From Google cofounder Sergey Brin’s split from 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki to SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s second divorce from actress Talulah Riley, the separation of several high-powered couples could signal that extreme career success comes at the expense of relationship success.
But relationship experts say this doesn’t always ring true. You can have a successful marriage and balance high-powered careers – it just takes work.
Dr. Michael McNulty, a master trainer from The Gottman Institute and founder of the Chicago Relationship Center, tells Business Insider maintaining a marital friendship, romance, and intimacy, managing ongoing conflict that is inevitable in marriage, and creating and maintaining a meaningful relationship is more challenging for partners with successful careers because they have less time to do so.
He says these couples are at more risk when the connection to the career becomes primary, and the commitment to and trust in the relationship becomes questionable. “Having a spouse addicted to work can feel like as much of a betrayal as extramarital affair to the other spouse,” McNulty says.
But as research psychologist and couples counselor John Gottman explains in his book “What Makes Love Last,” 40 years of research shows that trust and commitment are crucial to holding relationships together. “When both partners have a strong commitment to a relationship, this leads to a strong sense of trust, which makes love last,” McNulty explains.
Here’s how some of the most successful married couples keep their relationships strong:
They prioritize spending time together
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Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, for example, drew up a relationship agreement with his then-girlfriend and now-wife Priscilla Chan when she moved to Palo Alto, California, several years ago. In it, he agreed to take her on a date once a week and spend 100 minutes of alone time each week with her outside the office or his apartment.
McNulty says creating rituals can help. “Rituals are more formal ways of connecting and ensure spouses reserve time for one another or their families and make specific plans to do the things they want to do,” he explains.
Whether it’s a weekly date night or a trip for just the immediate family, he says busy, successful partners have to be more careful with their time to make sure they connect with one another and enjoy the things that define or give meaning to their relationships.
Their time is spent doing good
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Gerber says it also helps if power couples spend time doing things outside of the ego.
“People dedicated to making the world better or with a spiritual side seem to have more chance of success in partnership because they aren’t depending on external factors only to feel good,” she says.
They listen and empathize
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“Make time every day to talk with your spouse, in person or by phone, about one another’s lives,” McNulty says, noting that texting is often not enough.
“Focus on the stressful things or events that are important to your spouse. Listen. Help your spouse express his or her feelings. Empathize. Show support. Don’t problem solve or fix. Most of us just want to be heard,” he explains.
According to McNulty, Gottman’s research shows that this kind of conversation is the one common thing that all successful couples do after marriage therapy.
In The Gottman Method of Couple Therapy, he says this kind of conversation is called a “stress reducing conversation.” “Successful, busy couples’ relationships will suffer if they fail to find a way to have this type of conversation on a regular basis,” McNulty says.
They speak up about problems before it’s too late
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People with successful careers and love lives know that time is precious, and it’s best not to waste it on holding secret grudges.
Successful power couples express their needs sooner to avoid pent-up emotions getting the better of them.
“We’re very conflict-avoidant in our culture, and so people sometimes are afraid to speak up about what they need from one another,” McNulty says. “And then what tends to happen is, people store up their complaints, and they have to almost build up a sense of self-righteousness before they allow themselves to even express their needs and their feelings.”
And this self-righteousness often results in poor communication and fights.
They express their appreciation
Successful couples also regularly share the fondness and admiration they have for one another. They tell each other a few things they appreciate about their spouse every day, McNulty says.
“This can be about who your spouse is or something he or she did recently. If partners travel or have different schedules, busy, successful couples may have to do this by phone,” he explains.
While in some instances sharing fondness can be done by way of a flirtatious text, expressing appreciation for your spouse about more serious matters should be done by phone or in person.
“Saying something like, ‘I cannot tell you how much I appreciated how you listened to our son last night when he was so upset’ has a more powerful impact when your spouse sees your facial expressions or hears the sincerity in the tone of your voice,” McNulty says.
“It can be especially good if each person in the power couple has his or her own sphere in which to rise up and each gains the other’s respect for different talents,” Gerber says.
A great example of this respect comes from Salma Hayek’s husband, François-Henri Pinault, who explained to her why he wanted her to go back to work after having children.
“‘I don’t want to be deprived of your work,'” she reports him saying to Allure magazine. “‘I want to watch it, too. And the world has not seen the best of you yet. So you cannot stop until some of that is put out.’ So he sort of really pushed me, like, ‘Get up on your feet and get out there.’ And he was right.”
They agree upon important issues from the get go
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“Two egos in a marriage can be great if all the important issues are agreed upon up front,” Gerber says.
Some of the most important issues couples should agree upon early on include sexual and romantic needs, who pays for what, and family boundaries.
Most break ups happen because of cheating Gerber says: “Couples who face the reality of this threat head on and deal with it stand the most chance of success.”
Gerber says there is a range of what’s acceptable within the bounds of a relationship if agreed upon in advance, so partners need to hash it out and agree on what the rules to live by are.
Arrangements could include:
• No alone dates with the opposite sex, even socially • Certain outside-the-marriage content is okay • We can bring others into the marriage and and have an open relationship
“Know what your partner can handle, what they want, and what the deal breakers are going to be as you face head-on the fact that cheating will be an option,” Gerber advises.
One way to limit issues later is to write a handbook detailing boundaries and expectations from the beginning.
“Don’t be afraid to put it all in writing to refer back to as a living breathing document,” she says. “And plan to have meetings about how you are running your marriage and family just as you would for your company or any other project you care about profoundly.”
They commit overall to one another
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For a marriage to remain successful when both partners are highly driven and busy, McNulty says couples must remain committed to one another before anything or anyone else.
“A successful career and exciting workplace can distract partners from their relationship, and from the family they have created,” he says.
“Each partner has to be able to trust that the other has his or her back, and that they intend to do all they can to understand and support one another,” McNulty says. “The relationship must come first.”
They work somewhere that understands family come first
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Whether you run your own company or are a key player in someone else’s, McNulty says working in an environment that promotes good work-life balance can have a hugely positive impact on marriage and marital relationships.
“If there’s an understanding that families comes first and that being part of a good marriage or family life complements what happens in one’s professional life and is a part of the values of the company, that can do a lot of good for the family,” he explains. “It can influence how people feel about their marriages or families and can promote better values among employees.”
McNulty says he doesn’t believe that “overachievers” have to be cursed in relationships, and working somewhere that shares these values can influence people in a positive way.