Your biggest career decision is who you marry

Sheryl Sandberg, the woman who runs Facebook,  has said that the most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry.

I have to agree with this statement. Here’s why:

If you marry someone with a big career and you want to have a big career you have to find that rare mate who can treat you as an equal, even when your career needs to come first. These are very tough marriages to hold together because there is a constant, never-ending re-balancing of priorities and power between spouses.

If you marry a breadwinner who expects their career to come first, then things will probably only work if you can support that. Even if you have a career of your own.  This is the easiest marriage to hold together (if any marriage can be called easy) as long as the man is the breadwinner.

If you marry someone who is terrible at earning money, or someone who is good at earning money but doesn’t want to, then you will have to take responsibility for earning the money.

In each of these cases, your career decisions are largely determined by who you choose as your mate.

If the idea of being in a long-term, committed relationship makes you sick, you should stop reading now, and click over to Beatrice de Guigne’s stunning parody of wedding photography, featuring Barbie and Ken. If you still hold out hope for marriage, here are my five favorite ways to get a spouse:

1. Network.
Getting a spouse is the first big test of your networking abilities. If you’re really well networked, like George Percy, then you can look around at who you know and who your friends know and pick someone.

If you go the networking route, the same rules of networking for a getting a job apply to networking to get a spouse. Which means that the most valuable people in your network are people who you are not that close to because those people will likely know a bunch of people who you don’t already know.

This seems like a good time to tell the story of how my brother met his wife. He came to visit me at college, and it was a weekend when there was a dance. And it turned out that my date was gay, and because I was so stupid about dating I was a) the only person in the school who didn’t know and b) too shy to cancel the date.

I asked my brother to come, to save me, but he needed a date. So I asked a woman in my suite who I had recently gotten to know.

The dance sucked, I couldn’t find my brother, and when I came home, he was making out with the woman in my entrance way. I remember standing there, stunned, and then saying: “What are you guys doing?”

2. Try online dating sites.
That was before dating sites. Today dating sites make things easier, for the lucky 23% of people who can get dating sites to pan out.

Most dating sites specialize. ScientificMatch matches you based on your DNA. Salon is for intellectuals. OK Cupid is more Jewish than JDate. JDate is rife with intellectual snobs and eastern-seaboard snobs who figure they can sort for their demographic by sorting for Jews.

Feeling frustrated and ripped off? Luvia specializes in people who want a better payment fee structure for online dating. Really. The founder of Luvia, Ravi, says: “There’s no monthly fee or any premium services fee. And registration is totally free. is very economical because  we charge based on usage.”

3. Use a headhunter.
When I was thirty and not married and starting to panic, I hired a headhunter.

Here’s why: I was thirty, I had just launched my second startup after exiting the first one, and I was a former professional beach volleyball player. I knew I was a good catch, but I had no time or patience for dating.

The headhunter charged me $10,000 and for that, she taught me how you pick a husband. She told me you only get what you are worth. She told me that I’m an eight so I can get an eight.

Then she told me I could give her three criteria and she’d meet them.

First, I picked good looking, rich, and Jewish. She set me up with the only Jewish Calvin Klein model. I mean, maybe there were two, but it’s hard to believe there are two Jewish men as shallow as this guy was. Really. I think their moms wouldn’t allow it.

So I swapped rich for smart. And I got a screenwriter. Unemployed, of course. After all, I was in LA.

I knew I needed criteria to wipe out the screenwriters. That’s important in LA, because everyone’s a screenwriter. Even the homeless. Actually, especially the homeless.

I spent a lot of time developing a perfect list of three things, and I came up with Jewish, good looking and great at what he does. I thought this last one would be sneaky because you probably are smart and rich if you are great at what you do.

These guys were right up my alley—the type I was used to hanging out with. At work. So I had a hard time keeping dating talk to dating topics and almost all those dates turned into business meetings.

Just when the headhunter was getting frustrated with me, my ex-boyfriend told me he was in LA and asked if I wanted to get together for sex. I said, Okay, if we get married. He said okay. He bought me a ring from the LA County museum, on the way to my apartment.

