Skip to main content

What Happens When Couples Disagree about the Meaning of Work?

People can hold wildly diverging views about work, seeing a job as a purpose-filled passion, nothing more than a paycheck, or something in between. In a new study, Prof. Amy Wrzesniewski and her co-author investigated whether having a partner with a different orientation toward their career affects a person’s chances of reemployment after leaving a job. They found that when one partner was searching for a job, this incongruence made them feel more uncertain and lowered their chances of landing a position.

Let’s consider a hypothetical couple in which the partners hold very different attitudes toward their jobs. One person manages curriculum development for math education in their school district and finds deep purpose and meaning in their career. Their partner is a manager at a company whose mission they don’t particularly care about, and they view their job as a paycheck that funds their non-work pursuits. Do these differences in attitude have an effect on their career trajectories?

In a new study, Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of management at Yale SOM, and Winnie Jiang, a graduate of Yale SOM’s doctoral program now on the faculty at INSEAD, examined how this dynamic played out in a specific situation: when one partner is searching for a job. They found that when the job seeker’s orientation toward work diverged from their partner’s, they felt more uncertainty as they considered the future. That uncertainty ultimately lowered their chances of successfully landing a position.

“From a reemployment perspective, we’re better off when the person we’re with mirrors the kind of orientation we have toward our own work.”

“From a reemployment perspective, we’re better off when the person we’re with mirrors the kind of orientation we have toward our own work,” Wrzesniewski says.

Job seekers who viewed work differently than their partners might have been at a disadvantage because “it could just muddy the water,” she says. Being exposed to a contrasting perspective might have made the unemployed person question their goals and take a scattershot approach, applying for lots of jobs without really knowing what they wanted.

In general, “you’re more successful in a job search if you have a clear sense of what it is that you’re seeking and why,” Wrzesniewski says.

Wrzesniewski’s earlier research has examined two major dimensions of people’s orientations toward their work. One was the extent to which they saw work as a calling, rather than a job to pay the bills; someone with a strong calling orientation would “continue doing this work even if you hit the lottery,” she explains. The second dimension was career orientation—that is, the strength of the person’s ambition to scale their occupation’s ladder.

In the past, researchers have analyzed how people were influenced by their colleagues’ reactions to their work. But Wrzesniewski and Jiang reasoned that a person’s romantic partner could hold substantial sway as well. After all, we spend a lot of time with our partners and absorb their thoughts about work, even if they’re in a different occupation.

To investigate, the team turned to data collected from unemployed people in Michigan and Maryland. Wrzesniewski and her colleagues surveyed 1,257 job seekers and their partners about their orientation toward their work. Based on that information, each person was assigned two scores on a four-point scale to capture their calling orientation and career orientation.

The team followed up with the job seekers three months later to gauge their uncertainty—for instance, if they felt unsure of what to do or what the future held. At the six-month mark, they checked whether each person was working full-time. During the study, they also assessed how satisfied the newly employed job seekers and their partners felt with various aspects of their jobs, such as their day-to-day tasks and their colleagues.

For each couple, Wrzesniewski and Jiang compared the partners’ work orientation scores to determine how “incongruent” they were. Then the researchers studied whether higher incongruence was linked to work-related outcomes. The team controlled for a host of factors, including gender, age, race, education level, the couple’s level of financial hardship, the reason for the job seeker’s unemployment, their confidence about tackling job search tasks, and how intensely they were searching. They also controlled for differences between the partners—for instance, in age, race, and education—and how much the couple disagreed on other issues such as religion and family.

Even after factoring out those variables, the couple’s orientations toward work mattered. The more they diverged on calling orientation, the more uncertain the job seeker felt. That person might be wondering if they should adopt their partner’s perspective, Wrzesniewski suggests, while if both people saw work as a calling, the job seeker might benefit from encouragement from their employed spouse to stick with their passion.

Higher uncertainty translated into poorer prospects of finding a job. Take a couple whose calling orientation scores match and another whose calling orientation scores vary by the largest amount possible—four points on the authors’ four-point scale. The unemployed partner in the latter couple was about 55% less likely to have a full-time position six months later than that in the former couple. Divergent work orientations are “consequential for something as basic as how fast you’re back in the labor force,” Wrzesniewski says.

And the job seeker’s partner was affected as well. The bigger the difference in calling scores, the less satisfied the employed partner felt with their work. (The team didn’t find the same result among newly employed job seekers, perhaps because they were in a honeymoon period.)

All the patterns that the team found, however, arose only when the couple differed in their calling scores. Being less or more career-oriented than one’s partner didn’t seem to affect uncertainty, employment, or job satisfaction. Wrzesniewski and Jiang suspect that calling orientation was more relevant in this study because unemployment often raises fundamental questions about what to do with one’s life. Differences in career orientation might come into play in other situations, such as when one partner is considering whether to accept a promotion.

Though the data were collected prior to the pandemic, Wrzesniewski says that there’s no reason to believe that couples would be less affected by each other’s work orientations now. If anything, she says, “you could make an argument that this effect is more important now.” People are changing jobs more frequently, so their partner may be a more constant influence than colleagues. Many people are working from home, which also increases their exposure to their partner’s work attitudes.

So what should job seekers do if their partner holds a different orientation toward work? They could work with employment coaches to figure out what they want. Organizations that help people find jobs or support laid-off employees could ask people about this issue and help them process uncertainty. Those exercises “can help build clarity,” Wrzesniewski says.

Department: Research