Husbands Who Put Their Wife's Career First

What happens when men put their wives’ careers ahead of their own?

By Robert F. Howe

Turning the Tables

Baby boomers have found yet another barrier to bust through, as midlife husbands choose to downsize — or even jettison — their own careers to make way for their wives’ ambitions. Does the arrangement really work?

Conventional wisdom holds that men who take a back seat to their wives must be miserable: bored and frustrated at a lesser job or daydreaming of the grand career they’ve forsaken. Well, guess what? Nowadays, as gender-based preconceptions about male and female roles fade, many so-called trailing husbands are far from depressed; in fact, they’re having a great time, enjoying their wives’ triumphs and the adventure of their transfers or promotions. The happiest men in this situation, MORE found, had made a conscious decision to scale back or leave a career, were comfortable with what they had already achieved, and were in a relationship they considered a true partnership. When these factors were in place, they and their wives could redesign their relationships to suit themselves.

Of course, our society and its expectations haven’t entirely kept pace with this transformation.

As men help boost their wives up the corporate ladder, stay home with the kids, or chase nonwork-related dreams of their own, some face criticism. But others report that male friends and colleagues sometimes admit they envy the unconventional husbands.

These kinds of marriages are nothing new to the world of entertainment, where husbands have long toiled as agents or managers for movie-star or pop-star wives. In recent years, the phenomenon has begun to emerge in other fields, including the nation’s tradition-bound corridors of corporate and political power.

Career Before Convention

California residents Alex and Rosario Marin exemplify this new thinking. When President George W. Bush picked Rosario, 45, to be U.S. Treasurer in 2001, Alex, 46, quit his mid-level government post and followed her to Washington with their three children. During the years she helped look after the nation’s economic health, Alex juggled his own new job and the family’s well-being. When she decided earlier this year to explore a run for the U.S. Senate, Alex again cleared the decks for his wife’s plans and oversaw the family’s return to California.

"Years ago, I told my husband that my mission was to help families like ours, who had tough beginnings," says Rosario. "And he answered, ‘Then mine will be to help you.’"

Carly Fiorina, 49, chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, calls her husband her "rock." At about the time she took the helm at the technology giant, he retired from AT&T to support her efforts. She’s not alone; at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women in Business Summit of 2001, 30 percent of the 187 participants had househusbands.

Women in other demanding fields also benefit from helpful spouses; after CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour, 45, gave birth in 2000, her husband, Jamie Rubin, 43, quit his high-level job with the U.S. State Department to follow his wife to her new post in London and care for the baby. The most famous trailing husband of all, former President Bill Clinton, has frequently declared his pride in his wife’s new Senate career.

When female baby boomers went off to college in the ’60s and ’70s, their mothers told them to look for a man who would be a good provider. Many of the young women ignored Mom’s advice and pursued careers instead of husbands. In an extraordinary turnaround, some successful boomers even claim nowadays that women need to avoid upwardly mobile husbands.

An Increasing Trend

Women who "marry up" often end up abandoning their own careers, despite having invested years in specialized schooling and hard work, argues Anita Jones, 50, a Massachusetts oral surgeon. She recalls telling her mother, "I don’t have to marry money if I can make it." In her case, her husband, Jim Sulanowski, 52, happily quit working as a stage manager to stay home and raise their daughter, Emily. "I had the luxury of working and knowing my child was with someone I trusted," Jones says. "We each have our job. It’s good for the child and for the family."

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