Choosing a Life Partner

Young couple standing by lake holding hands
Kevin Sharer, Professor

Most likely you have spent many hours thinking about and preparing for your professional life.  In fact, for most of you, the core reason you came to HBS is to make a career pivot, to find a new, more attractive professional track. Once on that track, in the wider world, most of your time will be spent working, learning, striving, and achieving. Many studies have demonstrated that your professional lives will consume more of your time and thoughts than any other endeavor. Perhaps we could debate the wisdom of this pattern, but to pursue the aspirations most HBS graduates rightly have, it is a fact of life.  

Given this focus, this sometimes overwhelming professional obsession, do you give nearly as much analytical attention to the important questions of life happiness and relationships?  Are these issues to be addressed, each in its own stovepipe, or are they not inevitably intertwined?   I would posit that career progression inevitably impacts life partnerships and therefore, happiness, and vice versa.

In a prior column regarding career choices I put the priorities in order:  “Who you pick and who picks you as a life partner overwhelms all of the above career related decisions in significance and importance”.  Many of you have already made this decision, and are in a committed relationship.  To you, congratulations and best wishes. For the rest of you, I humbly submit some learnings drawn from my own life and those close to me over my rather longish life.

First, a disclaimer about my approach to this vital question. In HBS fashion we will take a thoughtful, almost logical approach to perhaps the supreme question of human relationships. The problem is that humans are much more complex and variable in their makeup and preferences than can be captured easily, so any approach that tries to rely on logic or lists will be incomplete and perhaps for some a bit outrageous.  Matters of love can overwhelm reason.   However, my personal experience and long observation persuade me that these ideas can be clarifying so I offer them in that spirit. Some of you may reject a structured or logical approach to what can feel like a magical experience. The thinking goes “Do not try to analyze this feeling, it is just overwhelming and I am going with my heart and feelings. Period”. There are examples where this approach works. These magical feelings matter and are absolutely necessary, but over the long haul other important things come into play.  Let’s consider those.

One way to think about those other things is to group them into three categories, (1) foundational must-haves, (2) important and desirable, and (3) hard truths.

Trying to make the must-haves as short a list as possible is not easy, but most people would include love (of course),  trust, respect, common values, similar life objectives, and chemistry. They all are easy to say and superficially describe, but thinking more deeply about them helps. Trust and respect are big ideas. Trust should exist to the deepest and widest possible extent. Trust means you are confident your partner will do the right thing for you and the relationship when nobody is looking or it is not imperative. You are not trying to find a saint, but think very deeply about this. Respect has many dimensions, too. Respect your partner for who they are, what they have experienced or overcome, what they have accomplished, and all their many good qualities. Respect them too for their imperfection and the struggle these imperfections inevitably cause. This granting of total respect is perhaps one of the biggest gifts you can give. Values and common objectives refer to the big ones, e.g. children, success definition, location preferences, need for stimulation and quiet time, fitness, etc. The point is not that the values and objectives of each partner are identical, but that they overlap enough. A proper description of chemistry exceeds your columnist’s journalistic skills, but suffice to say you know it when it exists.

For some of you the important and desirable could be must-haves. You should think very hard about this. Some would say some kind of rough equivalence really helps. This equivalence could include intellect, enough common interests to support the long conversation of a marriage, life experience and culture, and to a certain degree age. This is not to say that you should seek your twin. In fact, differences if paired with enough common traits can make for the ideal match. The point is to have enough in common to build upon. It also sure helps to have a partner who is game to try new things, joyful enough to approach life with positive energy, and resilient enough to roll with the punches. A sense of humor and not taking yourself too seriously go a long way, too.

Think about the hard truths, too. The idea that one partner can cause fundamental change or “fix” another is a common fantasy. The relationships your prospective partner has with his or her own family hints at future risks or rewards for yours.  What happens when your career might take the backseat to your partners?   Living apart makes everything else harder and over time is usually  destructive.   Life’s routines and responsibilities pull at the connective tissue by robbing you of time to be really together as a couple. Fighting this entropy is essential. True communication is hard, so finding a way early to deal with issues or differences helps avoid building up resentments or pain. Finally, a note to men. If in parenting and home duties you intend to essentially rely on your wife you have a flawed design that will rob you both of something precious. The greatest growth we as men can accomplish comes through striving to be a true and fully engaged partner and parent. True respect bears uncounted rewards.  More on this later.

Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.