Is it possible to start both a marriage and career simultaneously and have them flourish?
Yes, says Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, author of Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-Up World. Dorcas and her husband, Ned, have put this to the test: they launched careers, a start-up company, and threw in a stint of living overseas in their first years of marriage. Start Marriage Right got an exclusive interview with Cheng-Tozun on how newlyweds can build healthy marriages in the midst of crazy working hours
SMR: What are some of the challenges couples today face in figuring out a healthy work-love balance?
DCT: These days, young professionals face a lot of pressure to get their foot in the door of the firm or industry they want to work in as early as possible. This often includes paying their dues with respect to working long hours, taking on big projects, and traveling a lot—which absolutely impacts their marriage and home life.
It is also more common now to change jobs more frequently; a recent LinkedIn study found that millennials, on average, change jobs four times before the age of 32. In your early years of marriage, such frequent job changes will inevitably add stress and instability, and could even cause major life changes like relocations.
And, of course, we live in a culture that values busyness as a badge of honor and assumes work is a central part of our identity. Many workplaces ask us to prioritize our jobs above family, something that people earlier on in their career have a hard time saying no to.
SMR: What are some of the myths we believe about ourselves, our careers, and our relationships? And why is it important to do some “marriage myth busting”?
DCT: Many people in their twenties and thirties feel invincible like they can work and travel as much as they want without having to suffer any consequences. They don’t think they need to prioritize rest or balance. But I learned the hard way that you absolutely can burn out in your twenties, and trust me, it’s something you want to avoid if possible.
I think many of us also live with an underlying sense of urgency in our careers. We believe we have to take advantage of every professional opportunity that comes our way right now. But we don’t carry this same urgency into our marriages and relationships. We assume that our spouses will just be there whenever we’re ready to pay more attention to them. The reality is that marriages require ongoing care, and neglecting your spouse—even for a short season—will have a negative impact on the relationship. It will take that much more work to recover and to reach a healthier place in your marriage.
It’s also much harder to unlearn patterns of prioritizing work over family and learn new ways of doing things, as opposed to just starting out with a healthier work-life balance. So I’d encourage young professionals to be very intentional about making time and space for their marriages early on in their careers, even it doesn’t feel necessary. By the time you wait until it is necessary, it may be too late to fully come back from that.
SMR: You and Ned took on ambitious careers with many competing pressures. What do you prioritize as “must have” values to keep your marriage healthy?
DCT: When both partners are busy, it is absolutely essential to prioritize quality time together. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time; marriage researcher John Gottman says that couples only need six hours of well-spent time together each week. This is the time that you should be spending focused on each other rather than sitting in front of a TV together. Just checking in, sharing about your day, or joking around with each other for a little bit every day will help you stay connected to one another.
Ongoing communication is also key. At the very least, you need to communicate well to keep track of one another, your schedules, and your responsibilities. Studies have found that couples that are on the same page about something as basic as who is doing what household chores tend to have healthier relationships.
And underlying these actions is a commitment, mutual respect, and grace. You want to make sure that, through your words and behaviors, your spouse knows that you are dedicated to him or her, even if you are not always available. Showing that you value their perspective, seeking their input before making decisions, and making sure they have opportunities to use their gifts and pursue their goals are tangible ways to show that dedication.
And grace is important because, with busy people, things will inevitably fall through the cracks. Your spouse will disappoint you, and you will disappoint your spouse. But you can see this as an opportunity to extend forgiveness and to learn together how you can do things differently next time.
SMR: Every couple has seasons of tension, but not all stressors are equal. How might a couple discern whether they’re going through the normal bumps of adjusting to married life or whether they’re dealing with more serious red flags that need the advice of mentors or counselors?
DCT: A couple starting out should create space to talk about your priorities and long-term goals, as individuals and as a family. What are your hopes for your career? Do you want to have kids, and if so, when? How do we want to handle money? What do you need to do to stay healthy? I’d suggest revisiting these priorities and goals every six to twelve months to see if anything has changed.
It’s also really important for couples to maintain a strong sense of their individual identity and to nurture other friendships. Early on in a marriage, couples are often tempted to focus only on each other, forgoing outside community and activities. But it’s both good and healthy to have interests outside of your significant other. This prevents codependency and provides you with external support whenever things get tough.
Conflict is to be expected in every marriage. How you fight is far more important than when you fight or what you fight about. If one of you ever falls into the pattern of treating the other without respect, using name-calling, harsh criticism, and contempt as weapons in the argument, or if one of you is consistently unwilling to admit any fault or wrongdoing, then it may be time to seek outside counsel.
SMR: What would you say to people who say they want to delay marriage so “they can get a head start on their careers”? Is marriage compatible with pursuing ones calling?
DCT: This is a very personal decision, so I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone if they should wait to get married or not. I would simply encourage people to make this decision intentionally and thoughtfully rather than rashly and to understand the long-term ramifications of such a decision. For example, many people find it harder to meet potential life partners as they get older. Delaying marriage also means delaying when you have kids. If someone is okay with these possibilities, and they truly feel like work is what God wants them to focus on in this season, then it may make sense for them to wait.
That being said, I think marriage is absolutely compatible with pursuing your calling. In many ways, having a spouse can enhance your calling. There is no other relationship that will help you understand yourself and mature as much as marriage does. I have also found that I am able to make more courageous, faith-filled career decisions because I have the unconditional support of my husband.
SMR: The season finale of Friday Night Lights had a moment of reckoning between Coach and his wife, Tami. “It’s my turn, babe,” she said, “I have loved you and you have loved me and we have compromised, both of us… for your job. And now it’s time to talk about doing that for my job.” You and Ned have had to talk about compromise a lot as you make space for one another’s callings and opportunities. What are some of the factors you talked and prayed about in weighing this?
DCT: This can get really tough when a marriage has two ambitious people who are passionate about their callings. But my husband and I try to remember that we are always partners first, and vocational decisions that will impact our family need to be mutually agreed upon.
We’ve also learned to take things in seasons, to try to discern what it is that God wants us to focus on now and to recognize that that will likely change in a few months. Another valuable perspective we’ve gained is that it’s not a zero-sum game. If we have to focus temporarily on supporting something in my husband’s career, that doesn’t mean that my long-term career prospects have to suffer. God is more creative and generous than that.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun’s book on marriage and career releases this month. Find Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-Up World wherever books are sold.
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