You love your partner, you love your career... but they're pulling you in different directions. What do you do? Is it foolish to put your career on hold for the sake of your relationship? Or is it more foolish to give up a great relationship for the sake of your career? Or, is there a way to have both?
The Sugars discuss two letters from women in relatively new relationships who are having trouble deciding what to prioritize. They have help from psychotherapist and sociologist Leslie Bell, author of Hard to Get: 20-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom.
I am in love with the most wonderful man. He's smart, funny, hardworking, respectful, patient and, above all, kind. To my surprise, we met online. I couldn't believe how easy it was to talk to him, to be around him, to see him daily. We matched so well, in fact, that by our fourth month of dating, we decided to move in together. We understood how quickly we were moving, but we took the chance and will soon be celebrating our anniversary. His face lights up every time he sees me when he walks through the door after a day at work, and every day I rush to meet him. I love him so much that I am terrified for our future.
You see Sugars, he's a military officer. I’m not afraid of the fact that he’s required to relocate every few years — I love change and travel — it's that I am leaving my current profession to pursue law. He is completely supportive of this move, but the school to which I am accepted may not be anywhere near where he is stationed. Furthermore, as someone who’d like to be employed after graduation, it’s likely that where I go to school is also the city where I’ll be working for the first years after I graduate. My boyfriend plans to stay in the military for about four more years, as it will further his career expertise and expand his options when he returns to civilian life.
So here’s my question: do I choose to put my career first and go where I believe I’d like to go to law school and set down roots and hope that my boyfriend can maintain a long distance relationship that will eventually lead to him someday joining me? Or do I put law school on hold, stay at my current job and follow my boyfriend around the country until he leaves the military?
As with anyone who has realized they had something precious, I never want to let this relationship go. On the other hand, I have a wonderful opportunity to better myself. I very much want to pursue this career, but I feel that, in doing so, I’m it putting it before love. By going to law school, I risk damaging or losing that love. But if I put love first, am I then putting myself and my own career goals...last?
Signed, To Go or Not To Go
Cheryl Strayed: Fortunately, in this case, it isn’t all or nothing. To Go or Not To Go, one option is, you go to law school and have a long-distance relationship for a few years. You have to ask yourself, are you and your boyfriend built for that? What would it look like? If you do want to follow him for a few years, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But you have to agree that at the end of that time, you will both go to wherever you get into law school. You have to, together, make a plan to accommodate both of your career goals.
Steve Almond: To Go or Not To Go, why do you assume that you should be the only one who has to worry about this? This is patriarchal thought in action — that a woman assumes her career goals are secondary, or are subject to negotiation. I think you are setting yourself up to feel responsible if the relationship, or your career, doesn’t work out. It feels deeply unfair to you.
Cheryl: Whatever decisions are made, you and your boyfriend have to make them together, and you both have to be committed to them. If it’s only you making sacrifices and compromises, you will resent him, and he will resent you for resenting him.
A little over a year ago, I got divorced. My ex-husband and I were together a total of ten years and married for six. We got married very young, right after college. By the end of our marriage, I felt like I had given up so much of myself: my individuality and my dreams, all in the name of being a loving and supportive wife. The best way I can describe how I felt was that I had withered.
My ex-husband’s career always came first. For it, we moved to multiple cities where I did not want to live. Nonetheless, I supported his pursuits unconditionally while struggling to find my own way. When I finally identified what I wanted my life’s work to be, I assumed I’d have my husband’s support. Instead, he suddenly revealed that he didn’t support my career, and that he disagreed with the steps I was taking to move it forward. I was devastated.
After the divorce, I moved across the country to a city where I truly wanted to be, and I started over. I was determined that going forward, it would be my life that I lived, not someone else’s. The first several months were hard, but I can now say that I love my life. I love the city where I live, I love my apartment, and I love that I am the only one who decides what I do. I recently got a promotion at work, and now my job is exciting and challenging and is opening up many possibilities for my future. For the first time in my life, I love my job. My problem is this: I’m now being asked to walk away from all of it.
Several months ago, I started dating a wonderful guy. When we met I wasn’t looking for a serious relationship, and he was making preparations to move to South America. He intends to be in South America for a minimum of two years, so we both agreed that the relationship would remain casual and end when he left. It didn’t. We ended up falling deeply in love. There is no doubt in my mind that we are kindred spirits, and I am constantly blown away by the way he loves me. He truly supports me, and he talks about my long-term goals more than I do. We had the most amazing four months together, right up until the day he left. He told me that he wants to spend the rest of his life with me, and he asked me to follow him to South America so that we can be together.
We both desperately want to be together, and we both recognize that in order for that to happen, one of us is going to have to sacrifice. I could never ask him to give up his dream in South America to stay here with me, which means I would be the one to go. I am fluent in Spanish, so it’s not really an issue of my being able to make a life there. It’s that the thought of turning away from the life I’ve built to follow someone else’s path brings me to tears. I’m afraid of going back to being the follower. I’m afraid of history repeating itself. On the other hand, if I decide to stay, my fear is that I would be letting the mistakes of my past and the fallout from a bad relationship dictate my life and hold me back. I feel strongly that if my failed marriage were erased from my life, I’d jump at the opportunity to travel around the world with the man I love. If I stay, I’m afraid that I’d be letting someone who truly loves me walk out of my life for silly reasons. I’ve been trying to listen to my spirit, but the more I think about it, the more I feel torn in two.
Sugars, I know you can’t tell me what to do, but I don’t know how to go about making this decision. How do I reconcile these two parts of my life that I love so much?
Signed, Torn Between Two Loves
Leslie Bell: Torn Between Two Loves says that she could never ask her boyfriend to give up his dreams. He’s also head over heels for her, and yet, it’s outside the realm of possibility for both of them that he would consider putting his dream on hold. There’s a sense that this woman is left to make this decision on her own, as opposed to making it with her partner.
Cheryl: Torn Between Two Loves, maybe the riskiest, hardest thing in this case is to stay — to stay in that job that you love, get another promotion and fulfill those goals. If someone is madly in love with you, they will often decide that they need to make sacrifices. Maybe this guy is going to decide, “I can’t do South America, because you’re not here.”
Steve: To me, this letter is really about volition. Torn Between Two Loves had 10 years of being the follower and subjugating her own needs. She writes, “If my failed marriage were erased, I would jump at this opportunity.” But that failed marriage happened, and it taught her that she doesn’t want to be a follower. I think she knows that going to South America is a bad move for her.
Cheryl: Yeah, and I think especially right now. This woman is just a year out of her divorce and this is a four-month-old relationship. To become a follower this early on — this is the reason you’re bursting into tears, Torn Between Two Loves. It breaks her heart to be a follower right now.
Leslie: My sense is that there’s part of her spirit that’s attached to her new life and is just beginning to be known to her. If she were to follow her boyfriend at this early stage of the relationship, I’m concerned that the part of herself that’s attached to her own desires and goals and path wouldn’t get to be developed. She needs to ask herself, “What would it be like to ask the same thing of my partner that he’s asking of me?” She needs to make sure her understanding of the situation and of what’s possible is as clear-eyed as is conceivable.
Cheryl: Ultimately, we make decisions about our own lives. But within the context of a relationship, questions about whose career to prioritize are actually answered by the two of you coming together and saying, “What do we want to do? Do we want to do the long-distance thing? Should one person make a sacrifice now and the other person will make one later?” Or, will we find that our partner isn’t willing to make any sacrifices? That’s some information you need to have, too. Think of these conversations as, essentially, information gathering. And then make the decision.
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