How to Be a Supportive Partner During a Career Change

UPDATED: March 2, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 16, 2023
woman being supportive to partner through career change

Perhaps you’re one of the lucky few who have known your career path since you were barely out of diapers. What was once pretend play (i.e. teacher, doctor or firefighter) is now your profession. But for many of us, the promise of college majors is less rosy in reality, which could signal the need for a career change.

How to support your partner through a career change

As the partner of someone pursuing a new career path, here are a few tips for how to support your partner during this often-stressful time.

Communicate the reasons for the change, and discuss its potential impacts

While some partners might approach one another with their new ambitions, others don’t even realize that a career change might do them good.

Former investment analyst Rachel Ternik said she was so laser-focused on excelling in her busy finance career that she didn’t realize it was completely zapping her energy and joy until her husband Matt Schiffman pointed it out.

“Matt said something along the lines of ‘It doesn’t seem like your work is making you happy. In fact, you seem miserable. Have you considered it might be time to do something else?’” Ternik recalls.

When the time came for her to actually decide on next steps, she had a sit-down conversation with him about what the career change would entail financially, mentally, socially and emotionally. Schiffman encouraged the move, knowing it would require a lot of time and effort upfront from them both.

“Ultimately a career change would positively affect our lives by providing us with more time to spend together,” Schiffman explains. “Plus, Rachel would be happier, which would also be a positive in our lives.”

That conversation and laying the groundwork for the changes that lie ahead is critical, Rebecca “Kiki” Weingarten, transition coach and Atypical Coaching co-founder and president, told the Chicago Tribune in a 2016 article.

“Transitions are tough, no matter what. The best way to survive as a couple is to approach it as a joint venture,” Weingarten explains in the article. “Both people are going through the changes… if the individuals aren’t aware or dealing with the facts that the transition is tough, that’s an even bigger problem and will more than likely pop up later.”

Consider tactical and big-picture ways to support your partner through their career change

Ternik eventually determined she wanted to become a physician assistant (PA). It called for evening prerequisite college classes and quitting her finance job. She took a 95% pay cut to work as a medical assistant by day for two years while taking night classes. Ternik then enrolled in Northwestern University’s two-year, full-time PA program.

“I helped with things that Rachel typically does, like cooking more, and also picked her up from school at night,” Schiffman said. “She had such long days working, then going to class at night. Picking her up was most helpful and showed that I was always there for her.”

Tangible help could look different for every couple. But the unconditional emotional support he provided Ternik through her career change is something all couples can offer one another.

“He shared my joy and excitement of my new career, but also provided a nonjudgmental ear when I needed to voice my uncertainties and anxieties,” Schiffman said. “He also seamlessly slid into the role of being the sole money earner in our relationship without resentment.”

Manage the emotions of the situation—both yours and theirs

In an article for Fast Company, Jennifer Petriglieri, author and associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, wrote that “couples who have mastered the art of thriving through career transitions together are those who develop a mutual ‘secure base’ relationship.”

“Each partner supports the other in the moments of struggle while supporting the other’s ambition to take risks and explore new directions,” she says.

Supporting your partner emotionally through a career change starts with determining what they need. Is it a listening ear? Advice regarding a job application or additional education? Injecting some levity or peace into their day by watching a favorite movie or going on a walk together? If you don’t know what your partner needs or prefers—ask!

It’s also important to make sure you take care of yourself during this time. Putt your own mask on first, so to speak. It will enable you to be at your best to support your partner in their career change.

Today, Ternik is happily working as a physician assistant. Both she and Schiffman say the transition experience strengthened their relationship.

“Our relationship is better because we’ve both shown our willingness to sacrifice for the other person, multiple times over,” Ternik says. “We now both feel comfortable with the idea of making big career or life changes if something isn’t right.”

To the career changer, Ternik’s advice is to remember that life is short and precious, but “sometimes even planners have to take a leap of faith.”

Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock

Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.