In an ideal world, “work life” would remain at work, “home life” would remain at home, and neither would affect the other. There would never be a late night at the office and a missed meal with the family due to a deadline nor a late arrival to work because of child care issues. We wouldn’t be tethered to smartphones checking work email at a child’s soccer game nor worrying about how a job transfer might affect our spouse or partner.

But here in the real world, counselors say, work and life outside of work are intimately connected. In terms of couples, that means one partner’s career decisions, career ambitions and work environment undoubtedly will affect the other partner.

Melinda Gibbons recalls beginning her job as an assistant professor of counselor education at the University of Tennessee and struggling to juggle work with caring for two young children. “What happened was that I left no time for myself and little time with my partner, which led to me feeling moody and frustrated at times,” says Gibbons, a member of the American Counseling Association. “Once I realized this, I talked with my husband and we shifted our schedules to include a date night twice a month and time for me to start going to the gym. By communicating openly with my partner, I was able to share my frustrations, which were negatively affecting our relationship and our family. I learned that he, too, wanted more couple time, and we found ways to reorganize our lives to make
this work.”

Given her counseling background, Gibbons was in good position to open the lines of communication and make a few schedule tweaks that led to a happier life for her and her husband. But for those couples lacking this expertise, aligning career ambitions with goals for the relationship can be a real challenge. That’s precisely why Gibbons believes these clients can benefit when couples counseling and career counseling overlap.

Career, be it paid or unpaid, is one piece of a person’s life, Gibbons says, and a piece that often consumes a large amount of time in adulthood. “Some people are personally fulfilled by work, while others work to support their families or make social connections,” she says. “Whatever the reason for working, work usually has its good and bad points, just like anything else in life. How we learn to balance the demands of work and the demands of a relationship affects both the relationship and work. That is, what we do in one part of our lives affects all other parts of our lives. Helping couples recognize the work-to-family spillover and the family-to-work spillover can help strengthen their relationship and create stronger communication skills.”

Ideally, addressing career topics with couples can take place either in a career counselor’s office or a couples counselor’s office, says Gibbons, who is also a member of the National Career Development Association, a division of ACA. A couples counselor might open a conversation about the effects of both individuals’ careers on the couple’s relationship, or a career counselor might invite a client’s partner into a session after realizing certain career issues are affecting the couple. This is a fairly new idea, Gibbons says, but one in which she sees a great deal of value.

Newer theories related to career counseling support this concept because they are very holistic in nature, taking into account that career is one piece of a person’s life and that a counselor must work with the whole person, Gibbons says.

W. Matthew Shurts, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Leadership at Montclair State University in New Jersey, agrees. Career counseling shouldn’t be considered as residing on its own little island, he says, because career is one integral part of the whole that makes up people’s lives.

Shurts acknowledges that tackling career-related topics with couples is more likely to take place in a couples counselor’s office than a career counselor’s office, but he echoes Gibbons in saying that either venue could work, especially if a career counselor is in private practice or offering life coaching. However, if the topics in session begin to stray too far from the career realm, a career counselor would likely be best to refer the clients to a couples counselor, he advises.

Couples work and career work are often intertwined, Shurts says, so it behooves both types of counselors to be aware of that relationship. “Career is a central part of people’s lives, depending on the individual values of each person in a relationship,” says Shurts, a member of ACA and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA. “For some people, it may have more central importance [regarding] how they look at themselves and their identity, and for others, it’s a means to an end. When those values don’t line up in a couple, it can be a significant issue. It would be naïve to think that couples counselors don’t have to talk about career.”

For their part, career counselors take into consideration clients’ life and cultural circumstances because those circumstances will affect career choices, Shurts says. If a client is part of a couple, that aspect will also inform the client’s career decisions. “If you pretend that isn’t part of it, you’ll be giving [clients] less helpful services,” he says.

It’s unlikely that a career counselor would continue seeing a couple long term, but if the individual client would benefit from going through a few career sessions with his or her partner present, then Shurts believes a career counselor should be capable of offering that service.

Bumps in the road of life

Young couples in particular can experience a host of potential issues related to career, Gibbons says. These couples’ communication skills are often tested, she says, and having the ability to communicate about career is one important piece of thriving. For example, two young partners might develop strong visions for where their individual career paths will take them in the future without really considering or discussing how each person’s path will affect the other person, Gibbons says. If one partner expects to move back to his or her hometown and highly values proximity to family, while the other partner anticipates a career with frequent relocations, conflict will naturally arise. That’s why good communication is necessary.

