Two-Career Relationships

Two-Career RelationshipsTwo-career relationships, also referred to as dual-career families, represent a unique variation of the larger category of two-wage relationships or dual-earner families. This entry begins with a definition of two-career relationships and how this family form differs from the larger category of dual-earner families. Described next are factors related to its emergence and increased prevalence as a family form, characteristics of two-career relationships, challenges faced by partners in these kinds of relationships, and factors associated with successful career development and family life for individuals and partners. Because changing views about gender are central to the emergence of this family form, and to its ongoing evolution, special attention is given to this factor. Finally, it should be noted that the focus is on two-career heterosexual relationships; relatively little information is included on important distinctions associated with race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

Definition Of Two-Career Relationships

The term two-career relationships has primarily been used to describe a unique and enduring form of heterosexual marriage. In 1969, Rhona and Robert Rapoport first used the term “dual-career family” to describe what they considered to be an unusual and “revolutionary” type of dual-wage heterosexual family that emerged as the result of complex social changes. Revolutionary from their perspective was the dual-career family’s apparent inconsistency with respect to traditional notions of gender in marriage. In contrast to traditional marriage, in a dual-career marriage both partners pursued a lifelong career, relatively uninterrupted, and also established and developed a family life together that often included children.

The emergence of the heterosexual two-career family represented dramatic changes in conceptions of love, enduring relationships, and social structures in our society. Foremost among these were changes associated with assumptions of male superiority and male authority over women, and assumptions of female destiny being tethered to fertility and caregiving roles. Social changes had brought about an evolution in normative roles for adult women who married and broadened these roles to include occupational pursuits. Traditionally, heterosexual women, even those who had prepared for lifelong careers, were expected to put careers secondary to marriage and caring for husbands and children. Husbands’ careers were viewed as primary and were to be interrupted minimally by family demands; women’s were not. Today, some 50 years later, the situation is quite different. Many women and men prepare themselves for careers with the expectation that their partner will support their career pursuits and that they and their partner will integrate occupational work with family life. This in turn has brought about changes in men’s roles and in societal views about what is needed to support the normative life roles of women and men.

Two-Career, Same-Sex Relationships

Two-career homosexual families also challenge assumptions about love and enduring relationships, but these are largely associated with attitudes and values about individuals of the same sex entering into a committed relationship. As is described later, occupational and family roles converge in many of the same ways for same-sex and heterosexual couples, and both experience similar stresses and challenges associated with their combining occupational work and family life, but there are also important differences. Some of these differences are described later in this entry.

Two-Career Relationships As Compared To The Larger Category Of Dual-Wage Relationships

Two-career relationships are quite prevalent today, but two-earner families are far more numerous and in fact are the norm in the United States. Two factors are generally thought to distinguish the two-career family from the larger category of two-earner families: (1) the meaning of career and the opportunity for career development and (2) views of gender within a committed relationship.

In two-earner families, one or both partners are employed full or part time in jobs for which special education and training may not be needed. Historically, in comparison to careers, jobs involved less commitment to the work involved, required less training, paid less, and lacked clear developmental stages and accumulation of experience. This contrasts to partners in two-career families who are employed in positions requiring special education and training and undertaken or engaged in as a lifework. Typically such positions require a high degree of commitment and provide the person with a sense of consecutive, progressive achievement, be it through promotions or other recognition of one’s accomplishments and skills. In recent years, the distinction between what constitutes jobs and careers also includes whether an individual views involvement in full-time occupational work as reflecting that person’s self-concept and life goals as a career. For example, some individuals view teaching, administrative positions, or practicing law as careers, and others consider these positions as nine-to-five jobs.

With regard to gender, on average, there is less gender-role specialization and less traditional authority differences between partners in two-career families than in two-earner families. Individuals enter two-career relationships with the expectation that both partners will pursue careers relatively uninterrupted and be involved in family life. Male partners appear less defined by the traditional “good provider role” long associated with male privilege and power and enter into marriages that view women and men as partners in love and work. This arrangement differs from more traditional relationships in which occupational work is viewed as the purview of men and considered separate from women’s home and family responsibilities, even when female spouses are employed.

