What To Do When Your Spouse Doesn't Support Your Career Dreams

Spousal support – or the lack of it – is one of the issues that come up a lot when people want to change careers.

Often, this conflict is not about the new career itself. Instead, it’s often about other, related issues below the surface that are ongoing, but unresolved.

Chances are, when career issues come up, these conversations fall into the same pattern every time, with each person playing a typical role.

Delany was a successful banker, but as she turned 50 she wanted to drop out of the high-pressure, workaholic world of banking and start her own decorating business. Trouble was, her husband seemed totally against it. He was afraid of the pay cut she’d have as she started up, and took every opportunity to remind her that her last business startup had failed to get off the ground 5 years before. She desperately wanted his support, but couldn’t figure out how to get it.

The secret for changing how these conversations turn out is to focus more on your spouse’s needs FIRST. Only by addressing the objections your spouse has can you expect to gain their trust and support.

How to do this? Take a look at the guide that follows. Then imagine in your mind how you might use this guide with whatever sticking points you and your spouse have.

(1) Prepare by loading your ballast stone into the boat

In old sailing vessels, the ballast stone sat at the bottom of the boat and kept everything balanced and upright, especially before the cargo was loaded.

Before everything, make a checklist for yourself, reasons why your career plan is a good idea, research you’ve already done, etc. – so you can remember your rational reasons for doing something if your spouse responds with criticism or anger. This is your ballast stone.

(2) Get into a place of empathy

Say you announce to your spouse that you want the family to go on a long, overnight canoe trip to a place the family has never been before. Your partner has never even been canoeing. You can imagine they might have a list of questions, right? Where are we going? What do I need to bring? Is it going to be dangerous? Etc.

Your new career announcement might feel exactly like that to your spouse. So it can help you manage YOUR defensiveness by remembering that your spouse isn’t criticizing you as a person – even if it comes out sounding that way.

(3) Open the conversation proactively & lovingly

Pick a time when things are calm to discuss the issues surrounding your career. Schedule the conversation if necessary. When you brain is calm, each of you has the best chance of seeing the situation through the others’ eyes and for problem solving. Waiting until either of you is upset makes it almost impossible to work through it together.

(4) Be specific about your intent for the conversation

You’ve advocated for the canoe trip a few times already. So, if you bring it up again, your partner might assume it will be more of the same. Bam – defenses up.

To minimize this, be clear about your intention from the start. Show that you want to hear them out and address their concerns as part of the outcome. “John, I’ve noticed we’ve had some BIG conversations about this canoe trip I want to take. Can we set a time to talk about it? I want us to be able to understand each others’ needs, and see if there’s a way for this trip to really make sense for all of us as a family.”

(5) Transform the conversation with listening

Yes, I know – you’ve heard it all already, and you know what your spouse is going to say. But here’s the thing: what you really know well are the surface concerns your partner has felt more comfortable voicing in the past, before the conversation turned sour. Your task here is to make it safe to go below the surface – the other 7/8ths of the iceberg, so to speak. Yes, he’s concerned about money. But why?

So: get as curious as possible about your spouse’s perspective. Make it okay to say whatever he has to say. Remember, it’s not about you as a person, it’s about whatever he or she fears.

Don’t put a time limit on it. You know you’re doing it right when your partner begins to relax, both physically and mentally, like a fish who’s been put back into the water.

What you can say:

  • What are your top concerns?
  • Can you say a little more about how you see things?
  • What impact would that have on you? On us? The family?
  • You said before that you are concerned about (name concern). Say some more about how this is important to you.
  • What information might you have that I don’t?
  • How are you feeling about all of this?
  • What would it mean to you if that happened?
  • What else?

(6) Show that you heard

It is very important to show that you take your spouse’s concerns seriously if you are going to gain more support from her in the long run. And, your partner – like all of us – needs you to show that you have heard her and take her concerns seriously before she can “move on” to problem solving.

What you can say: 

  • Okay, so it sounds like overall you are concerned about (summarize what they said). Do I have that right?
  • Sounds like you may be feeling (describe feelings).
  • Sounds like you’re afraid that…

(7) Use “Yes, And...” instead of “But” to add your own perspective

Once you sense that your partner is feeling heard, you can begin to say more about your own perspective.

This may include supplying information to address your partner’s concerns, as well as sharing more about your wants vs. needs for your career. Here’s an important tip: use the “Yes/And” technique to add your own perspective without negating that of your spouse.

Delany might say, “Yes, I appreciate that my last business startup didn’t succeed. And, there are certain things I’ve learned from that experience that will help me be more successful this time, such as…”

(8) When tensions run high, step back for a moment and repeat your intent

Even using the above strategies, you and your partner will probably hit some occasional “icebergs” – topics with a lot of emotional stuff under the surface. That’s normal for conversations around important topics like this. Gently and lovingly remind your partner that your intent is to work through it – together.

(9) Repeat steps 4-7 until everything is out on the table

(10) Paddle the canoe together

Make your spouse your partner in figuring this out; include your spouse’s input in crafting solutions whenever possible. Brainstorm and look for fresh, creative solutions that meet both your needs.

This is like saying, “Okay honey, since you’ve agreed to go canoeing with me, I agree to let you help pick the route.”

Chances are, this conversation will unfold over time. It’s okay if you take a break and come back to it later. If you get stuck you can always get help from a coach or counselor.

But, chances are, if you are persistent in coming back to the strategies mentioned above you will, with some practice, get your canoe moving in a positive direction toward your goals and dreams.

Good reading:

This article draws on the inspired work of the following authors. For more how-to detail, and helpful examples, of the above techniques check out:

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High. By Patterson, Grenny, McMillian, and Switzer. 2002, McGraw-Hill.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. By Stone, Patton, and Heen. 1999, Penguin Books.