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How to Choose an Ideal Husband or Wife (for Your Career)

Is one of them conscientious enough?
Is one of them conscientious enough? (Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America)

For an ambitious, career-ladder climber, what sort of person makes the best mate? The human heart is not known for being coldly calculating, but pretend, for a moment, that it could be. What personality traits should be preferred?

One no-brainer is finding someone who is conscientious. Conscientiousness is one of the so-called “big five” personality traits, which are fairly measurable and stable. (The other four are extraversion, agreeableness, openness and neuroticism.)

Researchers Brittany Solomon and Joshua Jackson analyzed data from over 4,500 married people and found that of the big five, only conscientiousness had a meaningful impact on the other spouse’s job satisfaction, income and likelihood of being promoted. Regardless of their gender, partners who are reliable, organized and hard-working are an asset, perhaps because they take on more housework.

They may even serve as role models for their spouses. Whatever the cause, the effect is measurable: Andrew O’Connell, writing about these findings for Harvard Business Review, notes that for every one standard deviation increase in a partner’s conscientiousness, their lucky spouse was likely to earn $4,000 more a year.

A second desirable trait is a partner who can serve as a “secure base.” This is a term from attachment theory, which initially was thought only to apply to children’s relationships with their parents, but which psychologists increasingly realize also applies to adult relationships. A secure base is a spouse who can be “dependably supportive” while also encouraging “exploratory behavior.”

When one’s career feels as unstable as Jell-O, a secure-base spouse will both offer sympathy and push you to keep going. INSEAD professor Jennifer Petriglieri, who developed this theory after interviewing 113 dual-career couples for her book, “Couples That Work,” calls this push a “loving kick.”

That may not sound very romantic. But in the couples Petriglieri interviewed — gay and straight, young and old, of varying nationalities -- this dynamic allowed them to successfully navigate multiple life transitions, from moving in together, to relocating to a new city, to welcoming children, to midlife crises and retirement.

“Having a mutual secure-base relationship doesn’t make life easier and more straightforward,” she warns. “Paradoxically, it can make life more challenging. When we have a secure base in our partner, we are more likely to take risks and try new things. It may not make a quiet life, but it certainly makes for an interesting one.”

Of course, in some couples, only one person consistently serves as the “base.” These uneven relationships are a bit like a statue: a beautiful sculpture on top, an overlooked plinth on the bottom. The marriages can work fine, as long as each partner is OK with their role … which is to say, they work until they don’t.

Which brings me to a research-backed warning note involving another personality trait. Although Solomon’s study found that agreeableness in one spouse did not predict higher earning power for the other, there is potentially a danger in marrying someone who scores low on this trait. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Why would I marry someone who isn’t agreeable?” The answer is: because disagreeable people can be assertive, confident and competitive.

Here’s why this matters. Agreeable people tend to earn less money than disagreeable people – a phenomenon known in the literature (really!) as “nice guys finish last.” Scholars are still debating why. One hypothesis is that for men, being very agreeable — modest, compassionate and cooperative — flies in the face of expected gender norms. (Studies vary, but by and large women who are agreeable aren’t penalized with lower salaries or at least not to the same degree.)

But another study, also led by Brittany Solomon, found that when disagreeable married men were separated out from their unwed peers, only the married men earned more. Solomon and her colleagues theorize that perhaps the disagreeable married men earn more not because they are more competitive at work, but because they are better at avoiding chores and child care at home — thus securing more time to fulfill their professional ambitions. In other words, they’re not sharks at work. They just shirk at home. This extra time, not their behavior in the office, could be what nets them a wage premium.

This all leads to something married folks can ignore: the matter of which partner makes more money. While it is true that a depressing amount of research shows that heterosexual marriages are more likely to end in divorce when the wife earns more, let’s not overthink this. Economic independence is always something to be celebrated.

If a woman has the financial means to leave a marriage that’s not working for her, so much the better. And when researchers looked at relationships in which lower-earning men performed a significant share of housework, there was no greater risk of divorce. Husbands who wish to stay on the gravy train, take note.

Such studies are fascinating in the aggregate, but are they useful in the particular? Can individuals use them to reform their spouse, or choose a better one? Probably not. As scholar Beth Livingston notes, “Couples do not always act as ‘rationally’ as the economic perspective of family bargaining would suggest.”

But anyone lucky enough to have a conscientious, supportive, not-too-disagreeable spouse should count their blessings — and their extra Benjamins.

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

Am I Underpaid? Too Often, Younger Workers Don’t Know: Sarah Green Carmichael

Decades After the Pill, Another Revolution for Women’s Health: Therese Raphael

The Housing Party Is Starting to Wind Down: Gary Shilling

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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