Factors Associated With The Emergence And Increased Prevalence Of Two-Career Relationships

Historically, careers and occupational work defined men socially and economically but not women who worked only to benefit the family. Women were defined socially by their husband’s (or father’s) occupation and socioeconomic standing. This situation began to change after World War II. The women’s movement of the 1960s largely concentrated on how to provide increased and more equitable educational and career opportunities for women in comparison to men. By the 1980s, the women’s movement had expanded its focus to include the culture of work and changes needed to accommodate occupational work and family life. Another important change had to do with men as partners. By the 1990s, national time-surveys began to document a significant shift toward more sharing of housework and child care between spouses.

Thus, contemporary two-career relationships are built on very different assumptions than were traditional relationships. The single most important factor bringing about this difference is women’s increased access to education, good career opportunities, laws to protect them from discriminatory practices, and a status and meaning separate from their affiliations with men. Currently, women and men graduate from high school and college in about the same proportion. Approximately 84 percent of both women and men are high school graduates, and 28 percent are college graduates. Women are entering and graduating with advanced degrees from fields such as law, medicine, the life sciences, and business administration at a rate similar to men. Forty percent of college-educated women earn as much or more than their spouses, and married women on average provide 40 percent of their families’ income. Finally, for both women and men, the age of first marriage is increasing, and the number of children in families is decreasing. The fact that more women view occupational work in professional fields as central to their self-identity increases the number of families with partners who both consider themselves in careers, as opposed to women moving in and out of the workforce depending on family needs. This is the larger context of two-career relationships today.

General Characteristics Of Two-Career Relationships

The emergence of the two-career relationships marks a significant shift in views of women’s roles. This family form not only recognizes women as engaging in influential occupational positions that had historically only been open to men but also acknowledges women as participating in careers as well as marriage. Because the dual-career family form signaled profound social change, a good deal of research has focused on this family form. The following characteristics describe the variations as well as the commonalities among two-career relationships.

Patterns of integrating career and family vary from quite egalitarian to quite traditional. These variations and patterns depend to a large degree on partners’ attitudes and values, relative incomes, availability of child care, employers’ views and policies, and their current employment situation. Women, more than men, who prepare for careers assume and push for the “revolutionary” two-career family envisioned by the Rapoports. Although women on average still do more of the family work, men are increasingly involving themselves in home roles and parenting. Studies indicate that at least one-third of heterosexual two-career families and most lesbian and gay partners have established egalitarian role-sharing arrangements, although many families who are not role sharing describe their situation as equitable in the context of their work and family situation.

Career-family issues are adult life issues. Women and men both experience conflict between their career and family roles and desire more flexibility in their work schedules and more time with their families. Although household work and parenting remain unevenly divided in many two-career marriages, the distribution of income and participation in family roles is much more equitable than in past decades. Husbands’ participation in housework increases when wives earn more of the family income and when husbands participate more in the care and nurturing of their children.

Partners engage in their various roles within the context of workplace policies and practices. Both the implicit and actual practices of employers and what is required for career success in particular fields significantly influence how partners live out their lives despite their individual or family preferences. For example, if success in a field requires a great deal of travel, or if using flextime or paternity leave to spend time with children is viewed negatively for career advancement, the choices of individuals in two-career relationships are impacted.

Career and family are mutually enhancing. Research findings are clear that under most circumstances, engaging in both family and occupational roles is beneficial to women and men, as reflected in indices of physical health, mental health, and relational health. Many studies support this conclusion. In contrast, research findings provide scant support for theories that assume marital stability is derived from women and men engaging in specialized, sex-segregated roles.

Career and family issues differ along dimensions of sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity. The cultural histories of various groups within our society and past or current discriminatory practices among various groups bring still another dimension to the career and family issues in two-career relationships. Partners in same-sex families and the biological children of same-sex partners, for example, often are not entitled to the same health benefits as heterosexual partners. Similarly, societal views of male economic success and power have extended less to men of color than to White men.

