You Can’t Lean In Unless You Can Lean On: How Your Spouse Affects Your Success

(This post refers to spouses throughout; please feel free to insert “partner” or “significant other” at will.)

Most of us leave home every day to go to work. Physically, that is. Metaphorically, we carry our home with us all day. If your home life is in shambles, it’s hard to remain calm and focused on the job. Your family relationships, financial situation, and household to-do list can all have a significant effect on your productivity.

Your relationship with your partner or spouse is one of the most important in your life, and it can also have a profound effect on your success at work. Having someone at home who can help keep things running smoothly and provide moral support during stressful projects can be a lifesaver.

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Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis created a study that tried to answer this question: “You marry your spouse “for better, for worse” and “for richer, for poorer,” but does your choice of partner make you richer or poorer?” The team conducted a longitudinal sample of over 4,500 married individuals and took a look at whether Big Five personality traits of participants’ spouses related to three measures of participants’ occupational success: job satisfaction, income, and likelihood of being promoted. They published their findings in the journal Psychological Science in 2014.

The researchers reported that what they call “the crossover effect” means that moods can infect attitudes at home and at work. If things are unhappy at home, for example, chances are you’ll feel unhappy and tense at work. Bad days at work can prompt angst or conflict at home (you can double the effect if both partners have demanding careers.)

The researchers wanted to go beyond relationship satisfaction (whether you are happy in your marriage) and determine if there are certain traits that predict and facilitate success more than others. First, they recognized that spouses or partners often “outsource” tasks to each other: scheduling appointments or home maintenance, shopping, preparing dinner, and child care duties, such as transporting kids to school and activities.

They also recognized that spouses’ personalities can rub off on each other; it’s not uncommon for you to become more like each other over the years. The partner who has a strong preference (say, for neatness or entertaining) will gradually influence the other. If the traits are pragmatic (attention to detail or punctuality, for example), they may also influence a career. Finally, a partner who is helpful and supportive creates a happier home life, and that probably helps the spouse focus more at work, to become more positive and productive.

I’ve written about the Big Five personality traits before. Psychologists identify these as the primary building blocks of personality: opennessconscientiousnessextraversionagreeableness, and neuroticism. It should come as no surprise that for both male and female participants, partner conscientiousness (defined as the desire to do a task well; being efficient, orderly and caring about achievement) predicted future job satisfaction, income, and likelihood of promotion, even after accounting for participants’ conscientiousness.

Speaking from experience, that outcome was a no-brainer. A good marriage (and I happen to have one) is also a committed partnership in which both parties take on the work of making sure the household runs smoothly. Knowing that if one partner has to work late, the other will pick up the slack makes it easier to keep your attention and energy on your work.

The study concludes that conscientious spouses “leave people with more time and energy to spend on their own work— or time simply to recharge.” The executive summary concludes: “Although Sandberg (2013) encouraged women to “lean in” by taking charge of their careers to get ahead, our study illustrates how spouses’ personality can play a key role in facilitating such leaning in for both women and men. Specifically, above and beyond the tendency to put one’s best foot forward in the office, obtaining a conscientious spouse to lean on may help promote engagement in the workplace and occupational success.”


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