Marrying Well Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

493px-Bride_and_GroomOn the subject of finding the right partner, first we heard from Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive who advised other women, in her bestselling and controversial book, Lean In, to “marry well.” Sandberg wrote:

“The single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.”

That statement, among others, caused all hell to break loose. Blog post after blog post criticized Sandberg for her smugness. Yet some of those same posts simultaneously extolled the virtues of finding the “right” partner. Recently,The Broad Side’s Eileen Youens found fault with Sandberg (choosing someone who will support your career is “not exactly something you can put on your to-do list and cross off,” Youens admits). But on the other hand, she validates Sandberg’s theory (“picking the right partner is a make-or-break-your-happiness kind of deal”).

I agree with many of Youens’s points. But I nevertheless feel compelled to ask her, Sandberg, and all the other women who have expressed similar opinions about the connection between a happy marriage and career success: Do you really think most women, including many successful women, thought they weren’t “choosing well” when they made their choice?

Sandberg married her current husband in 2004 (in other words, not that long ago). She has two young children. Youens has been married for 12 years and also has two young children. I really and truly hope that the supportive marriages they’ve written about remain happy and last forever. But statistically speaking, these women may not turn out to be so lucky. And if they aren’t, will that be because they didn’t “choose well”?

Not necessarily. It might mean they chose well but that somewhere along the way their marriage ran into trouble spots that couldn’t be overcome.

When I married my husband in 1997, I believed I had chosen well. I still do. I married a brilliant man with (attention, “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton) a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university. We started out as friends. He was kind, thoughtful, and sensitive and couldn’t have been more supportive of my career. In fact, we moved from Washington, D.C., to New York City for my career, not his. We had similar goals and values and shared them openly. So far, we met all the criteria for a successful match as stipulated by others who have made successful matches.

We had a son less than two years later, and my husband fully shared the childrearing and household chores. (More points for us.) He did the grocery shopping, the laundry, and the baths. When our son was an infant, we each worked from home one day a week; three years later, we enrolled him in a cooperative preschool where we both volunteered in the classroom. Through all this, I had a demanding job and my husband never once (attention, Sheryl Sandberg) complained about my hours. After all, he had a demanding job himself. When I needed him to be home, he was there, and vice versa.

Our marriage was blissful—and then it wasn’t. By 2006, we had separated. We now live in different homes in the same town and are raising our son together.

My son’s father remains, to this day, one of my greatest supporters in all matters, personal and professional. He is the first person I call when I have a problem, and he still steps in when I have work-family conflicts. I do the same for him. When he comes over for dinner, he does the dishes.

I married a great man—an enlightened, involved, egalitarian man—but our marriage didn’t work. It doesn’t mean I didn’t choose well. It doesn’t mean I didn’t think about all the things I was supposed to think about in advance of getting married. It means you can’t foresee all circumstances no matter how hard you try. And it would be nice if the happily married women of the world acknowledged this.

Which leads me to my second question to the women who champion the idea of marrying well: Do you really think there is so little chance for happiness and success outside marriage? If you don’t choose the “right” partner, does that mean you can’t become a Facebook executive? Or that you can’t have a rewarding career and a family at the same time? That you can’t pursue your dreams, whatever they may be?

Nonsense. Just as having a happy marriage doesn’t guarantee career success (for men or women), not having one doesn’t guarantee failure. If you need proof, look at Nora Ephron, Madeleine Albright, Maya Angelou, Condoleezza Rice, Carly Fiorina, and the thousands of other women who succeeded professionally despite not choosing “well” the first time or not choosing at all. Did you know Maya Angelou married three times? And although she doesn’t publicize it much, Sandberg is on husband number two.

I have tremendous admiration and respect for anyone who picks the “right” partner on the first try. But for those who don’t, please don’t believe this will make or break your career success or your happiness. It won’t. Those things, for the most part, are up to you.

Guest contributor Andrea Barbalich is president of Andrea Barbalich Consulting, an editorial and marketing firm, and previously held positions at Meredith, iVillage, Scholastic, and other media companies. A nationally recognized expert in motherhood and women’s issues, Barbalich lives with her son in Westchester County, New York.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Liked your piece and your prospective, and now I’m going to throw out some fightin’ words and see what sticks. An old broad like me, with the same fella since 1982 (knew him five years before that, since 1977) believes that if you want to predict a long-term relationship look at the families both come from.