Gender matters. The personal lives of individuals are always played out within the constraints of societal norms and values and social institutions, and these remain influenced by conventional notions of sex and gender. Indeed, if any one factor potentially affects women’s and men’s careers and their ability to satisfactorily and successfully integrate their careers and their family life, it is assumptions and processes associated with sex and gender.

Challenges For Two-Career Relationships

Men’s and women’s lives are very much linked. Significant changes in women’s lives bring about significant changes in men’s lives and vice versa. As already mentioned, the revolutionary aspects of two-career relationships had to do with fundamental changes in views of women’s roles and abilities. Thus many of the specific challenges being faced by two-career relationships are associated with assumptions about gender. Change can be difficult under the best of conditions, but contemporary society in many ways remains rigid in its assumptions of male prerogative and female accommodation, making change perhaps more complicated than the Rapoports may have anticipated in 1969.

Sex, Gender, And Gender Processes

Gender refers to the psychological, social, and cultural features and characteristics that have become strongly associated with the biological categories of female and male. Individuals are not born with gender but rather learn to be women or men within the context of their historical and cultural circumstances, including race, ethnicity, and other sources of social identities. That is, their gender identities are negotiated and developed over time. According to gender theory, many of the traits and behaviors assumed to be determined by biological sex have become constructed by the social reality of the lives of individual women and men. Thus women who are socialized to build their lives around the romantic experience of being with a man and being taken care of by a man, and have few other choices, act in accordance with this social reality, regardless of their personal interests, personalities, and abilities.

Gender theories and processes provide an important framework for considerations of two-career relationships and how partners manage their lives. Participation in a culture involves participation in its cultural stories about what it means to be a man or a woman in that culture. Traditional patriarchal power rests on the social meanings given to biological sex differences and to their reproduction as cultural stories. These cultural stories take many forms, from the sexual division of labor depicted in fairy tales, novels, and traditional marriage, to internalized norms of femininity and masculinity. These cultural stories are central to the visions women and men develop about their adult roles—what is thinkable, what is possible, and what is doable.

Several salient sociopsychological factors and external structural factors associated with gender ideology are important to recognize.

Sociopsychoiogical Factors

Male entitlement, prerogative, and assumed superiority. Historically, careers were viewed as important for men, and women were expected to accommodate any occupational aspirations to their husbands’ careers. Such views continue today to some extent and become manifest as women consciously or unconsciously defer to the careers of their husbands. For example, women in two-career relationships may work fewer hours or accept less demanding positions in order to accommodate the man’s career. She may also assume more of the family responsibilities.

The privileging of the male career is cultural. Still today, relatively few men consciously plan their occupational aspirations to fit with their future views of family life. In contrast, many women pursue fields of study or career paths they view as consistent with their future responsibilities as parents and spouses. This is generally true across fields. For example, women more than men pursuing fields in the sciences and engineering feel a pressure to choose tracks that will allow them greater flexibility to balance work and family responsibilities.

Female nurturance and care. Despite men’s participation in fields such as pediatric medicine and child psychology and the greater involvement of men in parenting since the 1980s, nurturing is still linked almost exclusively to women. Increasing numbers of men actively participate in parenting, and a significant proportion of men are the primary caretakers of young children. Nonetheless, women more than men are cul­turally expected to be actively involved with and available to their children and responsible for their care. In addition, cultural pressures that give greater importance to mothering than to fathering may increase barriers to men’s involvement in parenting.

The prioritization of a man’s career over a woman’s often occurs after the birth of the first or second child and the associated changes in the career-family balance established by partners. It is important to note that while some men and women make these choices, these decisions are not made in a vacuum. Subtle gender processes within the family and society may define the ways in which women, but not men, are expected to accommodate their occupational aspirations to their spouse’s career and to responsibilities for children.

Views of women’s and men’s abilities. Central to assumptions about male superiority and female nurturance are stereotypic and inaccurate notions about inherent differences between the sexes. Despite the large volume of evidence that women and men are more similar in their abilities and personal characteristics than they are different, these inaccurate beliefs continue to be perpetuated through various socialization mechanisms.

