Rootless and Trailing

A useful comment from Catherine Price at Salon:

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.”

I would add that we have to account for rational calculation: If moving gives the man a financial boost of $3,000 and women lose $750, that’s a $2,250 net gain for the family. But it’s rational only when considered in the context of gender inequality. I think Price is right in identifying the main problem with this arrangement–that people fall into traditional roles and later resent it–but there is another, related, economic problem: a short-term rational decision that benefits the couple as a couple can have negative long-term consequences for the woman as an individual, should the partnership dissolve.

We might also take a step back and look at what this conflict says about our society: In a time and place when restlessness is economically rewarding and people are constantly on the move, it becomes tremendously difficult to hold on to each other.

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