Love may have conquered all things in Virgil’s time, but Rome had few two-career couples. Today’s striving, successful mates are wrestling with a new bugaboo—competition between themselves. Dr. Judith Kuriansky, a 39-year-old clinical psychologist, treats many such couples in her practice at the Center for Marital and Family Therapy in Manhattan. Kuriansky, who was married in 1969 to Edward Kuriansky, deputy attorney general for the state of New York, holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University. She writes an advice column and frequently discusses relationships on radio and TV. Kuriansky talked about competitive marriage with Television Correspondent Jane Hall.
Are you seeing more competition among couples today?
Yes, but also more cooperation: Men and women are helping each other in their careers. A few years ago the main goal in therapy was to make the woman, usually a homemaker, feel like her own person. Today, women are likely to be working hard on careers. They compete against men in the office, and they see men more as equals—and rivals.
Where do you see areas of competition in marriage?
Salary and status can be the source of trouble. Some husbands and wives think of their value in the relationship in terms of how much money they are able to contribute.
Do couples realize that they’re being competitive?
Often they do not. There are subtle ways in which they undermine each other. A couple may say, “Oh, we’re not competitive at all,” or the man may insist, “I support her tremendously; I want her to get ahead.” But there are ways in which he doesn’t.
By complaining about all the time she spends in the office. And women tell me that when they discuss business with their husbands at night, the men disparage their wives’ work, making it less important. Women’s chief complaint is that men don’t listen to them, and they’re often right. When a woman brings up something about her job, a man may say, “I’ve been through that,” and dismiss the problem instead of listening and soliciting more information from her. In other ways he can sabotage her: He won’t go to her business functions, although he expects her to go to his. It’s very important for someone on the way up to have the proper person at her side.
How do women annoy their husbands?
By flirting with either his or her coworkers and by not paying enough attention to him.
Do long hours on the job affect the couple’s sexual relationship?
Infrequent sex is a common problem among high-powered couples. Job hours and tension simply wear people out, and they can wind up going without sex for weeks.
What do you recommend as a remedy?
I tell couples to spend their first 15 minutes together letting off steam about their day. That way, they don’t take their problems to bed with them. If one person is exhausted at the time the other wants sex, they should consider spending at least a short time together sexually. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it’s important so that resentments and anger don’t build up.
What if both people are workaholics?
I recommend that couples spend at least one hour together two nights a week. Write it in their appointment books. And I don’t mean an hour at the movies. Some people get really anxious about spending time together. But ultimately they like it, and it’s necessary for the survival of a relationship.
Are husbands threatened by successful wives?
Some are. The man may no longer feel that he’s No. 1. There’s a tremendous psychological shift required in relationships today. Men in their 30s and 40s and older have grown up feeling that women should cater to men. That’s the way their mothers treated their fathers, and that’s the way their mothers treated them. So it’s a drastic shift to truly accept that the woman is equal. In the old days, the man’s attitude was, “If I earn the money, I’m entitled to some perks for that—like not staying up late to take care of the baby, not taking care of the house.” Now with the situation changed, men say they want the relationship to be equal, but a lot of them subliminally don’t.
But aren’t some men attracted to successful women?
Absolutely. Just as Henry Kissinger was sexy because he was powerful, women who are powerful are sexy, too. Men are attracted to them because in part the male no longer needs to shoulder all the responsibility in the relationship. But, paradoxically, he may feel intimidated by such a woman. One man told me, “I’m very attracted to powerful women, but I’m afraid they’ll judge me, especially in love-making.” They may choose a wife with more status, independence and earning power than their mothers had, but there’s still a struggle because that wasn’t the way they were raised and because they want to be mothered.
How can a man or a woman deal with such conflicting emotions?
Couples have to discuss their fears frankly—for example, what are the man’s concerns about giving up control? They must listen to each other and realize that they’re not going to destroy each other by being powerful. Half the battle is realizing what your real attitudes are and whether or not you may be following your parents’ patterns.
What are typical problems for ambitious women?
Like men, they are affected by how they were reared, so some worry about whether they are still feminine if they’re not dependent upon the man. I knew one woman who sabotaged her chance to start a business. Her husband had been her mentor when she was a secretary, and she felt that she always had to be grateful and stay behind him.
What if the wife makes more money than the husband?
Often men are embarrassed and women, in turn, worry about telling their husbands how much they are earning, fearing the men’s reaction.
What is the solution to this problem?
Couples must discuss what money really means to them. Money usually equals potency and power to the man, so he views her higher earnings as a blow to his masculine ego. The woman can reassure her husband that her greater earning power doesn’t make him less of a man.
Aren’t competitive women sometimes jealous of their husbands’ careers?
I’m seeing that among young executives. Many women who are on the fast track—but not there, yet—are envious of their more successful mates. They don’t want to be with the man—they want to fee the man. This woman would prefer to have his power.
What happens to the relationship?
The man senses her feelings, and he may move away from her. This kind of woman may have had a father who told her she can be anything, but a mother who told her to keep the lid on. Such women often end up turning to men who may be younger or be earning less. These men are not necessarily weaker, but they are less competitive and more attentive to their wives.
Do you find successful wives reluctant to take time out to have children?
They may believe that their being successful is what attracted their husbands in the first place. In that case, losing seniority on the job while out on a maternity leave can be a concern and figure in child-bearing plans.
Is child care a competitive issue?
Men are sharing more, but women still complain that they worry most about the children’s needs. Even though both are in demanding jobs, the woman still feels more of the burden. I encourage people to divide child-rearing duties equally. For example, one week the man gets up early to make sure the child’s clothes are ironed, then the next week the woman gets up early. It’s important to try to separate the chores from what men and women think are appropriate chores for mothers and fathers.
Are you optimistic about couples working out competitiveness?
People can resolve these issues. They just haven’t been raised with role models to show them how. Half of the relationships will work out now, and three quarters of them will work out in the next five years because attitudes will change. Couples themselves will accept the idea of stronger women and more sensitive men.