Early socialization, for example, emphasizing the superiority of men’s or women’s abilities in certain areas can result in girls or boys internalizing the belief that they are less capable and less likely to succeed in that area than their other sex counterparts. A case in point is math ability. Compared to men, on average women have less confidence in their math abilities. Recent studies provided evidence that internalized gendered beliefs about mathematics achievement influenced the performance of girls and boys on math tests.

Structural Factors

Women pursuing careers still face discriminatory practices at work, both in subtle and blatant ways. These can take the form of lower salaries, invisible glass ceilings, and sexual harassment. In addition, partners in same-sex relationships may face discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Being “out” on the job can have negative repercussions for career advancement.

Occupational sex segregation and glass ceilings. Although increasing numbers of women are entering professional fields such as law and medicine, overall women and men are still found in quite different occupations, with many women still concentrated in occupations that were historically female dominated. Research also indicates that a significant percentage of women experience a glass ceiling that limits their career opportunities.

Today the highest proportion of women with a college education are primary and secondary schoolteachers and registered nurses; neither of these occupations appears among the 10 most common occupations for college-educated men. Overall, men have a wider base of power and still predominantly hold more positions of power and leadership in business organizations, government, and academic institutions. Current employment benefits and policies enable women more than men to ask for and receive the accommodations necessary for combining work and family responsibilities (e.g., maternity leaves, flexible schedules); this practice contributes to their sex segregation within their professional fields.

Gender gaps in salary. Women on average continue to earn significantly less than men, although a significant proportion of women today earn more than their spouses. Earning differences for women and men have decreased from the 59 cents for every dollar men earned in the period from 1960 to 1980, but they still persist. Women and men between the ages of 16 and 24 tend to have similar earnings, with a wage gap occurring for older women and men. The reasons for this gap are complex, but subtle discrimination is considered to be a significant contributor. A case in point concerns the status of women faculty at major research universities. Recent research reports concluded that gender discrimination in the 1990s is subtle but pervasive and stems largely from unconscious ways of thinking that have been socialized into men and women alike. The report noted that the consequences of these more subtle forms of discrimination are as demoralizing to women as were the blatant inequities and intimidation of former decades. Among other indices of inequity, women faculty earned less than what men earned in comparable positions.

Sexual harassment. Sexual harassment remains a pervasive problem in the workplace, as evidenced by research findings and the settlement of highly publicized class action lawsuits. More women than men experience sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is an abuse of power that can demoralize women and men in careers, cause professional and psychological distress, and affect career outcomes. Individuals who experience harassment may lose out on promotions, change positions to avoid harassers, and experience reprisal for reporting their harassment.

Succeeding As A Two-Career Relationship

While partners in two-career relationships face a number of unique challenges, research has provided useful information about how these families can succeed and flourish. A number of factors have been identified as important to the success of dual-earner families. Family factors are associated with partner behaviors within the family and include fairness, communication, and mutuality between partners, and career-family balance. Particularly important to effectively managing a two-career relationship is commitment to this lifestyle, the capacity to be flexible, compromising, and realistic. Spousal or partner support and sensitivity also play a key role. Shared values and expectations as well as feelings of fairness enhance the ability of spouses to be supportive. Factors residing outside the family are also crucial and include social support and family friendly work environments.

Family Factors

Fairness. Views of fairness are central to partners’ abilities to successfully combine work and family life. Both men and women must be able to move outside traditional gender role norms and become comfortable with creating norms for themselves that both partners view as fair. For example, men may need to become accustomed to preparing lunches and managing car-pools and women to earning a higher income than their spouse. Partners use this sense of fairness to create adaptive strategies in accommodating the family and home responsibilities and the emotional work required to create a partnership based in equality and role sharing. This balance will most likely be achieved if partners commit to frequent times together focused on communication about such issues.