We had sex. It seemed right because he was good-looking, Jewish, and great at what he did. (He was a video artist. One day I will spew my wide-ranging knowledge of video art on this blog.)

4. Go to therapy.
Hiring the headhunter was like going to therapy. You know, those fairy tales about having three wishes aren’t really about the wishes. They’re about learning what’s important to you. (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is a fun, contemporary take on this story.) The fairy tales are about the power of self-knowledge, and how hard it is to come by.

Which is really what dating is all about. You have to give stuff up to get married. Picking a spouse is a lot like picking a location—it’s not about what you get, it’s about what you give up. You have to be really clear on what you are not willing to give up—because you’ll probably be giving up everything else. You have to assume you are. And it’s hard.

Most of adult life is about admitting what you will not be able to have or be able to do. Marriage is no exception. If you can’t accept that, going to therapy can help—you get stuck otherwise. Which wouldn’t be so bad if you don’t want kids. But stalled dating under the tick-tock of a biological clock is no good for anyone.

5. Compromise your career.
It’s true that who you marry is your most important career decision. But it’s also your most important financial decision, your most important parenting decision, and on and on. No one ever says that they knew what they were getting when they picked their spouse. Twenty years down the line, everyone is surprised.

So the choice is impossible to perfect because the information you have about your options is so poor. People change, and people don’t know who they are so they can’t disclose who they are. And life before kids does not resemble life with kids, so how do you even know how the person will react when the kids come?

It’s hubris to say this does not apply to you.

But of all the things that spouses affect, and with all the things you have to compromise in order to hold a marriage together, a career seems like a small price to pay.

People who are married are happier than people who are not. And I think it’s mostly that people are happier when they put the requirements of being in a committed relationship ahead of the other aspects of their life. And a career would be the first thing I’d tell you to give up. You can get a lot more from loving and being loved.


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  1. mjay
    mjay says:

    On the other hand, for men, marriage is a contract where you give the other party an option on your future income and a right to half your assets, whether or not she contributed to their growth.

    Marriage is for women and submissive men these days. A man who wants to get ahead without fear of the very likely rape that accompanies divorce for most men should steer clear of marriage, play the field and enjoy his life without the State interfering in his personal affairs.

  2. Shir.
    Shir. says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I don’t have fears or concerns around work (I know work’s evolving into meaning and purpose, into creative fulfillment and expressing my potential in my life, and I’d like to have options whether I want to pursue that or not at any point in my life with a partner.) but my fears are more around relationships changing and breaking and the hurt and pain one’s left with that affects every single area of one’s life. I have desperately been avoiding that after experiecing it a lot in my 20’s. Now, am open to the idea again, but it isn’t without all the “what-if’s”. I wonder if break-ups become any easier when one has seen some life and matures, but they were very hard on me earlier. So, “love and be loved” sounds very romantic (and so me, when I was younger), and maybe true at that point in life, but who’s to say how things will change? Now, I’d like to sustain my sense-of-self and balance through my work (that I choose very consciously now) and be able to know that’s all’s not lost, because a relationship ended. I want to be doubly careful about the person I select to be my boyfriend/spouse, knowing fully well I have no control over how things might change in the future. Knowing fully well, also, that even with all the planning, one can fall in love with and be driven to take the plunge with someone completely different. But I’d hope that they meet the very basic criteria for me (eg. open and easy-going, supportive, accepting etc.) even if they are very different in other ways.

    So much to say on this – it’s a Pandora’s box! :-) Thanks for the post Penelope. Hope I didn’t digress. It is so thought-provoking and helped me put together my thoughtsand think about what I’d like. Keep up the wonderful work!

    Lots of love.

  3. John Bastian - Machine Parts
    John Bastian - Machine Parts says:

    Marriage is a business merger. Does it make sense financially? Will merging help or hurt you short term / long term. Open lines of communication. Network expands with groups of friends and family. All things to consider and remember that its no longer his and hers… Its “ours”.