    How does he talk to his mother? What was the relationship between his mother and father? Were they divorced? How did his family deal with crisis? Money? Religion?

    Of course NO ONE does that at twenty. But I sure noticed his nice butt and piercing blue eyes when I met him at twenty. I guess I was just lucky in the other things. The things that probably matter more than sexual attraction in the long run are how one feels about money and spending/saving, the whole children issue, education/how to pay for self and children, religion/lack thereof and how that plays out in the wider family, caregiving issues with other relatives, how jobs/careers fit into all that.

    Almost everyone I’ve read on this topic has young children at home, and doesn’t know what is ahead when the house is quiet. Then what the hell do you do? If you have nothing to talk about, no hobbies to share together, and are still concerned about ME ME ME at the age of fifty-plus, its probably not going to work. If it is still “My” money after thirty years, there might be a larger problem.

    A very small percentage of people in this country will get an Ivy League education or be in the top 1 percent of income earners. The real question is not whether your partner will support you when you become Secretary of State, rather, will your partner support you when you are fifty and lose your job with a Fortune 100 company with nothing else in site…

    The magic is in the person who holds the puke bucket when you have the flu and cleans up after you.

  • I have to say that I agree with the sentiment of those who say that choosing the right life partner is a make or break decision for your career. I also agree with you, however, that there is no way to KNOW you’ve chosen wisely until it is actually too late!

    So many marriages fall apart over the strains of child rearing. Children add a chaos factor that no one likes to admit. Just because you are a pulled-together, Type A achiever, there is no guarantee that you will produce children who are just like you. Your children will be who they are, whether you like it or not. They will have hereditary characteristics from both your and your partner’s families. They will be shaped by an environment that is very different from the one you grew up in.

    Like you, I thought I made a good match when I married the first time. I was wrong. One divorce, one autism diagnosis, two life-threatening hospitalizations of my children, one remarriage and one teenage suicide later, I can safely say that the kind of career I thought I was pursuing in my 20s and 30s was no longer an option by the time I was pushing 40.

    It is easy to smugly tell other women what to do and how to do it, when neither you nor your children have had to confront the kinds of real-world mental and physical health challenges that are, unfortunately, the luck of the draw, and way beyond even the biggest control freak’s control.

    That is my gripe with all the advice coming from on high for how to be a successful woman, balance family and work etc. etc. Life is just not that simple. I wish it were.

  • Andrea Barbalich

    Those aren’t fightin’ words, Bernadine! You make excellent points. But I think you could answer every one of those questions to your satisfaction prior to marriage and still be surprised later. Hindsight has a way of being 20-20. I also think your own personal checklist may not be someone else’s, thus compounding the mystery of marital success.

    Jennie, the fact that you’ve been through what you’ve been through and are still standing is a testament to your strength. And I agree that there is way too much smugness on this topic.

    Thank you both for reading!

    • Honestly you are so right. I think about my own choice, but haven’t a clue nor would I venture to advise my son in choosing a partner. Circumstances dictate things, and everyone is different. I think I’m going to climb down a little off my high horse and just be awfully thankful that things have worked out for us, and cross my fingers that son chooses well.

      • Andrea Barbalich

        We had this same conversation last night in my book group, Bernadine. We all looked around the room and agreed that what was right for each one of us in a partner wasn’t necessarily right for anyone else. (In other words, if most of us had to live with our friends’ husbands, we’d lose our minds!) So…yes, be thankful, and my fingers are crossed for your son, too—and mine.

    • vegan yenta

      I admire how careful you are to praise your son’s father. I wish you and your ex could have worked out your issues before your marriage fell apart. And it was such a young marriage too,

      • Andrea Barbalich

        I wish we could’ve too, vegan yenta. But I really appreciated this comment I received from one of my Twitter followers: “We should note too that there’s a difference between a marriage that ends and one that fails. ‘Right’ can be finite.” I’m going to view it that way from now on. Thanks for reading!

  • Thank you for writing this, Andrea. I enjoyed reading it, even if it did reinforce the message I’ve received from a few friends that my own piece apparently (and mistakenly) implied that (1) I intentionally found a supportive spouse and (2) I think finding a supportive spouse is the hard part and never mind about the years of work and life that happen after the wedding day. In fact, I had no clue what I was doing when I met my husband (I was 18–so I was generally pretty clueless)! And I have no “happily ever after” notions of what married life is like. In fact, I feel completely unqualified to write anything useful about how to have a successful marriage, which is why I didn’t say anything about that in my piece. (I’ll may be able to get back to you on that in another 30 years or so.)

