Comparison culture is everywhere: on social media and in offices and friendship groups. But how does career comparison affect our romantic relationships? Stylist investigates.
Earlier this year, when my boyfriend landed a top legal job with a high salary, everyone was impressed. Our friends and family praised his skill and hard work (as they should have) but I was confused when they turned to congratulate me for his achievements.
“You’ll never have to worry anymore; you’re set for life,” people told me bluntly. “Thank god for his salary,” others blurted.
We met five years ago, in the first year studying law and creative writing respectively, so I’ve never been under any illusions of how differently our careers – and salaries – would look.
But while I love my job, I have to admit that there are times that I have weighed my path, and my paycheck, against my partner’s and been disappointed. Sociological study terms it the relative income effect – when we find out that someone else earns more than us, we become less happy within ourselves.
Why do we experience career comparison in relationships?
Career comparison syndrome is similar to impostor syndrome in that it makes us feel inadequate and like we don’t quite measure up. This often plays out within our friendship groups or on social media, but what happens when it begins to infiltrate our romantic relationships?
While I may be treated as “lucky” to have a high-earning partner to depend on, a CBNC report from 2017 proposed that many millennial women were actually ‘worried’ and ‘ashamed’ of out-earning their boyfriends and husbands.
So how deep does career comparison run in modern relationships? Three women share their experiences.
“It’s very obvious to me and I feel the divide”
“Career talk is never something I like to get into,” says Hannah*, 23, who works in marketing. “I have an entry-level job and my partner, who is a few years older than me, is an engineer for a multi-billion-pound global corporation.”
“My family is very working class, so going into another family with careers that are viewed as ‘more important’ has been a step change for me,” she tells Stylist. “Trying to convince them that my desk job where I write pretty words and scroll social media is important and a “proper job” has been hard.”
Hannah cites her partner’s salary difference as the main root of comparison. “Money is a huge factor,” she says. “I work my ass off, and have even set up my own small business to make extra money so that I feel like I can take some ownership of the house we’ve bought together.”
Comments from other people have also fed the comparison. “It’s very obvious to me and I feel the divide. I feel insignificant and sometimes even embarrassed,” she admits. “When talking about my job, I feel like I’m trying to explain a school project I’m proud of rather than a career. People tend to shrug off my work talk within minutes and move over to him.”
Hannah says that she tries to deal with the comparison by talking to her partner. “When we get home, we talk about what we’ve done. He speaks about all his engineering stuff with technical lingo I don’t understand, but I make a conscious effort to listen and ask questions. Then he does the same for me, which gives me a chance to offload my stresses and gives him a bit of insight into what I do.”
“My parents’ reaction was ‘Why can’t you be with someone who’s rich?’”
“Comparing my career with my partner’s has always been uncomfortable, as our life experiences are so different,” says Neha*, a 23-year-old from India who works in fintech.
“Our career goals have always been different. Due to family circumstances, I’ve been career minded and quite self-reliant from a young age, which has led to me having different life goals. For me, it’s financial stability and freedom, whereas for him it’s a life of fulfilment and tranquility.”
Neha also recognises that other people compare her career to her partner’s. “We do get comments from the outside on our relationship dynamic,” she says. “I am from India, and a relatively traditional family that has a fair amount of toxic masculinity in it due to societal expectations. My parents’ reaction was: “Why can’t you be with someone who’s rich or has an impressive career? Why go for someone who just wants to have an average happy life?”
“Because of my ambitions and where I would like to end up, I know my partner sometimes feels like his career is less significant than mine. But luckily he is supportive and okay with following me wherever I need to go, and whatever I need to do.”
“Although he really doesn’t in reality, it’s framed like he is taking advantage of me”
Catherine*, 39, works in a clinical role within the NHS, and has just completed a master’s degree. Her husband works in landscaping.
“Regularly people joke about the difference in our jobs, and say my husband is a kept man and how lucky he is,” she tells Stylist. “It upsets me as although he doesn’t in reality, it’s framed like he’s taking advantage of me.”
“People also make jokes about our intellectual differences, which I find frustrating. I don’t believe that intelligence is quantified by formal education and also don’t like to hear my husband devalued.”
But despite setting ground rules with her partner about how their differing career paths shouldn’t affect them, Catherine admits that it often does.
“There are multiple factors,” she says. “There’s some frustration that I pay for more, work longer hours and that my field has a need for continuous study. My husband often doesn’t understand if I have to study or read in the evenings, and gets stressed easily with the kids.”
Once again, Catherine agrees that her salary is the primary driver of the comparison. “We ‘need’ my job to keep our life afloat, and that feels like a lot of responsibility to hold,” she adds. “When I have a horrendous day, I just have to accept it and have no choice but to go back tomorrow.”
When it comes to dealing with career comparison, Catherine shares that it sometimes causes arguments. “I deal with it by reminding myself that money and careers aren’t everything. We have a beautiful family together, a lovely home and a happy life.”
How to navigate career comparison in your relationship
“We compare ourselves with others because society has conditioned us to live our life in a particular way, especially when it comes to our careers,” career happiness mentor Soma Ghosh tells Stylist. “Try to understand what is causing the comparison. If it comes down to money and job status, tell your partner how you feel, but don’t blame them for it.”
“Ultimately as a couple, it’s important to remember that you are more than your career,” adds Jenny Garrett, a career coach and author of Rocking Your Role, A Guide To Success For Female Breadwinners. “You will both bring something to the relationship and both excel at different things, so that should be acknowledged.”
Garrett suggests reminding yourself that these roles can change. “For example, one person in the couple may financially support the other when changing careers or studying. The dynamics can change, so it’s best not to get too fixated on them.”
“The most important thing is that you are both happy. That should be the only measurement your relationship needs.”