“Young couples can learn to discuss their career-related values and plans that might affect their overall relationship,” Gibbons says. “Beliefs about roles in a relationship is another potential issue for young couples. Partners may have differing views about career-home balance or think differently about parenting issues. Another potential concern is finances — how partners spend and save money — and this can cause stress in a partnership, especially if the partners have different salary levels. Learning to discuss these issues openly and strive for compromise early in the relationship can help couples grow stronger overall.”

Midlife career changes offer another potential challenge for couples, Gibbons says. The reason for making the change, the amount of new training required, the potential need to relocate and possible salary adjustments can all have an effect on the couple, she says.

“Midlife career changes can be scarier than young adult changes,” Shurts adds, “because often these individuals have been in their jobs for many years and it’s become a part of their identity. Losing that is similar to losing a loved one who was especially close. There’s a grieving process, and those around us may be affected.”

Adding children to the mix is another common stumbling block for couples who lack open communication, Gibbons says. The couple must work through decisions such as who will be responsible for certain household duties, who will do drop-offs and pickups for the child, whether the family can afford certain activities and who will schedule them, and whether one member of the couple will leave a job to stay at home for an extended period of time.

Retirement represents yet another time of career transition for couples. “If one or both partners have worked their entire adult lives and then face retirement, it could lead to questions of identity,” Gibbons says. “We often tie our identity to what we do for work, so this is a major change for many people. It can impact the couple in many ways — financially, amount of time spent together, choices about what to do during retirement. Counselors can work with couples nearing retirement to help them proactively plan for this next stage in their lives. They can talk about their hopes and dreams as well as face potential realities … for which they had not planned.” For example, she says, in today’s economy, couples may find that they have to postpone retirement.

Across the life span, losing a job, taking a new job, struggling to find work-life balance and feeling discomfort with a partner’s earnings are among the career-related circumstances that can challenge couples, Shurts says. Couples with good communication skills will have a leg up. “Being open about feelings and reactions to changes like a job loss can strengthen a couple’s relationship if they can support one another,” he says. “However, being secretive or dishonest about feelings and reactions can be toxic and lead to hurt feelings, misunderstandings and internalized pressure. I think couples would also be well served to recognize
the values they and their partners place on work and career and consider how they mesh.”

In situations of job loss, Shurts says it’s important for counselors to remind couples that they need to support each other rather than piling on additional pressure. “Reframe it as something they’re facing together,” he says. “How can they, as a couple, be supportive?”

For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples, career navigation means taking all of the same issues that heterosexual couples face and adding in the potential cultural discrimination that LGBT persons might experience at work, Shurts says. It can be particularly difficult if one partner faces heterosexism at work, while the other partner returns home feeling more refreshed after being accepted for who he or she is, Shurts says. Counselors might consider asking these clients whether they want to add support for their sexual orientation as a new career value when determining what’s important to them in a job, he says.

A discussion worth having

A counselor’s role in helping couples nurture both their careers and their relationship is to open the lines of communication. “Counselors can help couples discuss these issues and help them realize the work-family connection,” Gibbons says. “Many couples may be unaware of the effect that work problems can have on their personal relationships. Helping them communicate more effectively, problem-solve as a team and create goals that suit both partners can be beneficial for couples.”

Couples tend not to discuss career issues in any real depth on their own for a number of reasons, Shurts says. First, because partners in a couple don’t typically work together, they might not know much about each other’s profession. This can lead to superficial discussions that don’t allow either partner to truly share work stress or satisfaction with the other. Work is also tied to money — another topic Shurts says couples struggle to talk about openly. That’s why it’s vital for counselors to work with couples to promote open, honest and supportive communication regarding career issues, he says.

If a couple comes to counseling to figure out why they’re fighting more frequently or feeling less happy in their relationship, Shurts recommends inquiring about work. Ask if someone’s work schedule has changed or if someone got a promotion, he says. For instance, if one member of the couple received a promotion and the other partner isn’t overly excited about it, engage the couple in a discussion about why that might be. “Was it that someone didn’t feel consulted and it’s a communication issue,” Shurts says, “or is it that the other person is not as successful and they’re career-minded and feel less than the other partner in some ways?”

