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The Green Monster: When Your Significant Other Is a Lawyer

The Washington Post has an interesting article on social psychologist Abraham Tesser's research on "how close friends and intimate partners who are engaged in similar work or activities compare themselves with one another." I can't even count all the couples I knew from law school who met in Torts, dated through Fed Courts, and were married (or engaged) by commencement. Now out in the working world, I see a rather significant number of married or engaged couples who met on the job, which makes sense given how much lawyers work--meeting other lawyers is easier than meeting a non-lawyer, and meeting people is the first step on the long road to a long-term commitment.

Tesser's research got me thinking, though. When you date someone in your career field, what can you expect?

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Penelope Lockwood, another social psychologist, posits that "people are happiest when they feel they are doing about as well as their spouse"--the problem arises "when you feel you are in the same league as your partner but are not achieving what your partner has achieved." Though people will always say they are proud of or happy for their partner's successes, Tesser's experiments revealed a dark undercurrent: friends were more likely to try to undercut friends on experiments so that their "friends" would not outdo them in areas where the subjects wanted to succeed. In experiments where the subjects cared less about the outcome (i.e not their "field"), this undercutting was less likely to occur. Basically, "we want to be close to people who are stars . . . just as long as they excel in something that is not important to us."

 

There is already so much social conditioning related to men and women's careers relative to one another (i.e. the man is supposed to be the more successful one, the "breadwinner" if you will) that these results seem particularly concering when applied to highly successful men and women in the same careers. Will the woman fail to perform to her potential to keep from threatening her partner? Will the man unconsciously undercut the woman to try to keep her at a level that he doesn't find threatening? My partner is not a lawyer, but he has admitted to me in the past that he sometimes finds himself threatened by my successes. I also notice that sometimes he greets my ideas with criticism instead of enthusiasm. Usually I am appreciative of what I view as honest perspective, but sometimes I wonder if his criticism, on some subconscious level, has more to do with our relative levels of success and less to do with the actual merit of my ideas. It's also true that I am less likely to move forward on an idea that he has criticized.

Have others experienced this issue? Are women lawyers who date other lawyers in danger of taking on a supporting role?

Tesser and Lockwood have a hopeful last word: "couples in the same line of work who are both successful and happy . . . find different aspects in which to excel." Basically, if you're a tax lawyer, marry a litigator or vice versa. I'm not convinced this issue only applies to couples in the same field. I wonder if as successful women, we will always battle some element of jealousy in our romantic relationships.

1 Comments

jessie

Just last week I had a disturbing moment of self-realization: I was at least partially motivated to pursue a certain career path by a sense of competition, or at least comparison, with Boyfriend.
As soon as I identified the feeling I was immediately embarassed. I felt pretty stupid making major life decisions based in any part on a sense of competition with someone who is my constant supporter.
Anyway I didn't know about this book - so it's nice to hear I'm not the only one who's experienced this. That said I don't think it's any healthier, just because it happens to lots of people. I will certainly be keeping the possibility that I'm in a secret and harmful competition with Boyfriend as I move forward.

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