Chelsea M. Jordan
A variety of studies have examined the experiences of dual-career couples in academe (Greer & Poe, 2005; Kibel, 2013; Rice, Twombly, and Wolf-Wendel, 2000). In each case, authors have found, as Rice, Twombly, and Wolf-Wendel (2000) wrote that “academic couples face an extremely difficult task, namely finding two positions that will permit both partners to live in the same geographic region, to address their professional goals, and to meet the day-to-day needs of running a household,” (p. 291).
Though the research goes back nearly 20 years, not much has changed for dual-career couples in recent years. My partner and I were met with immense difficulty in our recent job search and in the dual-career arena as well. While the challenges we navigated are individual in some senses, they are shared in many others. Thankfully, along with the challenges have come personal and professional opportunities. Thus, said challenges have made us a stronger couple and the foundation we’ve built has empowered us to share the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
When your personal and professional lives become blended into one, it can become difficult to manage. Perhaps you’re in a relationship with a fellow student affairs professional, or with someone who doesn’t understand a thing about it. Or, maybe you’re not in a relationship at all. No matter your current relationship status, it’s my hope to clear some of the muddied water around partnership in higher education.
Context: Setting the Stage
I met my now-husband, Tim, at graduate school interview days – he would be a second year in the program when I started the following fall. Tim and I hit it off quickly, but we didn’t start dating right away. It wasn’t until second semester that we began talking seriously. From that moment forward, our student affairs lives would weave together in an unexpected pattern.
I thought dating someone in the program would come easily. We understood the time commitment of academics and assistantships, we shared passions, and we were in the same social circles. More than anything, perhaps, was the gift that we didn’t have to explain what student affairs is to one another. We got it. However, navigating academics, an assistantship, professional goals, and a relationship called for clear and consistent communication early on. The gossip in our program (perhaps in most programs) was loud and heavy, as was the pressure to make life-changing decisions under the gaze and scrutiny of others. No matter where we turned, it felt like we always had an audience.
Transitions, Part 1
Tim did a nationwide job search that spring. He landed a position as a Hall Director at Texas Christian University (TCU), which meant that we’d be long-distance until it was time for my job search the following spring. It was a big commitment for a couple that just started dating, but we knew we wanted to try and make it work.
Visiting my partner halfway across the country on a graduate student budget was not easy. However, we found ways to see each other about once a month. I chose to maximize my time visiting him in Texas and did informational interviews with colleges and universities in the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area in preparation for my own regional job search.
I grappled with the decision of whether to do a search focused in a specific area. There were many folks in my program who didn’t think it was smart for me “to follow a guy.” A mentor of mine was also close to tears when she told me that she didn’t want me to wish away my dreams and compromise what I really wanted or might achieve in my career.
At the time, I was deep in the process of discovering what it meant to be a feminist. Each time someone – a woman – told me I was making the wrong choice, I felt like I was letting them down. How could I possibly be a good role model to other women if I chose to follow my partner? This question kept me up at night, but the thought of searching elsewhere seemed counterintuitive. Why would I willingly choose a job that would be away from the person I loved?
Transitions, Part 2
After many conversations and self-reflection, I decided that it was possible to align my relationship and my career goals. One did not have to exist without the other. In many ways, I was doing a life search – something encompassing multiple aspects of who I was – rather than simply doing a job search. Going into the search, I told myself that I’d work in the DFW area but not at the same school as Tim. After all of the contemplation, and after I’d cast away all of the shame, I felt it was important for us to have professional identities of our own. Working at different schools, in different departments would help us accomplish this.
Of course, despite my intense reflection and strategic planning, life had other plans for me. I received several job offers, but the one I most wanted was working at TCU as a Hall Director – the same job, in the same department, at the same school as Tim. I tried to resist the decision and rationalize why it couldn’t possibly be the best fit. When I shared the announcement with others, I felt like I needed to give a qualifier. There was always trepidation in their voices. Out of concern, I’m certain, but their worries became mine and left me questioning how things would turn out.
Navigating Working in the Same Department
Tim and I spent three years working together in the same department at TCU. It took time to adjust but once we found our footing, we were unstoppable. In my first month on the job, I refused to sit beside Tim in meetings. We wouldn’t walk together on campus. We asked to be on different committees. We found our own ways to get involved within the division. If we argued, we learned to put it aside and focus on work when we were at work.
