Are you a "trailing spouse"?

When one half of a married couple relocates for work, what happens to the other person's career?

Published June 26, 2008 9:30PM (EDT)

A couple of weeks ago, after the New York Times printed a discussion-provoking piece about equal parenting, I found myself having numerous discussions with friends about what the ideal parenting situation actually is. Is it important for both parents to share responsibilities totally equally? Does it make more sense to have one person more in charge than the other? And also, why is it that women seem to be doing just as much child care and housework as they were before they started entering the workforce en masse?

Thursday, CNN has a piece touching on another aspect of marital gender/power dynamics: so-called trailing spouses, that is, a spouse who takes on a less than ideal or worse-paying job when his or her partner relocates for a better position. Unsurprisingly, these trailing spouses usually are women. According to a 2007 study of more than 9,000 married men and women, when couples relocate, men tend to get a financial boost of $3,000 on average, whereas women tend to lose $750.

According to Daniel Buccino, a psychotherapist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who was interviewed by CNN, socialization is a primary reason for the discrepancy. "Until more men are willing to say 'You know, honey, you shouldn't have to change your name or sacrifice your career, and I'll stay home with our kids and aging parents,' progress will remain glacial," he's quoted as saying. "But things are moving slowly in the right direction."

Of course, it's important to remember that people also make career sacrifices by choice -- it's not as if all these women would identify themselves as victims (or that there aren't men out there willing to take a career hit for their wives). Just as men and women should have equal rights to aggressively pursue their careers, they should also be allowed to make conscious decisions to set different priorities, like raising their family or taking a job with lower pay but more flexibility. The problem, as I see it, is when our gender stereotypes are so deeply ingrained that both the man and the woman fall into traditional roles without much thought, and later become resentful about what they've given up.

The CNN piece offers some suggestions of what couples can do to avoid clashing over this sort of career decision, like asking what the new company can do for the other spouse, switching off on whose career takes priority (which doesn't sound like it'd be beneficial to either person's trajectory, but hey) and, in extreme situations, undertaking a long-distance marriage. I think the most useful suggestion, though, has to do with communication: Both people make a list of what's important about their careers and rank each element on a scale from 1 to 10, and then try to guess how his or her partner values each item. (This also makes a great party game.) "It's almost always an eye-opener," says the psychologist who suggested the exercise. "It helps them empathize. It helps them trade places. And with that new perspective, they are ready for a more honest and grace-filled exploration of their options together."

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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