Updated on 03.08.16

Working Through the ‘Two-Body Problem’

Trent Hamm

How two partners can find compatible jobs - and what to do when you can't.

During my previous career, I had the opportunity to get to know a large variety of working professionals, some in academia and some in private industry. Unsurprisingly, many of those professionals were married to spouses in the same field or in other research fields, largely due to getting to know each other over the course of going through similar experiences in college and in graduate school.

Through this, I began to learn of something calle “the two-body problem.” To quote Wikipedia, which has a great summary of this topic, “[t]he two-body problem is a dilemma for life partners (for e.g. spouses or any other couple) in academia, relating to the difficulty of both spouses obtaining jobs at the same university or within a reasonable commuting distance from each other.”

I would argue that this extends to anyone who has very specialized training or licenses that can only be employed in certain locations with certain employers, so in this article I’ll be talking about a slightly more generalized version of the two body problem.

As I consider this problem, three different couples that I know spring to mind.

One couple involves a pair of people who are both employed at the same university as tenure-track professors. They’ve essentially solved the two-body problem, at least for now. It may be a permanent solution provided they both achieve tenure.

Another couple I know involves one person working as a professor at a university, while another partner works for a large company in a nearby city. They live in a situation where at least one of them has to commute and that’s the solution they’ve found – the partner working for the large company commutes about 45 minutes each way to work.

And then there’s a third couple, who I’ll call Amy and Bill. Right now, Amy has an amazing job earning a very nice income, while Bill lives about 750 miles away working at a different amazing job earning a very nice income. They remain married and have two children, of which Amy maintains custody. They see each other almost every weekend.

I know via third-hand stories of other couples who have come up with other solutions. I have heard the story of one couple in which one partner has a spectacular job, but their partner simply has nothing available in their area that they’re trained for, so the partner simply does not work at all and spends her days working on political campaigns doing volunteer work. I know one couple that decided to separate due to these kinds of employment issues, though they apparently go on “dates” whenever they can see each other.

The truth is, when you have trained for a specialized job with limited job availability, you put a potentially large strain on any relationships you might have; the issue is even greater when you both have this kind of specialized training.

The Many Solutions

The linked article above suggests many potential solutions to the problem:

“Typical solutions include:
– two tenure-track positions at the same university
– two tenure-track positions at two nearby universities (daily commutes possible)
– two tenure-track positions with one or both partners commuting between two geographically separate institutions (daily commutes impossible because of distance; partners may be separated weekly or for semesters at a time, depending on their circumstances)
– one tenure-track position shared (if they are in the same field)
– one tenure-track position and one instructor position
– one tenure-track position and one industry position
– one tenure-track position and one administration position at a same university

“Although it is not an ideal solution, a possible outcome is a break-up of the relationship. Long distance commuting certainly places a strain on relationships, especially when maintained over long periods (years or even decades).”

Again, as I mentioned above, this problem carries over into any specialized field in which job openings are fairly limited and competitive but are quite lucrative if you can get one, so these solutions also line up well with the broader problem.

Our Own Experience

While Sarah and I did not have a strict version of the two-body problem, meaning that we were not competing for tenure-track positions at a university, we did both graduate with degrees that pointed us toward somewhat specialized jobs with relatively specific areas where we would be valued for our training. This, of course, is true of many college graduates.

When we graduated, we found ourselves searching for jobs, and like any freshly-minted college graduates, we were happy to each get a good job upon graduation. Unfortunately, these jobs were about an hour away from each other. Our initial residence after graduation was very close to my job – in fact, I rode the bus for the first year or so of my job. However, Sarah had to commute for almost two hours each day, which was undoubtedly miserable in comparison. My commute was about 15 minutes each way on the bus, starting from and ending at a bus stop down the block.

Eventually, we compromised. We moved to a location that was central for both of us. This required us both to have a commute – and also required that I purchase a vehicle – but drastically reduced Sarah’s daily commute.

This had a number of pros and cons. Obviously, it helped Sarah’s state of mind greatly, which was a positive, and we also were able to spend more time together in the evenings, which was another positive. At the same time, it was more expensive because of the need for another vehicle – a negative – and it did cause my commute to get much longer and less passive, which was personally a negative.

