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The situation is all too common. When a couple has children, one partner focuses on their career, while the other focuses solely on the family or works a more flexible job so family and household tasks can come first. Then, as the children get older and the couple is nearing retirement, they get divorced.

There is often much resentment on both sides about how things could have gone differently, but some of this may be prevented with a plan from the beginning.

I heard two recent examples of separation. In both cases, partner one, we’ll call them Alex, and partner two, who we’ll call Taylor, had careers until it was decided Alex would no longer work and Taylor would continue to grow a career. It sounds good, until it’s not.

No matter how much Taylor encouraged Alex to go back to the work force when the kids got older or pursue a different career, Alex refused.

In one of the situations, Alex felt there would be limited support at home if they worked more, so took a lesser paying, lower responsibility role in order for Taylor to have the opportunity to grow their career, with the intent that Alex would return to a higher-paying job once the household demands changed. But re-entering the work force can be much more difficult than it seems.

Time away can affect motivation and confidence. Making matters worse, Taylor’s career is growing, watched by Alex. Resentment on both sides starts to appear and boom – the fur starts to fly. Alex believes they gave up their career for someone else’s. Taylor always wanted Alex to go back to work but it did not happen. The fight over financial support then ensues, where Alex believes they are entitled to continuing support, whereas Taylor wants Alex to eventually support themselves. It’s a mess.

No one goes into marriage thinking it might end in divorce. But considering how common it is, there are a few things to be mindful of when choosing to compromise on a career:

  • The longer someone is out of the work force, motivation to get back in the work force may decrease. During this time, Alex has watched Taylor’s career soar, from increased salary and promotions to travel and other perks. Taylor has a different life, one that Alex may find difficult, or not want to integrate in after a while.
  • Resentment on both sides can rise to the surface. Taylor for having to support another person for longer than intended, as well as Alex for feeling held back because of choices they both made but ultimately had a negative impact on Alex’s career, who is now facing mid life wondering what is next.
  • Although relying on someone else for your financial well-being can be a necessity in the interim, it can have devastating consequences later if the relationship breaks down. Alex, with little or no income for most of their life, may have difficulty getting a mortgage or other access to money or credit if needed. This is not a reality anyone wants to be in mid life.
  • Unless child custody is an issue, the big fight is over money – how much and for how long. I have heard so many times from people in Alex’s position that if the relationship breaks up, they get half of everything. It’s not that simple. If it was that simple there wouldn’t be so many family lawyers and mediators – and they have no trouble getting clients.

When considering a “relationship-based” career break, it may help to have a bit of a plan that outlines and supports a return to the work force. Review it regularly and adjust as needed. It’s not a plan in case of divorce, it’s a plan that may avoid one.

Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist, and a leadership coach, based in Calgary.

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