There comes a point in a couple’s life when one of the individuals in the couple may decide to become financially dependent. Often there is some external factor that drives the decision to think about stopping work and relying on one person in the relationship to be the primary breadwinner. Common factors include moving to Singapore (for expats), having a child, loss of a job, burn-out or the desire for a career change.
While these may initially be valid reasons to stop, too many couples do not fully consider all the aspects of this choice. While it may not CAUSE relationship problems, many issues arise as a result of major changes to the relationship when one person stops working. I see many couples that come into my office that are having serious relationship problems that can be traced back to not holistically thinking through the couple’s decision of having one person give up work.
What Does Work Represent
One thing to understand is how work affects you as an individual and the couple. For many people working is the way they derive meaning and purpose. All people need meaning and purpose. Work can be a great source of meaning and purpose. Many people have invested significant time and money to become good at their chosen profession. Work drives how we spend and prioritizes our time
Work is where many people derive their personal and professional identity. Good or bad, one of the very first questions people ask each other when they meet are: “What do you do?”
Work is a place where people can express an aspect of themselves. For many people work allows them to be in charge, competent, creative or all of the above. It allows a place to meet new people and use their brain in ways that only work can offer.
Work is also a means to financial independence. This touches on money. Money is often very symbolic and means different things to different people. Money can mean choices, freedom, independence or power. Work is one way to gain those things of freedom, choice, independence or power via money. So work is a great way to get to do other things we really want.
Work has many upsides, but it does have downsides. To work, you are essentially selling your freedom to a company in exchange for money. There is a great change in personal freedom when you work. Work will often dictate the hours you must spend at work and away from things you really love to do. Work has its own stress that are not only related to the work itself, but all the social and political aspects that go with work. Work is also stressful in this turbulent economy because it is not guaranteed.
Work also adds a dimension of life that deals with limits or changes in freedom. It has relationship issues and politics. It presents us with new ways to think and challenges as a person. It is often a source of discussion for couples.
So when a person is fortunate enough to do something they love and get paid for it, work is less stressful. However, when the money earned doesn’t offset the negative side effects, it becomes harder to choose work. The negative aspects of work bleed into other aspects of one’s life. Sometimes changing jobs isn’t enough, sometimes a person needs to change industries. Other times, a person may decide to drop out of the work force altogether.
Decision to Stop Work
Many people make the decision to stop work without fully considering the full short and long term impact on the individual and the relationship. When people quite work it is because either they are in such great pain they just want out and other times it is because one person may such an amazing opportunity, like to move to Singapore, that stopping work seems natural. Another common reason is that the couple is having a baby and want a full time parent at home. But couples need to think through these decisions more closely.
Impact on Women When they Quit Working for 2 to 10+ years to have and raise Children
The topic of women stopping work to be home with their children is one that is fraught with controversy. There is no easy answer. Each couple must decide for themselves. In the process of deciding, couples need to fully assess the individual and couple impact. This article isn’t intended to pit staying home versus working. Instead, women really need to think carefully about their choice to stop working or to continue working while having children. Every woman’s situation is different as is the relationship.
Women tend to live longer than men and will need more money to support themselves through their old age and retirement. Women often stop working for a period during their prime earning years of late twenties through their thirties. This loss of revenue, skill and network building and savings can be very costly and women may never be able to make it up, especially if they must enter the work force under duress (example: divorce, husband job loss or death). Considering that there is a 50% divorce rate globally, women need to carefully think their personal choice to work or not work and make sure they are thinking about their short-term and long term safety.
One issue that I see often in my office is the woman in her mid to late thirties or early forties who hasn’t been working in 5 to 15 years. Life circumstances and marital strife have created a situation where she must go back to work with urgency and under duress. They haven’t maintained their skills or education and now face going back to work and making a lot less money than when they left it. When people make the decision to stop work, they often do not consider the long term impact or downside and thus do not build a back-up plan. Every person must have a back-up plan that isn't conditional on another person.
While being able to raise children is very important and noble, the ability to financially provide for them is important. A woman’s own mental health and feelings of (financial) security and safety are important factors when choosing to raise children. If a woman doesn’t feel secure about her future ability to take care of herself and her children, it is important to put a plan in place to minimize this risk.
Women need to think through how much risk they are willing to take. No one likes to think that their marriage won’t work out or that their husband’s employment may not be stable, but at the end of the day, each woman is responsible for her own financial safety, even if you are married. Women need to assess how much risk they are willing to take. Putting your entire financially safety on to your spouse, even if it is for the noble and worthy cause to raise your child, does leave you vulnerable. How vulnerable, only each woman can assess this decision.
Women need to consider:
· How vulnerable do I want to be financially?
· Do I want to put my entire financially safety on my husband’s shoulders? How will this affect my mental health and that of my relationship
· Do I want to risk losing the career momentum, contacts and income that I may not be able to get back to if I stop working for 5 to 15 years
· How will I make sure I will be financially okay for my retirement? Do I want to leave this responsibility 100% up to my husband? How will my retirement be impacted if I do not work?
· How will I deal with the issues of purpose and meaning as my children get older and need me in less intensive ways
· How will not working change my relationship with my husband? How will I be different as a person without the things that work brought me?
· How much does my working actually impact who I am and how I behave in my relationship
· How do view money and power? IF I am not making money, what do I see as my role in the family’s financial planning? Will I take an active role or let my husband manage it all? What do I see as my role
· Motherhood is important to me, but do I see being a bread winner as an important part of parenting?
· How confident am in my husband’s ability to handle the stress and pressure of being the single bread winner? Without financially redundancy will this negatively impact our relationship?
This is not a comprehensive list but something every woman should consider if they are not going to work.
In Singapore, some trailing spouses are men. More men are starting to be stay at home dads and are following their primary bread winning wives. I would encourage you to review the risk and self-evaluation that women have. Make sure you are making the right decision.
If a couple has always worked and now one of them has stopped working, the relationship will change. Often no one can predict how the change will actually affect the relationship, but important consideration should be given to this area. Often when one person really wants to stop working they are more focused on what is gained by stopping working and not looking at the “price tag” that will go along with that choice. But whether or not people consider the total package of a choice, it is there. It is better to make a fully informed choice, then to blindly make a choice, focusing solely on the upside and not on the costs to get that upside.
Things couples should consider:
· Can we afford both in the short and long term to have 1 person in the relationship not working? Do we have agreement on the impact and cost of the lost income and financial redundancy
· How will power in the relationship be shared with only 1 person making money? We need to discuss beliefs and views about the power that earning money brings and doesn’t bring.
· With one person making money, how will we do financially planning? How active will the non-revenue generating spouse be involved?
· When two people are working they both have a shared structure to their day, i.e. the company dictates large chunks of time with limited flexibility. When one person is not working, they will have much more fluidity and freedom to their day and week. How prepared is the couple to handle the differences in freedom that the working spouse and non-working spouse will have (I say working here to refer to corporate working, not parenting work). Many couples have huge conflicts about how to do “fun” and handle free time. Working spouses want to rest and recover while the stay at home parent or non-working spouse sees the weekend as a time to get out and about. How prepared are you each for the energy level changes
· How will our conversations, shared interests and shared priorities change? Many couples see a huge divergence in their priorities when their lives change so dramatically. Make sure you can make this work.
· Do we both value the work and time each person is doing even though only one person is making the money?
· What will we do if the decision for one person to stop working doesn’t work for either of us? How will we handle this?
These are just some starter questions to get couples going. If you have made a decision that you are finding out isn’t working now and your relationship is suffering, counselling can help you get back on track. Contact us to learn how counselling may help you.