  4. mdingo98
    mdingo98 says:

    I am the main breadwinner and just about every other thing in the family besides “cook and laundry person” (I clean up too)
    My husband was real good at hiding his level of incompetence and I was too much in love with him to see exactly what was going on. We are happiest when he has a day job. He is more help to me living here than he would be were we divorced. He could never manage to support himself and pay child support. I used to love him but after 18 years of marriage I am just tired.

  5. Shannon S
    Shannon S says:

    Another way to think of option #3: if you want to have a big career, and not to have to wrassle with a big-career partner, then expect to be the breadwinner–with all the obligation that entails, and pick someone who won’t mind (whether they make some money or not). Call it the reverse-Cleaver. Or really, the reverse of option 2. I don’t see why there’s an impulse to look down on the men whom this suits. People–men, too–are different. Or why the Type A chicks seem to think that only having a Type A partner signifies success.

  6. Gib Wallis
    Gib Wallis says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I love several things about this post.

    I love that you call the matchmaker your headhunter. But don’t you really mean your recruiting manager? :-) Because it sounds more like you had criteria to make a hire of a husband and fill that vacancy than to apply for a position yourself.

    I also love this line in your response to a comment:
    “The research is not saying there is one silver bullet. There isn’t. Well, actually, there is, it’s your DNA. Most people are born with the happiness level they will have.”

    I’ve met so many people who have things going for them, and the people who are happy seem happier than others whether they’re at a successful moment or whether they’re at rock bottom.

    I love the link for the Barbie and Ken photos.

    I love quoting the Sallie Krawcheck interview. She puts it differently, but it makes perfect sense coming from her, too.

    I wish you had something about whether gay marriage affects gay happiness at all, but this is still a fascinating post.

    What does all your reading say about happiness comparing people who are in bad marriages to people who are single and never married?

    Somehow I suspect that marrying the right person (or the right person for a few years) is better than being alone, but being with the wrong person is worse.

    Of course, maybe people who are risk aversive will be less happy than those who risk.

    I wish you’d write a companion post to this one about how to get the most mileage from your single years whenever they may be.

  7. Courtney
    Courtney says:

    I was married. Now I am divorced. I am happier now, my career on the upswing, and my life is going very well. My ex-husband’s decision to leave was the best decision he made.

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    real estate in ormond beach fl says:

    I saw your blog link in my friend’s facebook page. While I was scanning through the many blog posts you have written about, my attention got struck by the title of this blog post. I am not yet married but I am already engaged. And after I have finished reading your blog, I have realized that indeed the biggest decision you will make in your life is finding a spouse who cares and understands the “professional” in you. My fiance and I have been talking about resigning in my current job because “he can manage to work for the both of us”. Well, I believed that. His salary is thrice as big as mine. But well I said yes because I believed that if you love someone you are willing to give up everything for that person, which makes me a total idiot. I have realized – thanks to your post – that if my Danny (my boyfriend of 4 years) truly love me he will understand my need of practicing my career. After all, I have worked hard to earn my college degree. Thank you so much for making me realize this.

  9. Dan
    Dan says:

    Seriously, you are now giving out marriage advice? Your first marriage was a disaster and you married an unsuccessful man who could not earn money, and now you are an expert? Let’s become successful first before we start giving out advice and yes, I am on my first marriage.

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  11. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I’m not sure how many 31 year old SWM readers you have, but you have at least +1 now. I’m impressed. Your writing may be written primarily for a female audience, but I’m finding it VERY useful in understanding, directly, one version of the core of female thinking. As an INTJ, your blog is a GOLDMINE. Thanks ;) you’ve made me a fan. Now if only I could figure out the right woman to marry, and the right relationship setup. When it’s all done, I can send you a card. Good luck in all your work and please keep up the words of wisdom flowing here!

  12. mish
    mish says:

    i know this is an old post. but anways, at 31 , i turned down many men, being too arrogant. i know, looks fade, and i am considering that marrying rich is important now. and considering giving up my career. perhaps temproarily.

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