A Gottman therapist says there are ways to deal with a difference in ambition without it causing intense stress for the two of you.
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Q: I’ll be honest: I’ve always been extremely driven in terms of my career path, and my husband isn’t. I love him, and he has so many amazing qualities, but he’s just not as career-oriented. It’s a point of contention in our relationship — I set goals and work my hardest to succeed, while he seems happy exactly where he is and has no intention of progressing further. Does it matter that he’s not as driven as I am? How can I encourage him to work harder without trying to completely change him?
A: First, let’s address an important reality: Most of us don’t marry our twin. In fact, we often partner with people who are quite different from us. These differences can be exciting at first, but sometimes the very differences between us end up creating challenges. Dr. John Gottman’s extensive research on couples has found that most problems (69%) between partners are perpetual, and not solvable. People end up differing on the same issues — often rooted in personality differences or unmatched lifestyle preferences — 50 years into their marriage as they did 50 days into their relationship. In happy relationships, these differences are not divisive; people learn how to live with them, and often, how to appreciate them.
So it’s not surprising at all that you are still dealing with this difference years into the relationship. Let’s call it a “career ambition difference” between you and your husband. And it appears that the issue has become more of an issue for you. Knowing that, when you look inward, what has shifted? This “point of contention” is what truly needs to change, rather than changing your husband (which, by the way, can’t happen). All truly transformational change must come from within. Indeed, no one can change another.
Your own self awareness, and how you communicate this awareness to your husband, are key to having an open and productive dialogue. First, determine what is behind your desire for his career advancement. Is it financially driven (as in, “if we make more money, we get to buy a sports car”)? Is it prestige driven (as in, “if you become a VP, our friends, family and my colleagues will be impressed”)? Perhaps you see something in him that is unrealized, an untapped potential, and you want him to fully explore it for his own self-actualization? Is it driven by a desire to see him more passionate about something other than streaming Netflix? Do you have fantasies about becoming a “power couple”? All of the above?
This behind-the-scenes self-exploration that I’m recommending targets the values behind your desire for his career advancement. This will allow you to move away from blaming him for his lack of career ambition to appropriately expressing your true values manifested in your wish. For example, speak with him about your desire for greater financial security and its roots, and how this plays out in your desire for his career advancement. That way it moves away from him not doing something to your concerns about your joint financial future.
Encourage him to think about his desire not to drive for career advancement. What are the values behind his stance, and why? Does he believe that life is too short to spend that much time at work? Does he prefer to take care of your home and your personal lives? Or does he want you to take care of him and not have to do the heavy lifting (this might be your fear)?
Think about your partner holistically, as clearly there are things that you love about him. What else does he bring to the table? Perhaps that’s kindness, care, respect, or fun — what other values are congruent in your day-to-day lives together? Does he care about your values and try to work with you to reflect them? Does the fact that he is not as ambitious as you free up time for him to take care of other matters in your lives? Does he celebrate and encourage your ambition? Remember that there are many, many things that professional success and money can’t buy.
Recognize that asking him to increase his ambition may be as significant as him asking you to dim your own. Both tend to create problems in couples, so tread gingerly but openly, and be vulnerable, so he can be as well. The positive advancement of your relationship depends on being able to navigate these potential value differences with love and respect — a valuable ambition for us all.