Did it add up to a net positive? Sarah labeled it a positive. I would probably label it a slight negative overall, but the positive benefits for Sarah added up to enough to make it work.

When I started working from home, my commute obviously disappeared. Sarah still has a commute to work, though it’s not nearly as long as it was when we first graduated. I’ve been quite willing to move closer to her job, but she’s pretty happy with our current situation (particularly where we live) and has expressed little interest in moving closer.

Some Questions to Consider as You Work Through Your Own ‘Two-Body Problem’

Before I dig into this, I wanted to point out this great article on solving the two-body problem over at Tenure, She Wrote. She walks through some of the specifics of solving a two-body problem as you’re confronting it.

Hand in hand with that, however, is the need for both partners to be on the same page. You’ve got to talk through this kind of situation and make sure that you’re both happy with the direction you’re heading in or else you’re going to create a miserable situation for the both of you.

Here are some key questions that you should talk over when you’re in a serious relationship with someone and see some version of the “two-body problem” coming down the road.

Does Our Financial State Require Us Both to Have High-Paying Jobs?

One of the solutions to this problem is for one partner to accept a lower-paying job that has more availability and flexibility. This includes possibilities such as being a stay-at-home parent or starting some sort of small business.

The drawback here, of course, is twofold. First, there’s likely going to be a lower level of income than the family might expect. Second, you may find that the partner choosing the lower-income job is dissatisfied if they’re not able to use their skills or engage in the career path they’ve trained for.

For many families, it’s the first problem that is really the centerpiece. The reality is that 76% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and if you add on top of that the issue that many of the people dealing with the two-body problem are people freshly out of school with quite a bit of student loan debt, it ends up being a very difficult situation for many families.

Situations like the “two-body problem” are a perfect example of why it really pays off to have your financial ship headed in the right direction at all times. Spending money in frivolous ways on a highly regular basis does nothing more than keep your bank account empty so that you’re not prepared for situations like this. If you see a “two-body problem” ever coming up in your future, the smarter you are in terms of your spending habits today, the easier that problem will be to solve tomorrow.

So, what can you do? Keep your spending under control. If you’re dealing with a two-body problem, don’t inflate your lifestyle. Keep it cheap. Live in a small apartment. Drive a used car. Don’t go out to eat constantly. Look for free or cheap entertainment. Hammer down hard on your debts. This is even true if you both have good jobs right now.

Does Our Individual Personal Fulfillment Require Each of Us to Have a Particular Job?

Some people really only feel professionally fulfilled with certain jobs or career paths. They know what they’re passionate about and what really clicks with them and that’s what they have worked very hard to achieve in their life. Being turned aside from that path can be very self-defeating. I would put Sarah into this category, as she has found her “true calling,” so to speak. I think she would be very resistant to any other career path than the one she’s on.

On the other hand, some people are less tied to one specific career path. I’d probably put myself in that category, since I started off in a scientific research field and now find myself a freelance writer with a personal finance focus, and I’ve been genuinely happy in both fields.

It is absolutely vital that you understand which one of those two options best describes each of you. You are begging for personal misery and relationship misery if you take someone who is very passionate about a specific career and redirect that person elsewhere.

Is There Any Room for ‘Dual Negotiation’?

Some professions and some employers will actually work with you to help you find employment for your significant other provided you are a suitable and desired candidate for the position in question.

Many couples who are running into the “two-body problem” likely have both members of the couple applying to any and all appropriate jobs. Thus, if one partner reaches the point of actually negotiating for a job, some assistance from the employer in helping to find a job for the other partner – especially if the areas of expertise of the other partner is in any way useful to the new employer – can definitely be part of a negotiated package. Even if there seems to be no overlap, an employer may be able to help in surprising ways.

It doesn’t hurt to bring this up as part of negotiating with an employer. You might be surprised to find that they can bring a swift solution to your two body problem.

Can Either One of Us Be More Broad in Our Job Search?

Sometimes, people will narrow down their job searches so specifically that only a handful of positions anywhere will match their needs. This often puts very tight restrictions on where they might end up in their career, which inherently puts an additional tight restriction on their partner.

