‘Your life partner is the biggest career choice you’ll ever make’: Here’s how to get it right

A couple stand looking at a growing bar chart
People have been taught to think of love and money as two separate things. But according to Myra Strober and Abby Davisson, it’s time that changed.

More than a century ago, political activist Emma Goldman wrote that marriage is “primarily an economic arrangement.”

The 109 years since may render some of Ms. Goldman’s reasoning irrelevant, but with new economic environments come an altered balance of romances and finances.

And that is the topic of Money and Love, a book from professor emerita at Stanford University Myra Strober and social innovator—and Strober’s former student—Abby Davisson.

The self-professed “roadmap for life’s biggest decisions” chronicles everything from dating to marriage, to having children and where to live, through to housework, finances, and even divorce—while providing a framework and exercises to help readers make informed decisions with (hopefully) positive outcomes.

The book’s origins are grounded in Strober’s groundbreaking class at Stanford University titled Work and Family, which from its inception in the 1970s has explored the economic, professional, and domestic implications of romantic relationships.

One of the book’s aims is to help readers establish long-term goals with their partner, but the pair believe there’s some resistance to acknowledging the economic impact of having a partner.

Falling in love or making a decision?

One of the contributing factors to strained relationships is what some would call “falling in love,” but what Davisson might describe as the “slide versus decide” issue.

Such situations might arise from a couple deciding to live together to save money, having not discussed important matters such as financial goals, household expectations, religion, and more.

By not having those conversations you risk “being on different pages about what that move-in means,” Davisson explained.

“One person might think you’re on the path toward marriage, the other person truly just thinks you want to save on rent. It’s better to make a conscious decision, talk about it, know where the other person stands, and then all of the negative outcomes go away.

“It’s the same with choosing a life partner, not to say, ‘Oh, we’ve been together so long we might as well get married.’ Instead make the conscious choice and make sure that you both want the same things in the long run.”

Davisson took Strober’s class in 2008 with her then-boyfriend—now husband—and added: “These topics, if you don’t talk about them, can come out down the road in ways that might cause you to realize you’re not that compatible and you might have to get divorced.”

Back to Elizabeth Bennet

Once upon a time the idea of a “love match” seemed far-fetched and whimsical (think Netflix sensation Bridgerton).

Now it’s standard to expect to be head over heels for your partner—with consumers told that love conquers all.

Strober and Davisson suspect that a truly successful marriage neither sits entirely in the realm of just romance, or just finance.

The fact that money disagreements are one of the most common reasons for couples to divorce suggests that open and honest discussions about personal finances is key, the pair said.

“These two sets of decisions, which society has taught us to keep apart—one comes from the head and one comes from the heart—really is not the case, and it’s not helpful to think about it in that way. Thinking about your life as a whole, with important money and love decisions to be made constantly in conversation with your significant other, is the main point of the book,” Strober said.

The labor economist and founding director of the Stanford Center for Research on Women (now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research), continued: “One of the topics in the book is writing a prenup before you get married, and pros and cons of that. In one of my classes one of the women said, à la Pride and Prejudice: ‘I just broke up with my fiancé. His family wanted me to sign a prenup, and I told him that if he wouldn’t share his money with me, I won’t share my life with him.'”

“I don’t think we’ll ever fully get back to Pride and Prejudice times,” Davisson—who previously worked at Gap, where she served as president of the Gap Foundation—echoed. “But I do think that people have an awareness that money is an issue to talk about before getting married, so I’m hopeful that even if people don’t sign a prenup they’ll go through the conversations because they set you up as a couple for all the things you have to deal with after the wedding day.”

+1 on your résumé

Anecdotal evidence from survey respondents is also featured in the book, detailing conversations couples had about where to live for job prospects vs. quality of life, moving to be close to family vs. education opportunities, and a need to choose between having children or unencumbered travel freedom.

Careers and life partners are intertwined not only because of opportunity and perhaps offspring, but also time—with women’s capabilities when working from home drastically shifting since the pandemic.

While families were forced to work from a single network, research from three experts at the University of Washington Bothell, the University of Minnesota, and University of Connecticut found that women reported a greater increase in interruptions than their male counterparts—particularly nonwork interruptions, as well as work-based intrusions, multitasking, and surprises.

A recent study from Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business found that similarly, when both husbands and wives work from home, husbands will do far fewer family-related tasks if their partner is in the house versus if their wife is in the office.

For wives, irrespective of whether their husband is home or not, their family tasks are the same, but reported increased feelings of guilt for completing professional tasks through work-family conflicts.

Both Davisson and Strober highlighted how “dynamic” the home and economic environment has become because of the pandemic, with Davisson adding, “Whoever’s at home is, of course, going to meet the repair person who comes in the middle of the day, or pick up the kids who are nearby at school. But what we also see is that they’re penalized in terms of needing to do more chores and also by not having those interactions with managers at work.”

As a result of shifting remote work policies, couples also need to check in not only on how their significant other is finding remote or hybrid working, but also the impact of being called back to the workplace.

“Things are really shifting right now, and that means that couples and individuals need more and more to think about and clarify what it is they’re trying to achieve,” Strober added.

“There has to be a lot of conversation going on between partners. The world is changing fast, and so last week’s priorities may not be this week’s priorities. There just needs to be a lot more conversation in this time of dynamic change.”

Exercising the conversation muscle

Of course, the positive benefits Strober and Davisson are hoping their readers will discover can only be achieved if both partners are willing to talk.

“It’s like developing a muscle. You need to develop the joint conversation muscle,” Strober said.

As well as directing couples to the exercises in the book, Strober encouraged readers struggling to initiate such conversations to “go slowly and give the other person grace.”

“Yelling at your partner about issues is not going to help anything,” Strober added. “Whether you’re talking to your parents about considering stopping driving or to your partner about doing more childcare, all of these conversations are big-time. Going slowly, giving grace, and being loving are all critical.”

Davisson had practical advice: Take a walk, get out in nature in a neutral environment, and have an incentive at the end.

Although sometimes a conversation might bring two parties together—sometimes it may help couples decide to split for good.

Strober said after taking her class multiple students had contacted her to say they’d called off relationships, adding, “I would write back and say, ‘Sorry for the pain, but better to find this out now than after you’re married.’”

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