Psychologist David Rice Counsels Dual-Career Couples from Personal Experience

updated 04/06/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/06/1981 01:00AM

In the past decade the women's movement and the faltering economy have combined to wreak a powerful change in the American way of life. Prompted by a desire for personal fulfillment—and spurred by economic necessity—women have entered or returned to the work force in record numbers. Today almost three million married couples have dual and significant careers. This new life adaptation has led, predictably, to an array of problems undreamed of in more traditional times. Treating them is the specialty of Dr. David Rice, 43, professor of psychiatry and director of psychology training at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and the author of a guide for therapists titled Dual Career Marriage: Conflict and Treatment. The West Virginia-born Rice speaks from experience: He shares a two-career marriage and often does co-therapy with his clinical psychologist wife, Joy, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin. The Rices live with their two young sons in Madison, Wis. PEOPLE'S Sarah Moore Hall recently spoke to Rice about the conflicts—and the rewards—of such marriages. His counsel applies equally, of course, to unmarried working couples.

What is your definition of a dual-career couple?

It is one in which both partners actively seek careers at the technical, managerial or entrepreneurial level. This definition specifically excludes couples who work outside the home but are not career-oriented.

Why do you deal only with professional couples?

They are more likely to seek out other professionals to solve problems—legal, financial and emotional. There also isn't the stigma attached to going to a shrink that often occurs among less-educated people.

Are there different types of dual-career marriages?

I make a distinction: In one type, a wife, after many years of a traditional marriage in which she stays home to raise children, decides either to go back to work or back to school. The other kind is where both individuals have known right from the start that both would have a career.

Is one type more complicated than the other?

The first kind is significantly more stressful because the wife's desire places a new set of expectations on the marriage. The couple needs time for planning and talking at this stage so that both partners can feel they are working together on this decision.

What types of personalities opt for dual-career marriages?

Typically, both partners have what we call high achievement motivation; they have been successful in school, in previous professional endeavors, in academic life. They are, in general, people with a strong sense of fairness.

How well have men adapted to wives with careers?

Not as well as they should, I'm afraid. It is my experience that men don't change very much unless their backs are against the wall.

How does the addition of a second career affect a marriage?

In a traditional marriage, the husband usually has most of the earning power, and the wife defers to him. When a husband has to move to another city, he has the power to make such a decision. In a dual-career marriage, decisions are made so that they do not consistently favor one partner over the other. Also, with equal earning power, both partners have much greater flexibility as to whether or not they stay in the marriage.

Is that good?

I think that makes a more satisfying partnership. In a traditional marriage, many wives stay out of fear that they cannot make it economically; fear keeps them where they are unhappy. In dual-career marriages, both partners continue to be married by choice.

How do husbands react when their wives return to careers?

Some are totally puzzled. They say, "I'm giving her everything she wanted," and they don't understand that she has changed. Then suddenly she pulls out the big gun, the threat of leaving. The hardest thing early in therapy often is to convince a man that he has some things to gain. What he usually sees are the immediate losses: He has to help with the housework; he may have fewer hours for his own work, etc. The costs are very tangible and real, and the gains very ephemeral.

Which partner most often feels unhappiness in a dual-career marriage?

It is almost always said to be the woman, because more women initiate therapy. My general assumption is that though one partner has been labeled unhappy, probably both are. Also, the prognosis for marital therapy is much, much better if both partners can state from the very beginning that they are contributing to the dysfunction of the marriage. If one comes in and labels the other "sick," I'm very skeptical.

What generally brings couples into marital therapy?

The most common complaint is that communication has broken down. They see that they have been unable or unwilling to arrange the time to get together and talk to one another.

Does success hurt these marriages?

Often. Sometimes couples realize they haven't felt the degree of emotional closeness they would like. They feel a painful sense of loss, a mourning for a time of closeness. Their careers took them in separate ways, and they feel that pain and would like to get back to that earlier time.

How do you help?

One thing I do is have them work out a schedule—not so each person has to do equal things, but so that at the bottom line there is a feeling of equity. These people are competent and well organized in dividing up things like household work and child care. But almost always what they've left out of the schedule is time for one another. That almost always has the lowest priority.

Because they are so work-oriented?

Very much so. Their careers can be very seductive, and work is the escape route these couples use when they get into trouble. Children can also be very seductive. I have yet to see any couple where at least one partner—and it's usually the wife—doesn't feel some guilt about working; as a result, when work is done and there is a little time, they use it for the kids and put themselves last. Their own emotional needs tend to be shunted aside. What we see is that many couples do a lot better job of parenting than they do of spousing.

Are children affected by having two parents with careers?

There's no evidence that they are any less well adjusted—but they are different in some ways. They are usually more self-reliant and independent. But their parents still have to work to make sure they don't ignore the children's emotional needs.

How much competition is there in a dual-career marriage?

A lot. The problem is that it still isn't legitimate in our society for women and men to compete; it's un-American. Most couples won't recognize that competition exists within the marriage. They won't understand that there's nothing wrong with feeling ambitious and wanting to better oneself. Spouse conflict is only a problem when the desire to compete is based on having to beat the other partner down.

Are dual-career couples in the same field more competitive?

I find that it's just the opposite. Couples in the same field have more interest in one another's work, share more and show more empathy.

Do dual-career couples often have unrealistic expectations?

To some degree. Often they think that because they have two incomes, they can buy their way out of a lot of problems and hire people to solve the problems other couples have.

Is there any evidence that dual-career marriages have a higher divorce rate?

None. These marriages can be hectic at best and frantic at worst. From the outside it often doesn't look like a lot of fun, but the individuals involved report a high level of satisfaction.

What advice would you give to couples thinking of entering dual-career marriages?

Try things out together before you get involved in a marriage. Try living together or just being together in a variety of roles—sharing some housework tasks, some economic ones, some work ones. You might also consider a contract.

How about your own dual-career marriage; do you have any problems?

Probably the continuing problems that any people who have been married for 18 years might have. We have a need to revitalize the relationship at times, to try to retain some sensitivity to the other person, and not take for granted that the marriage has a life of its own. It's as much work to keep a relationship alive as a career.

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