Communication, mutuality, and spousal support. The quality of the communication between partners and an ability to communicate in areas central to the relationship are very important. The importance of partners making time for one another for communication and mutual support is well documented. Valuing time with one another and striving to keep that time a priority gives partners the opportunity to show their mutual respect and appreciation for the different ways in which each partner is supporting the other and the family. In addition, making time to express appreciation as well as to communicate about problem areas helps build a stronger foundation for the family as a whole. Communication also involves expressing interest in each other’s professional activities and acknowledging each other’s family involvement and support.

Discussions during courtship about how partners envision integrating their career and family roles are associated with marital stability. Particularly important areas of communication then and after marriage are whether or not to have a child, when to have a first child, and whether or when to have additional children. Partners need to discuss how having a child will affect their relationship and their careers and how they will address these changes. The timing of the first child can also influence the timeline for having a larger family. Relevant to these discussions is the availability of flexibility at both partners’ places of employment and parenting-leave policies.

Communication about household and parenting responsibilities is another important area. Day-to-day tasks must be discussed, including who will do the grocery shopping and prepare meals, wake up for early morning feedings, and take off work to take the children to the doctor when they are ill. Also critical is the discussion of future issues such as options for child care. Is an extended leave possible for father or mother during the first year? Does the budget allow for in-home care of the infant? Is child care available at either partner’s workplace?

Communication is also useful when things feel out of balance. Research indicates that it is not the partic­ular division of labor and time that affects marital quality but whether both partners feel they had a say in the arrangements and feel satisfied with the outcomes.

Career-family balance. Too much time at work can cause harm to either personal or family welfare, while too little time dedicated to one’s work may endanger a family’s economic security. Many studies have shown the benefits of integrating career and family roles. At the same time, it is important to identify when role demands at home or at work have become excessive and unhealthy to the relationship. Greater relationship stability occurs when partners uphold boundaries around their career demands and take responsibility to not work excessive hours, which negatively impact their home lives.

As mentioned earlier, the extent to which partners in two-career families hold similar attitudes regarding roles within the family, and act in accordance with these attitudes, moderates the career-family balance achieved. A husband who is an involved father but leaves household duties to his spouse will create stress, resentment, and a lack of balance if his wife expects egalitarian participation.

Factors Residing Outside The Family

More effective coping and greater satisfaction among partners, especially those with children in the home, invariably are associated with flexibility of work schedules, family-supportive employers and benefit policies consistent with this supportive attitude, and suitable child care.

Areas typically receiving attention from companies are dependent care, including infants, adolescents, and the elderly; conditions of work such as greater flexibility in the organization, hours, and location of work; and corporate mission or the validation of family issues as an organizational concern. Currently, for example, nearly all companies offer flexible scheduling in the form of flextime, part-time employment, job sharing, compressed work schedules, or work at home. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 86 percent have work/family programs.

Many employers offer dependent care assistance programs that help employees pay for child care with pretax dollars. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth, adoption, and other family related situations. Research findings support the fact that supportive family friendly workplaces are associated with higher levels of career satisfaction among employees and more commitment to company success. Nonetheless, fewer men than women use family benefits. Should men in two-career relationships be reluctant to use these benefits, even when they are available at their places of work, it would place greater family responsibilities on their female partners and also potentially negatively affect their partners’ early and mid-career development.


To conclude, succeeding as a two-career relationship is generally associated with the following conditions:

  • Partners holding less traditional views of gender
  • Partners discussing during courtship their plans for integrating careers and family life
  • Partners affirming each other’s career pursuits and aspirations
  • Partners being happy in their occupational work
  • Partners viewing each other’s involvement in home roles as fair
  • Employers of both partners having benefit policies that are family responsive
  • If children are involved, both partners being actively participating in parenting and
    • Feeling comfortable sharing parenting with child care personnel
    • Being satisfied with the child care they are using.

Certain realities and accommodations come with two-career relational patterns, and partners need to be prepared for the kinds of choices they may necessitate. At the same time, what emerges from the extensive research on two-career relationships is the successful convergence of occupational and family norms for women and men who chose this family form. Two-career relationships represent an enduring family form, and their increased prevalence underscores the importance of the societal changes that have allowed the coming together of relational love and meaningful career pursuits for both partners.

See also:


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