How To Deal When Your Partner's Career Change Throws Your Life Into Chaos

One of the hardest things about relationships is learning how to strike a balance between your and your partner’s needs. Navigating two different sets of dreams, aspirations, and experiences can be a lot of work. And when it comes time to face a career shift, things can get especially messy.
If you’ve ever worried about how your job or career decisions might impact your partner, or have been afraid of what your partner’s career risks could mean for the longevity of your relationship, then it’s likely you already know how confusing things can get.
As career paths become increasingly circuitous, more couples are facing the pressure of supporting a partner through a major career change — whether it’s the building of a new business venture, an unexpected layoff, an industry pivot, or another professional shift. And while emotionally supporting a partner through any major transition can be challenging, career-related changes are especially intimidating, since they often come with financial impacts as well as emotional ones.
To take a deeper look at what it’s actually like to navigate a partner’s major career transition, we spoke to four individuals who have supported a partner through a career transition. They come from different backgrounds, live in different cities, have varying income levels, and faced unique circumstances. Still, each of them reached a similar conclusion following their experiences: Without open and honest communication, things can easily fall apart.
Career changes — both planned and unexpected — can happen to any individual or couple. There's no one-size-fits-all secret to surviving one in your relationship, and not every partnership will endure. But these couples’ experiences shed light on universal relationship hurdles and provide us with important insight into how we can face the inevitable challenges in our own relationships.

Erin, 26, Publicist, New York, NY

“I’d been dating my boyfriend, Tim*, for nine months when we decided to move in together. Just before we moved, Tim was laid off from his job at a production company. But this didn’t give me pause; I thought he’d find another job quickly.
"Tim had always wanted to work in higher education, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to make that transition. But what neither of us expected was how slow-moving hiring processes in academia were.
“While he searched, we agreed he’d pay what he could toward rent, which was usually around $300. He had student-loan payments to make and no emergency savings, so money was very tight. I had a decent job and was able to cover our rent, bills, and groceries at the time, although I wasn’t able to save. I didn’t mind at first, because I trusted he would pay me back eventually, but after a few months it began to dawn on me that I’d probably never see that few thousand in back rent.
“Eventually, Tim fell into a deep depression spell. I tried to remind him that it’s always darkest before the dawn and give him tips, but I think my well-meaning advice came across condescendingly, my optimism verging on annoying. It’s very hard to see someone you love struggling, not just emotionally but financially, but I also had concerns and wondered how this financial setback would impact our future together. However, I kept these thoughts to myself.
“Since we moved in together rather quickly, neither of us had really seen each other’s vulnerable sides. The stress of Tim’s unemployment took its toll on both of us, and there was a lot left unsaid. After closing down our line of open communication, I’m not sure it ever truly opened back up.

There was a lot left unsaid. After closing down our line of open communication, I’m not sure it ever truly opened back up.

“Tim eventually landed a job in higher education, and though we ended up staying together for four years after this happened, we eventually broke up. Though we’re no longer together, this experience taught me that communication is key — I realize now that we clearly didn’t have enough of it.
“When a big life change happens, you and your partner must be on the same page when it comes to preparing for how it could affect your future together. If shared finances are involved, make a plan before things get overwhelming. Or set a timeline; otherwise, it will undoubtedly cause resentment down the line.”

Kara, 31, Financial Education, Austin, TX

“In late 2018 my partner, Theo*, left his full-time job to pursue another career path. He was at a well-paid job, but it was heading in a direction that he didn't like, in an industry he didn't really care about. So he left to change careers entirely — from environmental work to higher education.
“I was concerned from the get-go. He left a job without another one lined up, and I know how stressful that can be. I own my own financial-education business, and my money brain was like, 'This is dumb!' But as Theo’s partner, I saw how unhappy he was and knew it was the right move. He was stressed all the time and having panic attacks, and it was unsustainable for him to stay like that. But I was torn between feeling glad he was leaving and stressed about what that could mean for us.
“For the first four years of our relationship, Theo was the higher earner and I worked multiple jobs while starting my company. This transition flipped our situation entirely. When Theo left his job, he had significant savings, which he was able to live off of at first. So for the first three months, this transition didn’t have any real impact on our relationship. But by month four, Theo was still mostly unemployed and burning through his savings. It became clear that this job switch was going to take longer than anticipated.
“Soon things began to wear on us. Theo’s student-loan bills were fairly high, and he had almost no money coming in. Neither one of us wanted him to burn through all his savings, so I started paying the majority of our grocery bill, with him contributing $60 each month. I covered everything else. We were frugal, but this meant I was paying roughly $170 a month for groceries on top of also paying other bills and utilities.
“Thankfully, we are excellent communicators, which helped us to talk about an extremely uncomfortable topic. When someone isn't contributing money to a household, it can easily become: ‘This is my money so I get to call the shots,' and we had to learn to navigate that. I also ended up hiring Theo part-time at my company to help me with administrative work, which covered his rent. But owning my own business can be stressful as money comes in waves, so I was stressed that I'd need that money elsewhere in the future.

