Dual-career couples on the move

Compromise. All dual-career couples know the importance of this word when trying to balance work and family. But for international development professionals, compromise takes on a different dimension. Call it COMPROMISE 2 , or compromise squared.

The amount of negotiation, timing, sacrifice, and commitment that couples who work internationally face is striking. It is perhaps the number one issue facing mid- and senior career professionals.

Take Timothy and Helen, a couple I know who have mastered the almost un-masterable art of balancing dual careers in an enviable way. They met and fell in love when Timothy, a U.S. citizen, was working in Helen’s home country Sierra Leone. More than a decade later, with two children, they have balanced and supported each other through a range of moves. Timothy’s career took the lead in Uganda, where Helen consulted on a smaller scale but spent more time at home. Back in the States, Helen’s career took the lead, while Timothy was a stay-at-home dad. Now, they’re back overseas, with Timothy in a new senior post and Helen starting a job search in country.

A few key dimensions, according to the couple, on what has worked for them:

  • Constant open and honest communication — about life plans, career and family goals, personal and professional fulfillment, and finances.

  • A willingness to juggle roles and step across gender lines — no pre-defined tasks based on gender, job, or salary stereotypes.

  • A focus on family — to ensure that despite the job changes and geographic moves, the couple and their kids always come first and always have a home (even if it’s the fifth one in ten years).

  • Compromise, but not in a bad way — just agreement that in order for both to advance professionally and personally, each needs to make adjustments.

Timothy and Helen have it slightly easier as they are a tandem career couple, both knowing that they are marketable in a developing country context. What to do when your spouse or partner is in a field that is not development-related at all? A few options:

  • Make sure that prior to leaving, there are some very clear discussions on how your partner can be constructive, happy and engaged overseas. Help them identify some professional and personal goals for the time abroad. It is helpful to have an action plan, even if you don’t stick to it when you get there because of other opportunities that arise.

  • Meet with a career counselor in advance to brainstorm ways to grow professionally, even if you aren’t working in a paid position. This is a great time for further education, skill gaps being addressed through interesting pro bono work, et cetera.

  • This isn’t always possible, but it is ideal if the country you are choosing to go to is family-friendly enough for your partner to pursue language study that would be useful down the road, and can do some interesting, safe travel while you are working.

  • If possible, in advance, talk about your partner’s “turn” next – and be prepared to alternate a bit, and take the back seat professionally, so that he or she can look ahead to their next opportunity after this overseas tour is complete.

If you follow these steps, are open and communicate well, then you’ll be more likely to find that elusive work-life balance and keep a relationship going even while on the move.

Read last week’s Career Matters.

If you have a question about developing your own career, let us know. We’ll do our best to help you read the HR tea leaves, make that transition into the field or back home, and find that elusive work-life balance.

About the author

  • Nina Segal Kennedy

    Nina Segal occasionally blogs on career matters for both job seekers and HR employees for Devex. She works as an international career consultant with a broad range of nonprofit and international organizations, including UNICEF, UNFPA, the U.N. Secretariat, IFAD, FAO, Realizing Rights and the Ford Foundation, as well as individuals in the NGO community. Nina has a particular interest in building networks and improving access to career opportunities for underrepresented groups.