5 women on career success, ambition, and divorce

5 women on career success, ambition, and divorce

For Suzanne,* dating after a divorce has been something of a delicate dance. “What I’ve found as I’ve gotten a lot older is that you really have to also be a match when it comes to what’s inside—how you’re motivated,” she says. “One of the ways in which I’m motivated is ambition. And I’ve found that whether it was with my ex-husband or people who I dated, if they didn’t have that ambition, they didn’t understand that ambition.”

As a social entrepreneur, Suzanne has never measured her ambition in dollars. She is animated by impact—by her ability to “make a big difference,” she says. But those ambitions, whether channeled into the benefit corporation she helms or a bid for office in her home state of Texas, have often snarled her romantic relationships.

“I can’t quite pinpoint why it’s problematic,” she says. “With my ex-husband, we were both entrepreneurs and my business was wildly successful, and his was going really [badly]. And I think it was really hard for him to see me be successful when he wasn’t.”

In relationships since, Suzanne’s partners have been drawn to her ambition, but only until it inconveniences them, she says. “In theory, they want to date somebody like me,” she says. “But then when I have to unfortunately cancel something because something big has come up … it’s obvious to me that I don’t get the same allowances that a man who’s ambitious does.”

Though working women have sought to reclaim the word through hashtag campaigns and T-shirt slogans, their ambitions—both at home and in the office—are often stymied by systemic forces beyond their control. Even when they have access to affordable childcare and federal parental leave policies, a morass of cultural expectations and gender norms still disproportionately affect women who find professional success.

Recent research found that even in Sweden, often considered one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, a major promotion increased the rate of divorce for married women—but not for men. A woman who was elected mayor or parliamentarian was at higher risk of getting divorced than a man whose career followed the same trajectory. And a woman who was appointed CEO was more than twice as likely to get divorced within three years than a man who rose to the same position.

While women have made strides in the workplace, the same can’t be said of their home life. A recent Gallup survey found that while attitudes about gender roles have evolved, women still shoulder more housework. In the majority of households, the division of labor remains surprisingly conventional, with women responsible for chores like cooking and cleaning. Despite shifting cultural norms, there is little difference in labor distribution between younger and older couples.

But Gallup’s findings also indicate that in households where both spouses work or the women earn more, the men are more likely to chip in. In other words: When women prioritize their careers, they have less time for the domestic labor that is often expected of them.

We asked four other working women who have gotten divorced to reflect on how their relationships soured when they found career success. Most of them said the culprit wasn’t just professional jealousy. More often than not, they were simply looking for a more equal partnership.

“I started really looking at the relationship”

Julie* and her husband were both self-employed creatives. “For 10 years, I ran my own graphic design business,” she says, “and my ex-husband had his own animation business.” But it was a challenge to make ends meet without a steady paycheck, especially once they had a child. “It finally got to the point where it was just hard financially and I was like, we’ve got to do something about it,” she says. “I started looking online for in-house jobs. It’s not what I wanted to do, but I felt like we had to.”

Eventually, Julie was hired as the art director for a media company. It was a trade-off. “I was gaining money,” she says, “but I was sacrificing the freedom and flexibility of working from home and choosing the clients that I wanted to work with.” Still, the new job nearly doubled Julie’s yearly income.

While Julie’s husband wasn’t unsupportive, he didn’t seem to like that her new in-office gig forced him to step up as a parent. Since Julie had to be in the office early, she could no longer be solely responsible for getting their son ready in the morning, for example, and driving him to preschool. “[My husband] never helped out in the mornings with our son—he would sleep in until 10 a.m.,” she says. “I’m sure he was happy I was making more money. But I think he didn’t love how it affected his ideal routine.”

With her finances in order, Julie turned her attention to her relationship. She suddenly felt emboldened to take a bigger leap. “You’re focusing on the biggest challenge in the moment, and the biggest challenge for a while was money,” she says. “Once that was more figured out, I started really looking at the relationship, too . . . I was like: We’re basically roommates. We love our child, but do I feel like I’m going to still be with this person in 10 more years?”

Her new financial reality, Julie says, gave her the opportunity to act on her doubts, in part because she could afford to get divorced. “I have friends who want to get a divorce and they know financially that they can’t,” she says. “A lot of women are stuck like that, especially when kids are involved.”

“I needed to have a job, but the job couldn’t get in his way”

In her twenties, Elizabeth* decided to take a chance on a freelance career, a decision she now credits to the “hubris of youth.” Her husband, who was a trader, also encouraged her to leave her PR agency and strike out on her own. “We got married and things were great,” she says. “And then the bottom fell out.”

When the recession hit, many potential clients shuttered their businesses or couldn’t afford her services. “While my income was shrinking, [my husband’s] was exploding because volatility in the market was creating all this opportunity for him as a trader to make tons of money,” she says. What that did offer, however, was financial security: Soon, they were living in a big single-family home in a nice neighborhood, and Elizabeth busied herself with upkeep of the house and overseeing renovations in their investment properties. “I think as the years went on, I definitely felt like, okay, well, this is how I’m contributing,” she says. “In my head I thought, ‘The economy will turn around; I’ll get more clients. This will sort of even out.’”

Sure enough, she soon landed a major department store as a client. “That led to more work,” she says. “And then [I was] traveling and, all of a sudden, not around. It shook up a dynamic that Elizabeth—and especially her husband—had gotten accustomed to. “We would get into fights,” she says, “and he would be like, ‘I’m busy. I’m stressed out all day. You need to contribute.’ He used to say, ‘If it was up to you, we’d be living in some rat-infested garden apartment,’ which was like his sickest burn.”