One day, after several months of working together, we sat beside each other in a staff meeting. Instead of being uncomfortable or making us uncomfortable, our colleagues appreciated our playful banter and joked alongside us. This was the family feel they’d sold us on. I felt a more genuine sense of self and sense of us emerging in the workplace.
In time, we eventually found a way to blend our relationship into the role. TCU prides itself on relationships – I couldn’t hide my partner from my colleagues, my staff or my residents. I wanted them to see that part of my life. Tim and I started attending each other’s programs. We spent time at each other’s front desk or office. We presented at trainings together. We even (gasp!) held hands at social gatherings. I was thankful for a department that let us be who we were both individually and together.
During our time at TCU, Tim and I went from boyfriend/girlfriend, to fiancés, to husband/wife. Our department watched us grow not only as new professionals, but also as a couple – literally for better or for worse – and for that, we treasured our experience together at TCU.
When it was time to move on, Tim and I suspected we wouldn’t end up working at the same institution. I was planning to search both inside and outside of student affairs. I also hadn’t planned to stay in housing. Tim, however, wanted to stay in student affairs and housing. Our paths seemed like they were taking us in different directions.
We anticipated that our dual, regionally bound, same-field search would be challenging, but found it unexpectedly tumultuous. We were naïve to believe the timing would work out. Tim ended up finding a position before I did, and moved 1,800 miles away without me to start a job at Tufts University.
Again, though, life has a funny way of working itself out. After many, many rejections, I received an on-campus interview offer from none other than – Tufts University. As luck would have it, my on-campus interview fell on Tim’s first day of work. I ended up getting the job and, one month later, reunited with my husband.
Lessons Learned, Strategies Shared
Lesson One: Transitions are hard
When I look back on my life, there are seasons that stand out to me as being some of the most trying and each revolves around transition. Change is constant, but that doesn’t make it easy to manage. That adjustment takes time and it’s essential to give yourself and your partner ample patience and grace.
You also have to hold each other accountable to finding “your own thing.” For Tim, it was a slow-pitch softball team. For me, it was a writing intensive course. When you live together, commute together, work together and, really, do everything together, it’s important to find your outlet. I love spending time with my husband, but he can’t be everything. We feel most exhausted when we are trying to be each other’s source of joy, strength, wisdom, fulfillment, and purpose all at once. When times are tough, you need others to help you with the emotional labor. You can find others when you’re pursuing passions.
All transitions have ups and downs and when the downs happen it is essential to remember that they are not your partner’s fault. When I made the decision to take the job at TCU, I told myself that I was never allowed to forget that it was my choice. If it all blew up in my face, it would never be because of Tim. I told myself the same when I got the job at Tufts. Though it may seem that Tim led our last couple of searches, I know there will be more ahead that will require new sacrifices. In a field that may pull you in many different directions, it’s not about keeping score.
Lesson Two: Forget the critics
Higher education professionals are some of the most loving, accepting individuals I know. However, they were often the ones most willing to express their hesitations about our relationship. When I chose to follow my partner for the job search, I was judged for not putting myself and my own professional goals first. When I chose to work in the same department as my husband, I was told it would be too hard and that I’d hate it. The critiques go on and though they came from a place of care, they caused me to second-guess myself.
If I’d allowed myself to listen to them, I wouldn’t have landed my first role at an incredible institution. I wouldn’t have discovered that I actually love working alongside my husband. In fact, I may not have even been married to him if I chose to pursue a nationwide job search instead of a regional one that would put an end to our long-distance relationship.
Everyone around you will have an opinion – that is not unique to student affairs. So, it’s important to know yourself, follow your intuition, and do what’s best for your relationship.
Lesson Three: Set clear expectations
Choosing to work in the same role and in the same department as my husband was not a choice that came without fear. I am very independent and care deeply about the impression I make on others. It was important to me that I was able to be “Chelsea” in my new job – not “Tim’s girlfriend.”
During my on-campus interview with TCU, I asked the hard questions. When I sat down for my interview with the Hall Director team, I asked them what difficulties would present themselves if a couple were to be on staff. I asked how I could help combat their fears. When I met with the Leadership Team, I told them that if I were to be hired, it was important to me that they could see me as my own professional. It was a risk, but I also added that if they wouldn’t be able to see me in that way, that I likely should not be considered for the position.