    You’re absolutely right that it’s impossible to know if you’ve chosen well until the rubber meets the road, again and again. And I think your second point–that not having a happy marriage doesn’t guarantee failure–is also right on.

    I hope each of my daughters (the 3-year-old and the not-yet-born-one) are able to find a supportive partner on the first try. But if they don’t, I hope they will come to understand that their happiness is up to them. That’s a great message to share, and I’m glad you said it.

  • Andrea Barbalich

    Thank you for your very generous response, Eileen. I think you are so right about the questions you suggested asking prior to marriage, but I also think (and know from experience) that you can ask all the right questions and still find yourself in a surprising spot. I did all the things you suggested and saw all your encouraging signs and none of your warning signs. On the upside, my son’s father is still a support to me. And I hope your husband always will be to you. Thank you for reading this!

  • Thank you for a thoughtful response to the discussion of leaning in, and acknowledgment that “choosing well” – be it partner, timing, career selection, etc. – is not entirely within our control.

    We continue to live in a culture that promotes the notion that we make our own luck, we can always reinvent, and positive attitude will trump all obstacles.

    Part of adulthood is knowing that these concepts are sometimes true, but they are certainly not always true.

    In my opinion, you acknowledge this indirectly when you say “Do you really think most women, including many successful women, thought they weren’t “choosing well” when they made their choice?”

    This assumption that choosing well – partner, career, location, or anything else is all we need is absurd. Those of us who have been through marriage and divorce know as much. Those who have been left to raise children alone know as much. Those sandwiched between elder care and child care in a difficult economy know as much.Those who have children with special needs know as much. Those who have dealt with illness or accident know as much.

    We don’t choose any of this; we do learn to deal with it as best we can. But often we’re left holding the bag – and it isn’t, or wasn’t a bag of our “choosing.”

    I believe we would all do better – as women – to take a few steps back and see our working challenges as part of a larger social framework, a lack of coordination in key areas of infrastructure (work day to school schedules; holes in childcare availability), and the fact that once severed from an employment relationship, there is no safety net.

    Women and children disproportionately suffer from that absence, and no amount of individual leaning in will remedy that.

  • Andrea Barbalich

    Thank you for reading and commenting, D.A. “…these concepts are sometimes true, but they are certainly not always true.” I agree!

  • Xara

    Ms. Barbalich-Thank you for this great article. I do wonder why things did not work out with you and your husband. I do not want to intrude on your very private life, however, your article gave no clues as to why things did not work out. I am left a bit baffled why if he was as great as you describe, and you were great, why you are no longer together. But yes, I do agree that one can marry well and that one can also divorce well…if you catch my drift.

    • Andrea Barbalich

      Thanks for reading, Xara. The reasons were valid, but I would rather keep them private, to protect both my son and his father. And I like your point that you can marry well and divorce well … I agree and hope that’s what I’ve done. All my best to you.

Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Hillary Clinton, Shake It Off, Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton Campaign song
Six Reasons “Shake It Off” Should Be Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Theme Song
Nancy Reagan dies, Just Say No, Ronald Reagan
A Not-So-Positive Ode to Nancy Reagan’s Frothy “Just Say No” Campaign
I Married for Health Insurance
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Trump Reality Check, Now with Actual Facts!
Fascism Facts
I Married for Health Insurance
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Women’s Elections Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Token Drop in an Abysmal Bucket & the Plight of Women Under Sharia Law
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
Paris attacks, Paris terrorism
Is Paris Burning?
Chinese government and women's reproductive rights, adopting Chinese girls, international adoption
Dear Xi Jinping, I Am Writing to You as an American Mom of a 19-Year-Old Chinese Daughter
The Vital Voice of Hillary Clinton: Part 1
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
The Eyes Have It!
Ashley Madison, Jared Fogle, sex, rape, sexual affairs
Ashley Madison vs. Jared Fogle: Rape, Sex and Hacking in America
women's viagra, Viagra, Flibanserin, sexual arousal, women's desire, sex after menopause
That “Little Pink Pill” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Get our new weekly email
Broadly Speaking

featuring our best words for the week + an exclusive longread