When someone isn't contributing money to a household, it can easily become: ‘This is my money so I get to call the shots.'

“Today, Theo works two part-time jobs in higher education and is going back to school in the fall for his master's. I still pay for half of his monthly rent, and he’s still helping with $60 a month for groceries while I cover the rest. He is back to paying for his own gas, and we split all of our utilities evenly.
“Looking back, it’s important to talk things through with your partner at every stage of a career transition. People can get in their feelings about earning, especially in heterosexual relationships. I'm so grateful my partner has no hang-ups about a woman out-earning him, because I know many people do.”

Alaina, 26, Publishing & Media, Boston, MA

“I supported my partner, Macey, when she decided to go back to school to get her MFA. We had been living together for over a year, and I was already getting my graduate degree in publishing and media and working as an editor. When she went back to school, I became our primary source of income, though she took a few temp positions for extra cash when she had time. For a full year, I was working full-time and she was entirely focused on finishing her thesis.
“This experience made me incredibly happy and proud of Macey. For a while she wasn’t sure if she wanted to pursue education or speech language pathology as a career, so to see her pushing for her dreams was important to me, since I feel we should both be able to take risks and have rewarding careers. I’m happy working from home as an editor, social media manager, and writing coach, and she deserves to feel similarly happy, fairly paid, and fulfilled. It’s what I’ve always wanted for both of us, and I’m happy to do what I can if it means she can take more risks and work on her dreams.

I’m happy to do what I can if it means she can take more risks and work on her dreams.

“Even so, things did get stressful, because there was a period of time when Macey was worried she’d never get a job after graduation. She felt like a burden. I never wanted her to feel like that, so it was difficult to know she felt this way. We’ve both had periods of time when one of us was making more money than the other, but when I’m the one who is working or making more, I don’t want my partner to feel stressed about what she is contributing.
“Today, Macey works for Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and I work as an editor for Equally Wed magazine and as a writing coach. Looking back, I wish I’d had more in a savings cushion or that I found a full-time remote job sooner, so that I would have had more money to support Macey while she was in school. She applied to jobs several times when we were desperate and worked a few tiring temp jobs that I wish she hadn’t had to do.
“Ultimately, I believe this experience strengthened our relationship. Both people in a relationship should be able to talk about their fears and dreams with honesty. They should also be able to take risks and go after their dreams — and it shouldn’t always be swayed so one person is constantly giving things up or sacrificing for the other. In the past, Macey has sacrificed for me, because I need to work from home due to a disability. I wanted to sacrifice for her so she could pursue her studies.”

Carleton, 40, Real Estate Acquisitions & Development, Seattle, WA

“My wife, Amy, was a litigator for a decade. In 2016, shortly after we welcomed our second daughter inside of two years, Amy started thinking about leaving law and launching a small business. She wanted to work on something she felt strongly about: the state of women in corporate America. She also wanted more flexibility. We live across the country from our families and found that juggling two careers, neither of which afforded us flexibility, made it hard to see our kids and make everything work.
“I was excited that Amy wanted to move into an area that motivated her and was more rewarding, but this move meant that I would, for an unknown period of time, become the sole breadwinner. I was intimidated. On top of this, a couple of weeks before Amy’s last day as a lawyer, we found out that she was pregnant with our third child.

A couple of weeks before Amy’s last day as a lawyer, we found out that she was pregnant with our third child.

“Before Amy quit, we made a budget that looked at how long we could maintain our current lifestyle, and childcare costs, without Amy bringing in a salary and with me earning at the same level. We felt like we had enough runway, but it was never a certainty, and that can be intimidating when you’re responsible for small children. For me, it wasn’t so much about the money — it was always about the ‘not knowing.’
“Starting a business is an enormous risk, and the early days are hard and uncomfortable for everyone. It’s been hard to figure out how to make the puzzle work. Amy started drawing a salary after she closed her Series Seed, 13 months after leaving her job as a lawyer. That helped ease some of the uncertainty, but we had to learn to work together in different ways. In hindsight, I wish we had set aside more money for the purpose of replacing Amy’s salary for the 13 months that she didn’t receive a paycheck. But, regardless, we had savings and were able to make it work.
“Today, it still feels like we’re in the beginning of this transition. Amy’s company is two years old. Still, I know things will continue to change just as it will continue to be a challenge to support a partner who’s building a business. We can’t really know where this will all end up, but we’re learning to accept that the future is uncertain and to take things day by day.
“Looking back, I’m glad Amy did this. It’s been an amazing journey to watch and be a part of, and I believe in the success of the company. I’ve learned so much — about how much chaos one family can actually live with and survive and how crucial it is to keep communication open and honest in order to manage expectations. I’ve realized that transitions like this are often a one-way door; when one spouse walks through it, there is generally no going back to the life you had before.”
*Name has been changed

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series