When I received the offer, I felt confident that they’d considered the implications of hiring a current staff member’s partner. They trusted us to remain professional while maintaining a personal relationship, and that spoke volumes to me.
From there, it was important that Tim and I didn’t let them down. We worked tirelessly at our jobs to prove that we could do it all – be in a relationship with one another, have a presence in our communities, be good campus partners, and not let anything fall through the cracks. We did well at bringing our best selves to work everyday, which then came with another set of challenges: finding time for “us” outside of work.
Lesson Four: Maximize power pockets of time
Working in higher education keeps you quite busy. So, when both partners work in the same field, it’s especially difficult to find time for one another. We got creative, though, and found ways to incorporate quality time into our whirlwind schedules.
The first thing we did was add “Quality Time” to our calendars. It may sound odd to build relationship time into your schedule but for us, it meant seeing each other on days when we normally wouldn’t have. Perhaps it was lunch one day, dinner another. Regardless, it was an hour of time where we put our phones and email away to have conversation unrelated to work.
On that note, we also established boundaries for work talk. We could process our days with one another, but didn’t allow ourselves to get into the habit of letting it drag on all night.
We also merged our duty dates. TCU has a multi-zone system so when it came time to picking duty, we tried to get different zones for the same dates. That way, we weren’t losing multiple weekends as a couple to duty. When we were on duty, we took that required on-campus time to cook dinner together, catch up on shows, or make plans for future trips.
Lesson Five: Choose your #SAPro lingo
I am immensely grateful for the soft skills I’ve learned as a student affairs professional. I believe they make me a better communicator and an overall better person. That being said, I can distinctly recall how annoying it was the first time Tim and I had an argument and he said, “What I’m hearing you say is…” followed by, “Okay, let’s unpack that.”
Perhaps this lesson comes down to personal preference, but it unnerves me when Tim and I speak to one another as if we’re speaking to a student in a one-on-one. I appreciate the open dialogue, and the willingness to use I-statements, but we operate better when we ditch the #SAPro lingo at the door when we come home at night.
Lesson Six: Have patience with the field
As I mentioned, our dual, regionally-bound, same-field job search proved to be one of the most trying seasons of our first year of marriage. We had aspirations of moving up north to be closer to family and knew it would take some time, but we were not prepared for the compounding layers of difficulty.
We started searching early in the hopes that we would be able to end our time at TCU just as the spring semester concluded. We had networked at conferences, reached out to our connections, and prepared our materials. We were ready for the next step. Unfortunately, the northeast was not ready for us.
Breaking into a new region proved difficult for many reasons – reasons that could be detailed out in another article. However, what ended up being most difficult was cheering my partner on as I struggled to find success myself. Or having nights filled with sadness because we’d both gotten another no, and weren’t sure how many more we could take. The emotional labor of the search was our greatest challenge as a student affairs couple yet.
This field has tested our patience in many ways – the job search is merely an example. Each dual-career student affairs couple will have to find ways to lean on one another for support, and to advocate for yourselves when you feel unseen, broken, or defeated. Fortunately, we also get to find ways to support, cheer for, and celebrate one another, as well.
When I first got on the plane to South Carolina in February of 2014, I had no intention of meeting my husband. The events that followed catapulted me into an unexpected journey of discovery, resilience, and love. I wouldn’t trade these challenges as they’ve made my husband and me the strong couple we are today. But, I would go back and tell my younger self that it would all work out. That we’d find a way to be together and be incredible professionals all the same. You don’t have to choose one or the other. In fact, I’ve never been more grateful to have a husband who understands my line of work – and who understands me – more clearly than I understand it all myself.
Greer, R. & Poe, R. (2005). Developmental aspects of dual-career relationships: Reflections and Issues. The College Student Affairs Journal, 24(2), 162-169.
Kibel, L. (2013). Beyond the “two-body” problem: Recruitment with dual-career couples support. Retrieved from https://nebhe.org/journal/beyond-the-two-body-problem-increasing-recruitment-roi-with-dual-career-couples-support/
Rice, S., Twombly, S., & Wolf-Wendel, L. E. (2000). Dual-career couples. The Journal of Higher Education, 71(3), 291-321. DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2000.11780824