In Love and Work
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I found kind of advice on how to divide up the washing up, or how to divide the laundry. Or these stories of power couples who had everything sorted and neither of which were really helpful. And yet I knew from my own experience and from my students, my colleagues, my friends, we were all wrestling with the same thing.
The world is so big, the universe is so huge with so many opportunities you almost want to start narrowing it down.
You have your friend at work and you just added on top this wonderful relationship. And what happens for all of us eventually is we face some kind of hard choice in a couple. How do we structure our lives in a way that we can have two careers and a good relationship? And that may be for example a geographic move. One of us gets offered a job on the other side of the country, end of parallel living. Do we move together and one person followed, do we go our separate ways? It might be the arrival of a child. For those of us who get together later in life, maybe after another relationship has run its course, how do we blend our two families?
And what these do is present what on the surface looks like a practical problem which is like childcare, geography, spare bedrooms. The trap most couples fall into is treating it as a practical problem and trying to solve, like for example, finances. If I get offered a job on the other side of the country, can we both move and sustain our standard of living?
But this is not a financial question. What happens is a series of well-meaning decisions end up with one person having much more power than the other. And when I say power, what I mean by that in a couple is do I get a shot to pursue what I want to pursue? Like if I want something, can I go after it?
So, this is not necessarily linked, in fact not at all to who earns the most, or who has the most prestigious job. Obviously the earlier we do that the better, but now is better than next week, or next month. You can add that. So, principles first then practicalities. Now, what do I mean by that? It might be specific career goals. It might be building financial stability. It might be having enough time to pursue certain activities. Then it makes it easier to make those decisions.
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And specifically easier to say no to things without regret. Because we understand why am I doing this? Why am I making the sacrifices I am? Very few couples have this conversation early on and it really leads to difficulties.
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So, for example, are there geographies that are just off the table? Other boundaries around time, like how many hours a week do you need to work that it really starts to negatively impact my career? Having these lines again makes it easier to make decisions. And the power dynamics have emerged. Can you start this culture of conversation at any point?
And then you have to pay me. So, in fact I was talking to a couple just last week who I sent an early copy of the book. I knew they were in quite severe relationship difficulties. They had a small child, pregnant with a second and they were really at a crisis point.
And through these conversations they, it really helped them to turn around. However, I think there are situations where you know it, get the resentments build up and build up and build up and it is very difficult to unpack. I mean I think nothing works percent of the time.
But I think these are conversations that look, we all crave this kind of conversation. We all crave to talk about what is really meaningful in our life and how are we going to pursue it.
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Or, we need to talk about who drops the kids off tomorrow. And my experience is that when couples start having these conversations it always unlocks something. These may not be new to some people, but a few different models for dual career couples to kind of sort the priority of their careers. And then the double primary. Explain that one a little bit more because that may be a little less familiar to people and then we can talk about which one you think might be best.
Of course it was not that simple.
And I had this experience for two, three years and I was not finding the answer. And at this point, as every researcher will identify, I was in complete panic mode. And then it really makes me realize, OK. And when I looked specifically at these career prioritizations, I did find that on average the double primary was more successful.
And I was like yes. I can go home now. But I was also suspicious because as a researcher your data always initially tells you what you wanted to find when you have to dig a little deeper. And when I did that digging deeper, of course there were couples in the other models that worked very well as well. So, I looked across them and I saw the couples that really worked had one simple thing in common that they had very explicitly negotiated and agreed what their model was.
You are forced to negotiate.
You can solve problems. So, if we, if everyone just take a minute, take a second to think around what is the shape of your career? Most careers have periods of heavy investment and periods of less. We can think of that in medicine as well, in law. Doing this mapping can be a really helpful way as more planfully thinking around OK, when is it your turn for that like push on the accelerator, and then when are we going to swap? And more dynamically juggle to primary careers then. I mean corporate ladders used to be much more regimented.
Certainly in some careers you know those times where you have to be getting ready for tenure and then life is different. You need to plan for battle and when the battle happens then you have to adapt. And then, I mean this is completely unrealistic. This is completely unrealistic. However there are general patterns that we can predict.
And stuff happens along the way which is why we need to keep talking. Yeah, just raise your hand. We have one right here in front. So, maybe you have children and then oh, I got really bad postpartum depression, or someone got terminally ill. What do you use them do with the contract at that point? Is it on pause? Do you rewrite it? So, as one of my colleagues says, nothing immunizes you against life. But of course, life happens. One couple I spoke to had two young children and then his sister and her husband died in a car crash, and they inherited three more. So, in the space of three years they went from zero to five kids.