For example, I know of at least one person who finished graduate school and put such incredibly tight restrictions on her requirements for a job that there might be one one position a year that would exist that she would be a reasonable candidate for. Thankfully, she was single and willing to do other work for a while to wait for her ideal position (it did eventually come along, and she did eventually get the position because she was about as perfect for that position as a human being could get).

However, it did mean that she was very, very limited in her job search, and to accomodate that limitation, she had to work at a job that she was massively overqualified for and didn’t pay very well while she waited.

In most situations, both partners can broaden their search requirements a little in exchange for the benefit of actually being able to live in the same area. Yes, this might mean that one or both partners do not wind up with their “perfect” job, but the additional benefit of being able to live near your partner should make up for that.

Does Either One of Us Have Secondary Skills, Traits, or Experiences That Might Help Broaden Employability?

Step back for a second and look not just at your education and the jobs you’ve held, but your other life experiences and achievements. Are there any details in there that make you stand out from the pack?

Many people often limit themselves to what fits on the standard format of a resume or CV, when it’s often the unusual details that really make them stand out from the crowd.

The thing to always remember is this: Most hiring committees and HR departments see tons of different resumes and applications, the vast majority of which seem almost identical to one another. What special experiences or traits make you really stand out from the pack and enrich your chance of being selected for another round of interviewing at as many jobs as possible? Find a way to include and highlight those things when you apply for a job.

Are We Willing to Live Apart for the Right Job?

This is a very painful question, but for some couples it might be the right solution, at least for a while. If one partner’s “dream job” comes along, are the two of you willing to live in different areas for a while?

Of course, this does carry the underlying question of whether you’re willing to break up or divorce over such a situation. If the situation of living in different areas becomes an extended thing, it’s human nature for the people involved to slowly drift apart as their day-to-day lives diverge more and more.

Again, it comes back to how career-focused people are. Some people’s personal identities and values are highly tied to their career and they value that career path more than individual relationships. Other people value the relationships that they have more than a specific option in their career. Neither one is right or wrong, but it needs to be clear and it needs to be clearly communicated with your partner.

Making It Work

Sometimes, things will go perfectly and two people will be able to find work applying their training in the same area, enabling them to live together and find meaningful and lucrative work. Those situations are incredible, but they’re not as common as one might hope.

Often, what will happen is that one partner or the other will have to compromise in some fashion – or both partners will have to give up something. Perhaps one partner will end up taking a “lesser” job. Maybe the couple will have to live apart for a period of time.

Whatever the compromise is, it’s not going to be easy. A person who takes a “lesser” job so that their partner can have their dream job or a job with incredible opportunities is going to be taking on a pretty stiff personal burden. Not only is that person not working at the job he or she would like to be working at, they’re also watching their partner “living the dream” and, in some cases, feeling rather left behind in that journey.

None of those results are easy. For this situation to work, I would put three things ahead of everything else.

One, you need to communicate clearly what you’re feeling and thinking with each other without judgment. If you can’t or won’t talk to each other (and won’t listen to each other) about the difficult aspects of your careers, especially when a compromise is involved, it’s going to be difficult to maintain a positive relationship. Sometimes, you have to simply listen and you have to turn off the need to be defensive or to judge. People have emotions, those emotions are complex, and sometimes they must need to be expressed.

Two, you need to be careful with your money. The more flexible you are financially, the larger the number of reasonable solutions to this problem. Don’t inflate your lifestyle until you’re in a situation that seems like it will last for the long term. Until then, live cheap, pay down your debts, and built up a big emergency fund so you can flexibly deal with whatever happens.

Three, you need to focus on career choices that open up better opportunities later on. This goes hand in hand with the “money” situation described above. If you’re careful with your money, you can afford some opportunities where the pay isn’t great but the ability to build connections and get published (if you’re in academia) and get interesting projects under your belt is much greater. Similarly, don’t be afraid to take some risks in your career path by biting off big, challenging things, because the upside can be tremendous. Those things can be golden later on, but they require you to live lean right now.

Final Thoughts

The “two body problem” is a solvable one, but it requires both partners to be smart about their money and their personal and professional choices, and it especially requires both partners to communicate clearly with one another.

Without those elements, career choices and personal choices are going to constantly butt heads in your life and leave both partners unhappy and, often, in poor career situations to boot.

Good luck.

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