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Career Tradeoffs are Never a Given for Two-Career Couples

Today, someone shared with me that her #1 fear is this: I will risk my relationship with my fiancé to benefit my career -- or that I will take tradeoffs in my career to benefit my fiancé's career and be bitter later.

So many of us have been trained well in techniques to help us choose between Thing 1 and Thing 2, which is fine when you're by your lonesome. But once you are part of a life partnership, you need to learn to toss out Thing 1 and Thing 2 the moment you discover you each prefer a different one. Learn to look for the Third Alternative.

To find it, you must be honest about what you like and dislike about the two options life just set in front of you and you must be curious about what your spouse likes and dislikes about them. You must jump the fence and say, "I want you to have what you like and to avoid what you dislike about these, but I can't give it to you with Thing 1 or Thing 2. Let's find a Third Alternative together. I promise not to argue for any option you don't like at least as much as the one you like now. We'll just keep looking until we're both happy."

It almost always works, because we are seldom trying to avoid the same thing our spouse seeks. Both may come as a package with Thing 1 or Thing 2, but there is a Thing 3 and even a Thing 4 that will please both of us.

For example, right after he opens a local business in Nashville, she's offered a medical residency in Las Vegas. "Local business in Nashville" has lots of things to like, dislike, or not care about. So does "medical residency in Las Vegas."

Both he and she may actually be indifferent to the location, but if they believe these are their only two options, they'll start talking up the location where their preferred next move is located, making it harder to find the Third Alternative that works for both of them.

The truly rewarding thing about the Las Vegas offer might be the opportunity to work with someone on the faculty there, someone who is actually in the process of moving to a med school closer to Nashville.

The truly rewarding thing about the residency offer might be the income it provides to pay off student loans and buy a second car. An investor for the business or a two-year stint learning about start-ups as a salaried employee for the business owner might take care of this and actually allow the med school grad the preferred opportunity to take a short-term research job or get a business or pharmacology degree before starting a residency in a specialty that doesn't feel quite right yet.

And they could both choose a third city with a better market for the start-up and a lot more residency positions. Here, they could build a joint platform from which both of them can move up in the their careers -- and by delaying the crazy hours of a medical resident, they could together become part of the music, art, spinning, or boating scene there, so they don't end up living their lives in career-defined silos.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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