Your biggest career decision is who you marry

by Penelope Trunk

Sheryl Sandberg, the woman who runs Facebook, has said that the most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry.

I have to agree with this statement. Here’s why:

If you marry someone with a big career and you want to have a big career you have to find that rare mate who can treat you as an equal, even when your career needs to come first. These are very tough marriages to hold together because there is a constant, never-ending re-balancing of priorities and power between spouses.

If you marry a breadwinner who expects their career to come first, then things will probably only work if you can support that. Even if you have a career of your own. This is the easiest marriage to hold together (if any marriage can be called easy) as long as the man is the breadwinner.

If you marry someone who is terrible at earning money, or someone who is good at earning money but doesn’t want to, then you will have to take responsibility for earning the money.

In each of these cases, your career decisions are largely determined by who you choose as your mate.

If the idea of being in a long-term, committed relationship makes you sick, you should stop reading now, and click over to Beatrice de Guigne’s stunning parody of wedding photography, featuring Barbie and Ken. If you still hold out hope for marriage, here are my five favorite ways to get a spouse:

1. Network.
Getting a spouse is the first big test of your networking abilities. If you’re really well networked, like George Percy, then you can look around at who you know and who your friends know and pick someone.

If you go the networking route, the same rules of networking for a getting a job apply to networking to get a spouse. Which means that the most valuable people in your network are people who you are not that close to because those people will likely know a bunch of people who you don’t already know.

This seems like a good time to tell the story of how my brother met his wife. He came to visit me at college, and it was a weekend when there was a dance. And it turned out that my date was gay, and because I was so stupid about dating I was a) the only person in the school who didn’t know and b) too shy to cancel the date.

I asked my brother to come, to save me, but he needed a date. So I asked a woman in my suite who I had recently gotten to know.

The dance sucked, I couldn’t find my brother, and when I came home, he was making out with the woman in my entrance way. I remember standing there, stunned, and then saying: “What are you guys doing?”

2. Try online dating sites.
That was before dating sites. Today dating sites make things easier, for the lucky 23% of people who can get dating sites to pan out.

Most dating sites specialize. ScientificMatch matches you based on your DNA. Salon is for intellectuals. OK Cupid is more Jewish than JDate. JDate is rife with intellectual snobs and eastern-seaboard snobs who figure they can sort for their demographic by sorting for Jews.

Feeling frustrated and ripped off? Luvia specializes in people who want a better payment fee structure for online dating. Really. The founder of Luvia, Ravi, says: “There’s no monthly fee or any premium services fee. And registration is totally free. is very economical because we charge based on usage.”

3. Use a headhunter.
When I was thirty and not married and starting to panic, I hired a headhunter.

Here’s why: I was thirty, I had just launched my second startup after exiting the first one, and I was a former professional beach volleyball player. I knew I was a good catch, but I had no time or patience for dating.

The headhunter charged me $10,000 and for that, she taught me how you pick a husband. She told me you only get what you are worth. She told me that I’m an eight so I can get an eight.

Then she told me I could give her three criteria and she’d meet them.

First, I picked good looking, rich, and Jewish. She set me up with the only Jewish Calvin Klein model. I mean, maybe there were two, but it’s hard to believe there are two Jewish men as shallow as this guy was. Really. I think their moms wouldn’t allow it.

So I swapped rich for smart. And I got a screenwriter. Unemployed, of course. After all, I was in LA.

I knew I needed criteria to wipe out the screenwriters. That’s important in LA, because everyone’s a screenwriter. Even the homeless. Actually, especially the homeless.

I spent a lot of time developing a perfect list of three things, and I came up with Jewish, good looking and great at what he does. I thought this last one would be sneaky because you probably are smart and rich if you are great at what you do.

These guys were right up my alley—the type I was used to hanging out with. At work. So I had a hard time keeping dating talk to dating topics and almost all those dates turned into business meetings.

Just when the headhunter was getting frustrated with me, my ex-boyfriend told me he was in LA and asked if I wanted to get together for sex. I said, Okay, if we get married. He said okay. He bought me a ring from the LA County museum, on the way to my apartment.

We had sex. It seemed right because he was good-looking, Jewish, and great at what he did. (He was a video artist. One day I will spew my wide-ranging knowledge of video art on this blog.)

4. Go to therapy.
Hiring the headhunter was like going to therapy. You know, those fairy tales about having three wishes aren’t really about the wishes. They’re about learning what’s important to you. (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is a fun, contemporary take on this story.) The fairy tales are about the power of self-knowledge, and how hard it is to come by.

Which is really what dating is all about. You have to give stuff up to get married. Picking a spouse is a lot like picking a location—it’s not about what you get, it’s about what you give up. You have to be really clear on what you are not willing to give up—because you’ll probably be giving up everything else. You have to assume you are. And it’s hard.

Most of adult life is about admitting what you will not be able to have or be able to do. Marriage is no exception. If you can’t accept that, going to therapy can help—you get stuck otherwise. Which wouldn’t be so bad if you don’t want kids. But stalled dating under the tick-tock of a biological clock is no good for anyone.

5. Compromise your career.
It’s true that who you marry is your most important career decision. But it’s also your most important financial decision, your most important parenting decision, and on and on. No one ever says that they knew what they were getting when they picked their spouse. Twenty years down the line, everyone is surprised.

So the choice is impossible to perfect because the information you have about your options is so poor. People change, and people don’t know who they are so they can’t disclose who they are. And life before kids does not resemble life with kids, so how do you even know how the person will react when the kids come?

It’s hubris to say this does not apply to you.

But of all the things that spouses affect, and with all the things you have to compromise in order to hold a marriage together, a career seems like a small price to pay.

People who are married are happier than people who are not. And I think it’s mostly that people are happier when they put the requirements of being in a committed relationship ahead of the other aspects of their life. And a career would be the first thing I’d tell you to give up. You can get a lot more from loving and being loved.