each of you to accomplish things you couldn't do on your own.

So, although it's an important question, I don't think you necessarily have to choose a husband who is as ambitious as you are. The fact that you feel emotionally compatible is probably a better sign of your ability to make things work out in the long run.

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