Two sides of the two-body problem

I have had the good fortune and privilege to experience both sides of the infamous academic two-body problem. For those not in academia, the term refers to the situation where a dual-career academic couple is looking for jobs and wishes (indulgently) to live in the same city. Carrying out this ambitious plan usually requires one of the following:

  1. One of you is a hugely successful hot shot, like a Nobel prize winner or a Fields medalist in math. Even better if it’s both. (I mean both people, but I’m sure both prizes would work too.)
  2. Both of you give up on any location preferences: you go wherever you both get a job, and ‘wherever’ means you’re willing to move continents, or move to an isolated small town in the middle of nowhere in a country/state/province where you would much rather not live.
  3. One or both of you makes a huge career sacrifice: you work unpaid, or as adjunct faculty for minimum wage with zero benefits and zero job security, or take on a full-time teaching position when what you really want to do is research, etc.
  4. You get insanely lucky.

I am currently betting our future on #4.

What I mean by both sides of the two-body problem is that, more often than not, the two halves of the couple are not exactly the same age, year of PhD and at the same level of academic success. As a result, there is often a ‘leading partner’, and a ‘follower’ (sometimes called the ‘trailing spouse’ but that rings like an insult to me).

In my first marriage I was the younger wife of an extremely successful – though not quite yet set for life – mathematician. After he and I split up, I eventually married another mathematician (either mathematicians are my type, or I don’t know how to socialise with normal people). This time my spouse is a few years younger and a recent PhD, meaning I am a step ahead.

(Disclaimer: The complaints that follow are in no way meant to diminish the difficulties faced by those who struggle with the one-body problem: having to move every couple of years from state to state or country to country alone, which I hear can be a rather lonely experience and puts a big damper on one’s potential dating life. I also don’t mean to diminish the problems faced by everyone else outside academia – I am aware that I’m speaking from a place of great privilege about my ‘first world problems’.)

Following partners

The first point I wanted to make is that being the following partner in a TBP sucks. I now appreciate that my ex-husband always supported my ambitions in every way he could, but I didn’t quite realise this at the time. Worse, when I did note his efforts to support me, I felt simultaneously grateful and resentful for them. My career was secondary to his by circumstance, neither of us could have done much to change that; but living in his professional shadow made me insecure and I did sometimes blame him for these insecurities. On occasion I felt that he wasn’t doing enough to help: for example, not being aggressive enough in negotiating a graduate scholarship for me when we both had to move for his new job. Then, when I did get that scholarship in the end, I felt that my accomplishments were no longer really mine. I was in a tricky position of being an appendage with a mind of my own, and I didn’t have the resources or the maturity to handle it well.

In my own professional life, I had little choice but to think of myself as a piece of luggage, and the standards I held myself to were chosen accordingly. I thought I was good enough to ‘make it’ as his other half. After our separation, I needed to face the reality of securing jobs for myself on my own. No longer being attached to an extremely successful person may have hurt my chances of getting a job at Harvard, but at the same time the empowerment of being hired for myself feels absolutely wonderful. (And I haven’t even done that badly so far.) It’s no longer just myself though: I am now the leading spouse in another two-body problem.

Leading partners

Which brings me to my second point: being the leading spouse is not all sunshine and rainbows either, and experiencing it has made me develop a lot of sympathy for my poor ex. It is stressful enough to be looking for a job, but it’s twice as nerve-wracking when your partner’s professional life is also at stake. In short: it’s hard to be an adult, and there’s nothing like being responsible for another person’s job satisfaction to make you feel like one. The lengthy application process doesn’t help either. In most situations, you get the impression that mentioning that you are married to another academic will quickly annihilate your already minuscule chances of getting each particular job, but the longer you put it off the more you feel like you are betraying your partner while at the same time misleading your potential employer.

Then, after some awkward negotiations during which you invariably feel that you are failing your partner, you take a job. Unless this is a case of one of the situations 1, 2 or 4 above, your partner’s job situation will almost certainly be worse than yours in some way, probably significantly worse, and you can embark on the ongoing mission of not letting that compromise your relationship. Bottom line: one needs to aim for the Fields medal or for amazing relationship skills, probably both.

Defying gender norms

Let me end on a positive note here. Being the leading spouse as a woman is somewhat unusual, if only because it is more typical for the woman to be the younger partner in a (heterosexual) relationship. I have had many people comment on our situation along the lines of “that must be really rough for him as a man” or “my husband would never be willing to do that.”

You guys, women especially: don’t be the victim of your own sexism. You don’t know what your partner will be willing or able to handle for your career until you discuss it, in depth, without adding an unnecessary dose of gender stereotypes to the conversation. Going against gender norms is incredibly liberating, and there are so many options out there that we forget to even consider because we are scared that our partners will feel emasculated or stripped of their femininity. Men are not genetically hard-wired with big but fragile egos: they can cook or take care of babies and their manhood stays intact, just like women can make money or be in a leadership position, and all the while you can still like pink sequins. You might even find that so does he! Just look at your gay friends and how happy their relationships are.

And now, everyone in a two-body problem, give your partner a hug. Their life is tough!

Feel free to share your stories or insights in the comments :).

  2 comments for “Two sides of the two-body problem

  1. Timi
    September 12, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    none of my business, I know, but it is very interesting to read your point of view after almost 4 years.

    • MC&C
      September 26, 2015 at 11:31 am

      Thank you 🙂

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