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Support Your Spouse and Establish a Separate Ego

When the evening belongs to your spouse, don't make it about you!

Key points

  • In a dual-career relationship, there are times when one partner will be put in a supportive role.
  • The key is to prioritize boosting a partner's confidence above self-promotion.
  • One way to do this is by developing a second identity to use during a partner's networking events.

Coming out of the pandemic, it is really important that everyone makes a concerted effort to support their spouse in a dual-career relationship. This holiday season may be a little tricky because we skipped last year, and it’s been a while since we saw some of our colleagues. That’s right. Just a year ago, we had no vaccines, and most people in the business world met only virtually. Now, with boosters available and the Delta surge easing somewhat, we will likely see a resurgence of holiday events—even office parties—in person, particularly in the Sunbelt, where many people can get together outside.

Of course, these celebrations won’t approach the scale of pre-pandemic bashes. In Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, known for over-the-top extravaganzas hosted by tech companies, event managers say many companies are opting for smaller gatherings for individual departments, many of them outside with grab-and-go food. Business for these big event managers is only 10 percent to 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Still, since dual-career couples probably belong to at least two different organizations, there may be multiple events to navigate.

And people will probably ask more personal questions: How did you hold up over the past couple of years? How did you manage it? Did you consider taking an off-ramp from your fast-lane career?

Letting your partner shine

There’s a simple Golden Rule for successfully attending such events with your spouse: Treat your spouse as you would like your spouse to treat you.

A series of University of Iowa studies show that some 65 percent of men and 80 percent of women would like more support from their spouses. (They also reveal that the problem is often getting the wrong kind of support—like unwanted advice.)

When the evening belongs to your spouse, don’t step all over it. As Ilene became a prominent executive, Bram started to attend dinners and other business functions as Ilene’s spouse, and it dawned on him that he was there to support her. He noticed that other husbands there in the same situation would often sit in the corner and sulk, while others would stand side-by-side with their wives and compete for attention. He determined that he would stand side-by-side with Ilene and support her.

After a while, as the demands became more regular, he decided he might as well have a little fun with the situation. So, he started thinking of himself as Mr. Gordon. This became his alter ego within Ilene’s business world. He could use that label to communicate to his team when he was doing something for Ilene and not abandoning them to do something for himself. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even mention Mr. Bluestein, much less toot his own horn.

Introducing "Mr. Gordon"

The big advantage that dual-career couples frequently have is the ability to empathize with the challenges their partner is going through at work. Helping each other sometimes requires that a husband learn how to be “Mr. Gordon” and have fun doing it. Bram coined the term “Mr. Gordon” to describe an alternative personality. It wasn’t of his own making.

Ilene’s mentor knew of Bram’s career and achievements, but when Bram arrived at their leadership meeting, he pulled him aside and made it clear that Bram was there to support Ilene, not promote himself. As a result, Bram shelved his plans for the next morning to send out emails and opted to go pottery shopping with the other spouses instead. When Bram stepped on the bus and found himself the only man, everyone asked what he was doing there. He laughed and asked, “Aren’t I a spouse too?”

One unexpected benefit of this nomenclature is that it allowed Bram to communicate to his team and clients when he had secondary obligations. Over time, these grew, which made it even more helpful to have a label for the identity.

Partners can learn to set egos aside and support each other in turn. It’s important for a man to understand that there is this other role to develop, a role in which you support your spouse as opposed to promoting yourself.

Within Bram’s consulting world, spouses would come to monthly partner meetings and dinners. And Ilene would be there as Mrs. Bluestein on behalf of Bram. Much later, when she was a CEO, she became less Mrs. Bluestein and more Ms. Gordon since people wanted to know about the company she was running.

She would also use Mrs. Bluestein to try to blend in with the other spouses who didn’t work outside the home. Professional women were comfortable with one another, but they tended to be a small minority at these events, and they were often given the cold shoulder by the other wives. “Mrs. Bluestein” could provide some protective camouflage.

Whatever your situation, all spouses attending events involving business or professional networking should be attuned to the nature of the specific event, as well as which member of the couple is the primary star that evening. Keep your social antennae alert for any awkward encounters or unexpected situations with which your spouse could use some assistance. A little thoughtfulness and sensitivity here can go a long way toward keeping your relationship healthy and strong.