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How Much Is Too Much of a Good Thing?

Spouses who have similar careers can bend each other's ear with work-related problems. But it can make for an insular marriage.


Barbara Payne works hard all day, often leaving her Simi Valley home in the wee hours of the morning and returning home well after dark. In a typical day, she might drive her pickup hundreds of miles across the length and breadth of the state, escorting truck drivers with oversized loads like 100-ton space shuttle parts, jet fuselages and prefabricated fast-food restaurants.

When she gets home, there is one person who can sympathize better than anyone with her frustrations over visually impaired motorists, rude truckers and low overpasses: her husband, Doyle, who three years ago left construction to work with his wife in their truck escort business.

"You can vent and the other person understands," says Barbara, a former corporate secretary. "Our relationship is strengthened because all our energies are focused on the business." To which Doyle adds, "We were close before. We're a lot closer now."

Does this sound too close or just about right? Some psychologists are beginning to wonder. For decades, experts have analyzed the impact of dual careers on marriages and relationships. Yet with fully three-quarters of American households made up of so-called dual-career couples, and with Americans spending more time at work, therapists now are looking at the effects that different careers have on relationships. For example, what are the consequences of sharing a career with your spouse or significant other?

"We should stop comparing the dual-career couple falsely with the 'traditional family,' which is a dinosaur," says Richard Gilbert, a Loyola Marymount professor of psychology who recently completed a study of what he terms similar- and dissimilar-career couples. "We have to look at the distinctions within dual-career couples."

In Gilbert's study, conducted with LMU researcher Kristin Constantine, 24 dual-career couples were interviewed regarding their marital satisfaction. Fourteen of the couples had different careers while the remaining 10 were designated "dual-income similar," meaning that their occupations either were identical or substantially overlapped. The results, Gilbert says, indicated deep differences in the ways that similar- and dissimilar-career couples manage their relationships.

As was to be expected, similar-career couples tended to bring their work home with them much more than couples with dissimilar careers. The degree to which they were unable to separate themselves from their jobs occasionally bordered on the extreme. Some couples, Gilbert says, focused so much on their jobs they were forced to set up strict rules about how much they could talk about work while at home.

"It was a real struggle for some of them to get away from work," he says. "They had so much commonality in work it was hard to get into something else."

Dissimilar-career couples, on the other hand, had fewer problems setting boundaries regarding work since they were less inclined to talk about jobs while at home. Not only that, Gilbert says, but they also reported more interesting conversations on a wider variety of subjects than similar-career couples.

Yet these factors alone, he says, don't necessarily translate into indicators of satisfaction in relationships. While similar-career couples found they talked about fewer things, ostensibly a negative consequence, they also reported more satisfaction in communicating with their mates and receiving understanding. Couples with dissimilar careers may enjoy more scintillating give-and-take on a wider range of topics, but, according to the study, they also reported greater difficulty in communicating with each other.

For such couples, Gilbert says, occupational differences were an obstacle, particularly in times of work-related stress, when it was often "harder to understand, and be understanding of their mate's position." One benefit, though, for dissimilar-career couples: They report less potential for career competition with their spouses than do similar-career couples.

Socially, similar and dissimilar couples were found to frequently inhabit different worlds. For similar-career partners, the often-comfortable insularity they found in each other sometimes became claustrophobic in social settings, given that both partners' range of acquaintances were usually similar. Couples with different careers reported knowing a more diverse group of acquaintances who didn't necessarily share their assumptions and outlooks.

"Much of your social life is dependent on your work life, especially if you have children," Gilbert says. "It's your window into the world. But if you're doing the same thing, it's the same window."

Gilbert cautions that despite the differences between similar- and dissimilar-career couples, neither situation guarantees happiness or unhappiness. Although Barbara and Doyle Payne acknowledge that after a few days at home together they "can start climbing the walls," soon they will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary and Barbara says they are lucky to be able to spend so much time together. Still, a job is a job and the Paynes say being together at work frequently crowds out the time they could have simply being together. "There are times when I think we don't ever breathe anything else," Barbara says. "It's 24 hours, seven days a week," Doyle says.

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