Shurts and Gibbons say taking a narrative approach with couples is beneficial because it allows them to tell their personal stories and reveals the themes in their lives. One narrative technique that Gibbons recommends is having clients make lifelines. In this exercise, each member of the couple is asked to draw a line and identify five to seven important events in his or her life, starting with birth and moving to the present. Each partner then writes down a title for each event, two or three feelings they have about the event and the important people who were involved.

The counselor and couple then talk together about themes running through those events, how each person makes decisions and how each person faces big changes. They might also discuss the values the person used in reaching those decisions and how the two partners’ values tend to be either similar or different, Gibbons says.

The lifeline can also be charted into the future, Gibbons says, with clients planning out their next five to 10 years together with events they want to happen or goals they want to achieve. The future lifeline is especially useful with younger couples, she says, because it helps align two individual career paths into one future plan containing goals that work for both members of the couple.

Another narrative technique Gibbons favors with couples is life roles, wherein clients draw their life roles in circles on a sheet of paper. The bigger the circle, the more time it indicates the clients spend in each role. Next, Gibbons says, the counselor can ask the clients to redraw those circles to the sizes they’d prefer them to be. “This exercise helps clients share their satisfaction and dissatisfaction with their current roles and helps them frame goals for the future,” she says. “Couples learn what their partners think and feel about each role, increasing open communication. Most of the time, life roles are affected by work. That is, a large part of time is spent working, paid or unpaid, which may positively or negatively affect other life roles.”

As one non-narrative exercise with couples, Shurts uses genograms, asking couples to look back a few generations and list the types of jobs and career-related values that people within their families held. Looking for patterns or themes, clients can see and better understand how they arrived where they are on their career paths, he says.

Shurts also uses a values card sort exercise with couples. This involves a series of cards containing adjectives related to work values. Each partner sorts the cards from most important to least important, and then the two partners compare their lists. The exercise offers a concrete way to open up the couple’s conversation, he says, particularly if several of one partner’s top work values are among the other partner’s least important work values.

Having different career values doesn’t automatically make a couple incompatible, Shurts says. “It just means that they don’t share a common vision on what they personally want to get out of their work. This isn’t necessarily a problem if the couple realizes and honors the different perspectives openly and in a supportive fashion. However, if they don’t recognize the differences or they can’t accept the differences, it can be an issue.”

“For example,” he says, “imagine a couple where a wife places high value on stability and time flexibility and low value on excitement and personal fulfillment, while her husband notes excitement, prestige and upward mobility as his high values, and stability and task consistency as low values. You can probably tell there is potential for disagreement as the topic of job/career arises. What if he’s offered a promotion with longer hours and more pay in another geographic location? He’d probably want to accept, but she might not want him to take it. What if she was offered a similar promotion? She would probably want to consider the impact on her family time and might be nervous about the change, but he might encourage [or] push her to take it.

“Basically, each person views these and other work-related situations through their own career values lens, and that may not match the lens of their partner. The exercise provides an activity to begin exploring those differences and similarities and how they might be impacting the couple, positively or negatively.”

As with any new topic area, counselors should make sure they’re well prepared and properly trained before delving into career topics with couples. Gibbons points out that couples counselors who have graduated from a CACREP-accredited program will have taken at least one career course. But career counselors may or may not have taken classes in working with couples, depending on their training. “I recommend that all counselors recognize their strengths and areas for improvement, consider the clientele they work with and then seek additional training as needed,” Gibbons says. “This training might come from reading professional journals, seeking consultation, attending conferences and workshops, or returning to school.”

Shurts agrees that many professionals might need additional training before launching into this type of counseling with couples, but once properly prepared, he believes the field can take advantage of a valuable opportunity to improve couples’ relationships and the depth of their interpersonal connections.

“Work/career is an important factor in most people’s lives, regardless of one’s values,” he says. “In my opinion, couples benefit from open dialogue about the world of work, what they both want from that part of their lives and how they can support each other in meeting their goals — both individual goals and those they have as a couple.”

Want to learn more? Gibbons and Shurts will present a session on career counseling for couples and families at the ACA Annual Conference & Exposition in San Francisco in March. To learn more about the conference or to register, visit

Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

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