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The Two-Body Opportunity

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
June 1, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 22

Credit: Shutterstock
A stock image of an attractive young heterosexual couple looking off into the distance.
Credit: Shutterstock

In classical mechanics, the so-called two-body problem requires students to figure out the paths of motion of two interacting particles. Plotting out the paths of dual-career couples can be just as tricky. In these couples, each partner needs to figure out how to advance his or her own career while supporting the career of a significant other.

This complex dance is especially difficult when both partners work in fields where career options are geographically restricted. Here are some ways these couples can learn to compromise.

Take Turns. Some couples decide to take turns. At the first major decision point, the couple picks the option that is best for partner A’s career, and partner B works around that decision. The next time a decision point arises, partner B’s career takes precedence, and partner A is the flexible one. Although taking turns is fair, this method does mean that neither career will be optimized in the long run.

Optimize One Career. Another approach to solving the two-body problem is to designate one person’s career as primary, and all decisions are made to optimize that career path. The other partner works around that limitation, usually by moving into a more flexible career path. Although this allows one partner to succeed to the best of his or her ability, the other partner will have to be creative in finding work. The partners will need to guard against resentment caused by the feeling of “giving up my career” or the pressure of being the primary breadwinner.

Learn to Love Travel. Sometimes, an opportunity is just too good to pass up, and it becomes necessary for the partners to live apart. Many couples find the financial strain of maintaining two households, as well as the emotional strain of being apart, difficult to sustain. However, some people find that compartmentalizing their lives—focusing on work in one city and on their personal life in another—allows them to appreciate both and have a better work-life balance.

Negotiate. As circumstances change, couples must learn to adjust. If personal circumstances change (for example, when a couple begins to have children), it’s important to consider how that change will factor into the equation. Can short-term flexibility be worked out with current employers, or is finding a new employer, or even a new career, going to be required? Or in different circumstances, can the division of labor at home be adjusted to accommodate new responsibilities at work?

All of the Above. Many couples don’t have a long-term plan, opting instead to confront each problem as it arises. They may choose different strategies at different points, then look back over the years and realize their decisions did (or did not) work out fairly. What’s important is to make all decisions jointly and discuss changes in roles and responsibilities as they occur.

In the end, something will have to give. It may be one career, or it may be the structure of the relationship itself. By carefully considering and discussing all possible options, couples can arrive at the decision that is best for them and their relationship. Over time, they may do things they never thought they would do, but they may find that the result is even better than they could have ever imagined.

Get Involved In The Discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (


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