The two-body problem

Two careers, two cities, one family: Whose turn is it to sacrifice, mine or my wife's?

By Cary Tennis

Published May 11, 2005 6:24PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a problem that folks in my business (academia) call the "two-body problem." I am on the tenure track at a fairly prestigious university in a small city, and my wife is a nonprofit manager. We have two young kids. I come up for tenure in two years. We've been here for eight years. The move here was my idea (the university's job offer), and the previous move to the city where I finished my schooling was my idea too. My wife has been unable to find a job here that she feels pays her what she is worth doing what she likes to do, while I am basically as happy as a clam where I am. I have made lots of local connections through volunteer work, and have other local ties through my career. My wife has some friends locally, but is nowhere near as engaged with the community. My family is scattered throughout numerous cities (none here) while my wife's family is concentrated in a large city on the other end of the state. She recently took a job in the city where her family is, and she is commuting about half-time, and I take care of the kids while she is gone. We had a handshake agreement that we would move at the end of this academic year to the city where she works, and I would take the next academic year to find a job in that city while commuting back and forth. I think I will eventually get tenure somewhere, but where, and the quality of the school, are my main career concerns.

The problem is that in the end I don't want to move, at least not right now. To me, it seems that we are swapping certainty in many areas (local schools are good, neighborhood is nice, cost of living is reasonable, my career is going well) for increased uncertainty in all of these areas save one -- my wife's comfort with her career. (The new city is more expensive, has a tighter housing market, has worse schools, a higher crime rate, and so on.)

My wife said last night that she wants to put our house on the market in a few weeks, and she's been looking for new housing in the city where she works. I'm starting to freak. Nobody in my family who knows of our discussions thinks it's a good idea to move. Of course we could discount these judgments to account for the fact they are totally biased, but there you are. My wife's family has been silent on the issue as far as I can tell. One friend of mine, a woman who has been in a commuting arrangement, is supportive of the move. I'm thinking of recommending that my wife do the commuting arrangement for another year while the kids and I stay put, and I find a job in the new city. This would result in an argument to end all arguments, but I am feeling in my gut that this move is a bad idea. It's hard to make a major life change when one feels deep uncertainties like this.

Two-Body Problem

Dear Two-Body Problem,

You have a genuine conflict. Whatever you do, somebody is going to be unhappy for a while. But personal unhappiness can be borne more lightly if it is borne for a good reason. So you need to find agreement about the deeper meaning of your conflict, and the reasons each of you feels attached to a different place.

From the standpoint of fairness, I think your wife may feel that she's made all the sacrifices so far and now it's your turn. On the other hand, assuming it's possible to be objective about such things, you may be right that the best idea is to stay put for another year.

Was that your wife I just heard screaming? Can her voice actually reach that far?

But look. This commute must be wearing your wife pretty thin. Is there any way you can make her life easier while delaying the move for a year? If you delay the move, what have you got to offer her as a concession? She may be at the breaking point.

And what about the kids? I've been a kid, and I personally didn't care for all the moving around. Not that the kids should, or could, decide where you should live. What I'm suggesting is to try and find some higher purpose for what you decide to do -- family, community, spirit. That way, perhaps you and she can at least agree that whatever you do is in the best overall interest.

What is the meaning of a place? Is a place just a location for a university and a nonprofit? Or is there a place that you relate to as a place? Do you feel at home anywhere?

Actually, I sense that you feel at home where you are. Why is that? Is it just because you have a good job? Or has the volunteer work you've done made you feel rooted? Could you find that same rootedness in a new city? Perhaps, perhaps not.

So we're back at Square 1. Big help I am. Why does your wife not feel at home? Is it just because she can't find the right job? Or does she really long to be with her family? Maybe she needs her family in the same way that you need the volunteer work. Maybe this is about place and family more than career calculations, and you both need to realize that wherever you live, you have to create these connections.

So why don't you and she stop talking so much about career specifics and have a heart-to-heart talk about place itself, about its meaning, and try to put that into your equation. Families and relationships contain an element of mystery and soul. Try to reframe the conversation to make it a more soulful interchange, and concentrate on values you agree about: sense of home, importance of family, what's best for the kids. Put aside, for the moment, the scale of pluses and minuses and try to talk about the meaning of your life for you and your children; try to talk about where you feel you really belong.

After a talk like that, you may still have differences, but not so much need for argument.

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