But in truth, he wanted to be the breadwinner, says Elizabeth, and he wanted her to focus on domestic tasks, like putting dinner on the table every night. When her career started taking off, it disrupted his preferred lifestyle. “I didn’t have as much time to basically be his personal assistant and project manage his life,” Elizabeth says. Often, she’d take calls with a West Coast team at night, after her husband was home—something she would have never done in the past. Previously she had tried not to work while he was home. “I remember coming home from a late meeting and [asking], ‘Did you eat anything?’” she says. “And he said, ‘I ate a box of Cheez-Its because there was no dinner for me.’”

Elizabeth also sensed that he wasn’t happy that she started getting some recognition through regional groups. “I think maybe he didn’t like the idea that I may have a career and not be so reliant on him,” she says. “In addition to the day-to-day inconveniences my new account represented for him, maybe it emboldened me to push back in a way that I didn’t feel like I could before.” After giving marriage counseling a try—which her husband thought was “bullshit,”—they called it quits.

Elizabeth had always been clear about her desire to work, she says—and in any case, her husband looked down on women who stayed home. He liked that Elizabeth had, in his mind, the right pedigree and a job. “He would brag that I went to Northwestern or brag about my G.P.A.,” she says. “He would want people to know I was smart, and he would make fun of some of the other wives who didn’t have ‘noteworthy’ education or didn’t work.”

Her husband liked the idea of her working, Elizabeth says, so long as it was on his terms. “I needed to have a job,” she adds. “But the job couldn’t get in his way.”

“Every success that I had made him feel less than”

About a year after Sara* started her interior design business, it started getting attention. “My first house had been on HGTV,” she says. “I was getting awards and acknowledgements.” Then her husband lost his job, and their household income was slashed in half overnight. “I was like, oh my god, now I have a company that’s one year old, and I now have to be the main source of income for a family of four,” she says.

Until then, Sara had been able to maintain a more flexible schedule, usually not working a full week so she could also juggle the lion’s share of housework and childcare. That changed quickly when her husband lost his job—soon, she was working closer to 80 hours a week. “I gave him about two weeks of moping around the house,” she says. “[Then] I was like, you need to figure something out. You need to either get a job or start your own company or go back to school—I don’t care what you do, but you have to do something.”

Her husband ended up starting his own company. But Sara says something shifted in their relationship, and they never quite recovered. “He then looked at me and would start saying, ‘Well, it’s your company that’s going to bring in the big dollars,’” she says. “And I would be like, ‘But I need a partner. I’m fine to do that if I can have a partner on other things.’” Later, during divorce proceedings, she learned this was a turning point for him. “That was the moment he felt I then looked down on him,” she says. “To me, that was never the case. It was just that I needed some help.”

In their last few years of marriage, Sara says her husband made it harder and harder for her to keep her career and family afloat. “He couldn’t pick up the kids,” she says. “He couldn’t be there. I needed to rearrange my stuff to take care of things. It almost became petty.” Sara’s takeaway has been that many men simply aren’t adept at supporting a successful spouse, even when they outwardly claim otherwise.

“I don’t think guys are good at being in a support role,” she says. “At least in my experience, he just couldn’t take it. It was completely crushing to his ego. . . . Every success that I had made him feel less than.”

“I felt like he didn’t relate to or understand what motivated me”

As the cofounder and CEO of a nonprofit women’s organization, Lauren* works on gender issues for a living. And yet, in her own life, she has struggled to find an equal partner. “I have a nontraditional career in a lot of ways,” she says, “but one that is very intense and has been very intense for a long time.”

In the middle of the 2016 election, right after she returned from the Democratic National Convention, Lauren left her husband of 13 years. “I made a trade-off that I think a lot of type A women make,” she says. “I married someone who was definitely not a super-achiever. I made that choice in part because I just wanted somebody that would be supportive of me. I had kind of given up on finding somebody that was a true equal partner in terms of career and even financially. I was the primary breadwinner throughout my marriage.”

But over time, that choice wore on her. Lauren felt like her husband simply couldn’t fathom why she cared so deeply about her work. “Part of why our marriage ended was because at some point, that compromise just became really lonely,” she says. “I felt like he didn’t relate to or understand what motivated me. For me, my career is who I am, not what I do. As my career started to really take off . . . he didn’t understand and didn’t really care.”

And yet, not much has changed now that Lauren is on the other side. Dating as an ambitious, career-oriented woman is no easier. “I’ve been single and dating for four years,” she says. “And there are just a lot of men who will Google me and immediately opt out. I’ve had so many men say to me, ‘You’re pretty intimidating.’” The high-achieving men she seeks out don’t necessarily want to be with someone like her. “I can’t tell you how many women I know who are high-achieving and have pretty much given up on finding a partner who’s equally high-achieving,” she says. “A lot of super high-achieving men don’t want high-achieving women as their partners. They want women who will stay home and take care of their lives. They still want that.”

Lauren believes that many men in her generation may want to be equal partners and parents—or think they want to—until they realize what that sort of a partnership actually looks like. “They think of themselves as more evolved than their fathers,” she says. “But when it comes down to it, I’m not really sure how many of them are.”

Lauren says she hasn’t given up on finding a more compatible partner. But she now grasps just how complicated it is for women like her to navigate romantic relationships, in and out of a marriage. “I ended my marriage with the hope of finding a more coequal partner,” she says. “And that has been very difficult. I’m still single four years later. I’ve dated a lot and I’ve put in as much time as I possibly could. But what I’ve come to recognize is the more high-achieving, professional divorced women I talk to, the more I’m hearing the same things over and over again.”

*These individuals have been identified by a first name to protect their anonymity.

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