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Careers & Coupledom

Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg is quoted time and time again for her assertion in 2011 that "The most important career choice you'll make is who you marry.” I have spent a lot of time thinking about this quote... a lot of time. Could there be some truth to this? The research literature on careers, for the most part, looks at career decisions as individual-level choices. However, there are a small number of studies that explore how career paths may be affected by family characteristics such as being married and/or having children, how individuals may factor in family members’ opinions into career decisions, and how some people in some situations consider work-family balance as a career motive. Studies about international relocation decisions provide the strongest evidence that ‘who you’ve married’ is an important factor in career decision-making, at least if the decision involves moving with your spouse to another country. These studies show that whether or not an international relocation is accepted and how an employee adjusts to the international move depends to a large extent on whether his or her family supports the decision and also adjusts well to the move.

In my own research, I have found evidence supporting Ms. Sandburg’s claim that who you couple with is an important career choice as well as support for the notion that there are different types of couples that approach career, work, and family issues in different, but somewhat predictable, ways. For example, I’ve asked in dual-income couples with young children about day-to-day work-family decisions. What do they do when a child has to stay home sick from school or when one member of the couple has to unexpectedly work over time or stay late for a meeting? Not surprisingly, the choices they make in these situations depend on the policies and practices of the organizations where they work. However, beyond the constraints of specific work environments, there seemed to be a set of couples who made these daily choices one way, while another set of couples made the choices another way, yet another set of couples made them a third way and so forth. Couples were not just beholden to their unique situations, they reproduced patterns of decision-making about work and family roles.

These coupled patterns have been observed and documented many times in the past several decades. In fact, there are at least 25 typologies of dual-income couples published in peer reviewed journals. Basically, all this categorizing boils down to the idea that in some couples, spouses take on similar roles to one another (these are ‘symmetrical’ couples) and in some couples, spouses take on different role from on another (‘asymmetrical’ couples). One recently published typology described the underlying (theoretical) reasons that spouses take on similar vs. different roles. The thesis that Courtney Masterson and Jenny Hoobler at University of Illinois at Chicago put forth is that a couple’s type depends on how spouses pair together in their family role identities*. According to their theory, there are three possible ways that people can construe or interpret their family role. That is, there are different ways to answer the question “How do you see yourself in your family role?” Individuals can see themselves as 1. care-givers, 2. providers and role-models, or 3. both.


Family Identity Construal

A construal is the interpretation and role expectations a person has for his or her role identity. A family identity can be constructed as:

  • Care-based, expectations to care for and nature family members

  • Career-based, expectations to provide for family and role model family values

  • Care- and career-based, expectations to care for, nurture, provide for and role model to family members


At the couple level, that means that a care-giver paired with a provider will be a different type of couple than one in which two care-givers are paired together. The five couple types are explained in the matrix below and bare remarkable resemblance to the different types of couples portrayed in the movie “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”

Speaking very generally, big career decisions as well as day-to-day work family arrangements will follow from the combination of family identities that members of couples hold. In neo-traditional and non-traditional couples, usually one spouse’s career takes priority over the other’s and the ‘care’ spouse will take on the lion share of the domestic work at home. In egalitarian couples, spouses may focus on keeping career opportunities as well as home responsibilities even between them. Members of family-first couples will often seek out organizations offering family-friendly work arrangements so that both spouses can make care-giving a priority. Members of dual-career couples often have high intensity leadership or professional careers and need to hire more support for childcare and other domestic work. Though individuals with ‘care-based’ family identities prioritize care-giving at home, in dual-income families, these are individuals who are employed full- or part-time. In my experience interviewing all different types of couples, no matter what family identity a person held, their family role didn’t necessarily detract from their dedication at work and the meaningfulness they found in the work they did. A ‘care’ spouse may prefer alternative work arrangements when they have young children at home, but they still want to do their job well and make a contribution outside the home.

So what if couples make career decisions? We still hire individuals, not couples. And we are not here to perpetuate stereotypes. In fact, the point is that employers can no longer assume that a man sees his family role solely as a provider, no more than they can assume a woman sees her family role as care-giving. The dual-income family is now the modal family type, more than ever before women are the primary breadwinners in their families, and a rising fatherhood movement is helping men, women and employers embrace the more diverse roles that men play outside the corporate world. At the office then, we can embrace and accommodate the diversity that is already around us by:

1. Communicating openly with employees about their family demands,

2. Letting employees work out solutions among themselves on how and where to best get their work accomplished, and

3. Focusing on results and goal accomplishment, rather than monitoring who is present and available 24/7.


Heather Cluley, Ph.D. is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here!

*Masterson, C. R., & Hoobler, J. M. (2015). Care and career: A family identity‐based typology of dual‐earner couples. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 36(1), 75-93. DOI: 10.1002/job.1945

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