Thanks to Stephanie Hall, Jeff Kaufman and Julia Wise for comments, and especially to my partner.
I think it’s common in relationships for one person’s work to be deemed more important than the other person’s. This might be because:
- One person earns more than the other.
- One person works longer hours than the other.
- One person’s work is more stressful than the other’s.
- One person cares more about their work than the other person does (or alternatively, the other person cares more about non-work things).
- The people in question were socialised differently, and live in a society where there are different social expectations and pressures on people with different characteristics.
In the context of EA relationships, I think there’s often another factor at play:
- One person’s work is more impactful than the other’s.
All of the above factors apply to my relationship, but it’s the part about impact that feels most loaded and tricky to navigate when it comes to trading time with my partner. Who should do the washing up? How late should we each work? When should we go on holiday? All of this gets more complicated if you think that one person’s work time is more impactful than the other’s.
In this post I want to offer a few ways of thinking about these time trading decisions that I’ve found helpful.
First, is it really more impactful?
Couples get into shared stories. It’s worth checking whether the story you collectively have that one person’s work is more impactful than the other’s work is actually true.
- Impact is extremely uncertain. We don’t know how actions now will influence the distant future.
- Careers are long. One person might be doing more impactful work now, but in ten years it could be the other way around.
- Beware self-fulfilling prophecies. If you both consistently prioritise one person’s career, then it’s likely that that career will end up going better than the other one.
In my case, while I do think there are worlds where my work ends up being more important than my partner’s work, I think that most funders would probably pay more for the next decade of his career than the next decade of mine. For one thing, I hope to spend a significant part of the next decade looking after children rather than working formally, so even if I thought that hour per hour our work was similarly impactful (which I don’t), my partner’s work would still be worth a lot more as there will be a lot more of it.
Options if one person’s work is more impactful
If one person’s work is more impactful than the other’s, what does that mean when it comes to trading time with each other?
I want to offer two extremes here.
At one extreme, you might bet hard on the more impactful career, and consistently act as if one person’s time is much more valuable than the other’s. This might mean things like:
One person does all of the domestic labour and life admin.
In relationship decisions which affect the more impactful person’s productivity, their votes get greater weight.
On the other extreme, you might decide that you don’t want considerations like this to operate in your relationship, and you want to treat each other’s time as equally valuable, irrespective of your actual opinions about the work you each do. This might mean equal shares of domestic labour, and equal votes in relationship decisions, without taking into consideration the likely impact of these things outside of the relationship.
Neither of these extremes feel great to me:
- From experience, heavily prioritising my partner over me is bad for my self-esteem and my mood, makes my partner feel guilty, and leads to resentment and conflict.
- It feels painful and inefficient to spend time that could be converted into high impact work on chores that anyone could do.
Complicating matters, I think there’s some social pressure to conform to each of the extremes:
- With EA friends, I sometimes feel that I have to prioritise my partner’s time, otherwise I’m selfish and a bad altruist.
- With social justice friends, I sometimes feel that I have to demand strict equality, otherwise I’m unassertive and a bad feminist. This doesn’t leave me with a lot of room for manoeuvre: I don’t want to be either of those things. I want to endorse different couples dealing with this differently, including by being at either extreme (though I expect most couples will be served better by something in the middle).
Practically, my partner and I are also somewhere in the middle, neither optimising exclusively for my partner’s work impact, nor exclusively for equality. Probably compared to the UK norm we’re towards the work impact end, but I’m a bit unsure.
How to choose
How do you work out what the right balance is for you?
At the moment, I prefer to think about decisions about how to trade my time with my partner’s time in terms of my own goals - rather than in terms of abstract principles, be they EA or feminist or anything else.
What does this look like?
Well, I have lots of different goals. One of them is building a home and a family, so I do sometimes want to ask my partner to spend time with me and our child, rather than at work. There are many places where I choose the welfare of myself and my loved ones over the welfare of more distant people, and this is one of them.
But another of my goals is indeed to help others, including people who are far away in space and time. It’s not the case that I have to prioritise my partner’s time, even if it is more impactful. EA, or my partner, or the universe, means that I have to prioritise my partner’s time because it’s more impactful. If I don’t value that kind of impact, I can disregard it, and that’s entirely up to me. But actually I do value the kind of work my partner does. So quite apart from what my partner or anyone else thinks about it, I often choose to save him time and stress, because I think it will lead to more of the kind of work that I value happening.
(As an aside, an extension of this is that one of the ways that I can have most impact might be through supporting my partner’s career. There’s some obvious ickiness here: because I’m a woman and he’s a man, this sounds a bit Victorian. But I want to point out that this way of looking at things also puts a lot of value on types of labour that are usually done by women and without pay. It turns my domestic work from a petty, personal matter into something that contributes indirectly to the greater good. I think there is a real sense in which this is true, and that it’s cool to create more ways of recognising and valuing this work.)
Back to the main drift: yet another relevant goal of mine is having a deep and loving relationship with my partner. If I’m constantly putting myself in positions I feel unhappy with, becoming resentful, and then creating conflict, it’s harder to have that kind of relationship. This cuts both ways. For the relationship that I want, I need to:
- Be assertive about what I need, including when that means my partner spending time less impactfully.
- Own and accept the decisions that I’ve made, including when that means that I don’t meet my personal or family goals as much as I’d like.
It’s also important to note that my partner also has lots of different goals, and doesn’t want to spend all of his time working. Recognising that I have lots of goals makes it easier for me to see that he does too, and that in reality he cares a lot about me, our family, and my career.
Framing the question of how to trade time with my partner in terms of my own goals feels really empowering to me. It reminds me that I am the only one who makes decisions about me, and that the estimate that my partner’s work time is more impactful than mine is only relevant insofar as I actually care about it - which I do. Instead of pattern matching to how I think a good feminist/EA/anything else relationship should look, I can introspect, and create the kind of relationship that actually fits my goals. This requires more attention, but it also gets you closer to the place you want to go.
Note that this point is about total number of hours worked, but most of the following discussion is about marginal value of time, so the total number of hours isn't directly relevant to what follows (unless there are compounding returns to hours worked). ↩︎
An important get-out clause here is outsourcing, if your household has the financial resources for that sort of thing. Outsourcing has the nice property of saving time, and relieving pressure on your relationship. ↩︎
For context, I’m a woman and my partner is a man. I expect that if our sexes were reversed, this would be a much less loaded problem. ↩︎
Narrowly construed, I imagine we’re very far towards the work impact end, as I think most people don’t think explicitly about impact in the way that I mean here. But more broadly, I do think it’s very common for one partner’s work to be prioritised over the other’s. And I’m not sure how we compare to the average here. ↩︎
I want to quote my favourite bit of my favourite book, Middlemarch, again: “Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” ↩︎