Sheryl Sandberg Says Marry a Supportive Partner. Easier Said Than Done!

379px-Fred_C_Palmer_Swindon_wedding_couple_002I must confess I haven’t yet read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, but I have heard and read about Sandberg’s insight that “the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is,” and her observation that, “I don’t know of a single woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully—and I mean fully—supportive of her career.”

I agree with her 100%, on this point, at least. But anyone who’s played the dating game knows that it’s far from a simple matter to: (1) decide to have a life partner, and, then: (2) go out and find one who will fully support your career. It’s not exactly something you can just put on your to-do list and cross off.

Since reading these excerpts from Lean In, I’ve been thinking about how one goes about finding a supportive partner, especially because I have a young daughter and another on the way, and I know—after almost twelve years of marriage—that picking the right partner is a make-or-break-your-happiness kind of deal. I am lucky to have a supportive spouse. But many of my friends—even many of my graduate degreed friends —do not have supportive partners.

After an utterly non-scientific, anecdotal study, I’ve concluded that a person’s level of intelligence or number of graduate degrees has nothing to do with whether they’ll be able to find a supportive partner. As a professional career woman, you may find a partner who is just as ambitious and goal-driven as you are, and that might mean that they’re more interested in supporting their career over your own. Or may find a partner who is not ambitious or goal-driven at all and doesn’t understand being passionate about your career.

So is finding a supportive partner random chance? Luck? Hocus-pocus? Cupid? I don’t think so. Here are the ideas I’ve come up with for how to go about finding a supportive partner:

  1. Use your time as a single woman to get to know and respect yourself. When you’re in a relationship (especially when you’re in high school or college), it can be too easy to lose yourself in the haze of romance. So make sure you take advantage of those in between times to get to know yourself. What do you like to do, when it’s just you? What career paths seem most attractive to you? What kind of a job would you like? What kind of a life do you want? What are your priorities?
  2.  Search out and get to know older couples you want to emulate. Is there a professor you respect or a work colleague you admire who is also a mom? Get to know her, and try to spend some time with her and her family. Look especially for couples that have been together for a while. As you get to know them, you may realize that their relationship isn’t as great as you thought originally, but you’ll learn something from the friendship anyway.
  3. Be friends to each other before you get “friendly” with each other. Your friendship with your partner (such as it is) will last much longer than your raging hormones, so you have to make sure your friendship is solid. I know this may be easier said than done, but if you the more you can work on your friendship with your partner before the hormones rush in and make you crazy, the better off your relationship will be.
  4. Set the right relationship ground rules from the beginning. In other words, be respectful and demand respect right from the beginning. Be honest and demand honesty. Be kind and demand kindness.
  5. Be honest with yourself and each other about your hopes, dreams, and goals. You have to know yourself first (see number 1, above). Assuming you know what your hopes, dreams, and goals are, share them with your potential partner. Don’t hide them because you’re afraid he won’t approve or won’t be interested. You’re going to have to let him know at some point—and it will be harder if you’ve set misleading expectations at the beginning.
  6. Take a close look at your potential partner’s parents’ relationship. Depending on how your partner was raised, this could be a parent and step-parent’s relationship, or grandparents’ relationship. This is the pattern he knows. If it looks radically different from the relationship you want, be afraid!
  7. Recognize that your hopes, dreams, and goals—and your partner’s—will change over time. And that’s OK, as long as you regularly check in with yourself and your partner.
  8. If you can’t talk to each other, get out of the relationship. You and your partner need to be able to share your thoughts with each other, and you need to be able to really listen to each other. If you realize early on in the relationship that you can’t talk with or listen to each other, then don’t waste your time. Or, if for some reason you’re already committed before you realize that you have a serious communication problem, get outside help as soon as possible.

In writing the ideas above, I came up with two more lists: a list of warning signs that your partner will not be supportive, and a list of encouraging signs that your partner will be supportive.

Nine warning signs that your potential partner will not be supportive:

  1. Your partner doesn’t listen to you.
  2. Your partner won’t talk to you about his hopes, dreams, or goals.
  3. Your partner belittles you, your intelligence, your goals, your career, or your interests.
  4. Your partner’s mom caters to her spouse’s every whim.
  5. Your partner’s mom caters to your partner’s every whim.
  6. Your partner has no interest in your friends, your school work, or your career.
  7. You’re already doing your partner’s laundry, dishes, etc.
  8. Your partner has a personality flaw that you’re sure you can change.
  9. Your partner expects you to adapt your schedule around his schedule.

And eight encouraging signs that your potential partner will (probably) be supportive:

  1. Your partner really listens to you, and even brings up things you’ve said in earlier conversations from time to time.
  2. Your partner is interested in hearing about your hopes, dreams, and goals.
  3. Your partner shares his hopes, dreams, and goals with you, too.
  4. Your partner’s mom supports him without giving him everything he wants.
  5. Your partner’s dad supports and encourages your partner’s mom.
  6. Your partner is interested in your friends and (school) work.
  7. Your partner knows (or is learning) the basics of keeping house.
  8. Your partner makes time for important events in your professional (or school) life.

When I meet Sheryl Sandberg—perhaps at one of her Lean In circles?—I’ll be sure to ask how she went about finding a supportive spouse. In the meantime, I’m crossing my fingers that she’ll write more about this in her next book.

Contributor Eileen Youens teaches and advises local governments and government contractors about public contracting, public construction, and conflicts of interest. She also puts her litigation training to good use in negotiating with her two-year-old daughter. Eileen tweets at @eyouens and blogs at

Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Ann

    I have the most supportive husband in the world. I silently dreamed of a career as a writer. He listened when I didn’t speak and told me it was time to do it. For five years I have struggled my way up and for five years he has supported me through every step. I am so happy I married this man.

  • Bernadine Spitzsnogel

    What a great article, particularly the suggestions of what to look for what to worry about. I was very lucky because I met my sweetie in college when neither of us was “fully formed.” And this is a cautionary tale for mothers and fathers — raise your sons well, show them the way. My husband was our primary cook until four years ago and is probably more of a feminist than I am. Our adult son is a fine person who I feel will be respectful of his ultimate partner. Excellent article, Eileen.

  • Renee

    The warning signs and encouraging signs can be distilled down to (a) communication, (b) independence, and (c) adaptability. Those are the foundation of my 18-year relationship with my husband, which just gets better with every passing year.

    As for idea number 3, I would suggest compatible expectations and perspective is the key. Most people would agree that waiting is what they need to explore the idea of a long-term relationship. For us, however, not so much. ;)

  • Julia T

    I love this article! You’re definitely right, Sandberg doesn’t expand too much on how exactly one goes about finding someone willing to split household chores and responsibilities 50/50, so this is great advice. Hopefully there’s a lot more discussion about this in the future.

    I wrote a similar article about Lean In, I’d love it you’d let me know what you think!

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