LEIGH MOHAN HAS NEVER harbored any illusions about the challenges she faces finding a romantic partner. Six years ago, Mohan—whose name has been changed at her insistence given the sensitive nature of her story—founded a San Francisco–based startup that helps American companies outsource digital work to women and children in developing countries. Like many entrepreneurs, her life revolves around her company. The travel is intense—just last year, Mohan, now 32, spent 180 days on the road, most of it overseas. There's also the unavoidable matter of her runway-ready looks: Two years ago, the Harvard graduate was asked to star in a fashion ad; earlier this year, she graced the cover of a popular trade magazine. The entire package, she acknowledges, can be intimidating.
So she counted herself lucky when, three years ago at a wedding, she met a handsome tech investor who, after a few lucrative deals, had earned enough to pursue a more laid-back lifestyle as a part-time yogi. Mohan's career played a key role in their courtship: He often made her breakfast, drove her to work, and told her how taken he was with her professional accomplishments. "He was literally the perfect man," she gushes. "Everyone was like, 'Wow, you really scored with this guy. And he doesn't have a crazy career like banking that's going to take him away from you, so he can be the supportive partner and you can be the career one.' I thought, This is awesome." Eight months later, they were engaged.
But soon he began to grouse about Mohan's relentless travel. She invited him to join her, but he demurred. ("He didn't love being my plus-one," she says.) Always the go-getter, she suggested they launch a new venture together, but he rejected that idea, too, confessing just how much he begrudged playing second fiddle to her career. She countered by telling him she had always been honest that work was her top priority, a fact that wouldn't change whether she wore his engagement ring or not. "When you spend all your time breathing life into something, you don't just ditch it for a relationship," Mohan says. A year later, he broke off their engagement.
To be clear, Mohan's story isn't a case of mismatched alpha girl frustrated by her beta guy. Mohan says she and her ex were drawn to each other precisely because they shared so much in common: Both were type A, Ivy League graduates, accomplished in their respective fields, both with a passion for health and fitness. Their undoing, she concludes, stemmed from the fact that her career demanded much more support from him than his did from her. And though he claimed to be a sensitive, invested partner, the imposition proved just too much. "I think men still feel very emasculated in that position. I get that it's difficult, but women do this all the time," Mohan says. "I know so many women whose husbands are launching startups, and that's the priority. Men have it easier because women are willing to put up with a lot more. Men are less willing to do that for women."
It's an increasingly familiar refrain echoed by working women these days. The most recent high-profile example: PepsiCo chief Indra Nooyi, who in an interview this summer remarked, only half kidding, that just as a woman is building her career, "that's the time your husband becomes a teenager, so he needs you." More than half the couples in this country are composed of dual earners, and in just over a quarter of them, the wife outearns her husband, according to the Council of Economic Advisers. These relationships face particular strife. Last fall, a study by economists at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that couples with a wife who banks more than her husband are twice as likely to divorce. Gender norms are largely to blame: Even assertive, hard-charging career women find themselves overcompensating in the "wifey" department once they get home, folding laundry and loading the dishwasher to reassure their "threatened" husbands. Not surprisingly, this "second shift" fuels a whole lot of acrimony. "Women still feel pressured to be the domestic doyenne," says Farnoosh Torabi, author of When She Makes More. "You feel you have to do it because you've been conditioned to think you have to do it."
But those gender norms cut both ways, with some women reporting that the ostensibly progressive men who pursued them in part because their careers were such a turn-on (call it the Clooney-Alamuddin Effect) end up balking at the burdens those careers invariably have on their relationships. In other words, they say they want a successful woman, until they actually have to deal with one.
Sallie Krawcheck, the former president of Global Wealth & Investment Management at Bank of America, and once regarded as the most powerful woman on Wall Street, famously recounts the telltale red flag that foretold the collapse of her first marriage. Both she and her ex-husband were in their 20s and just embarking on high-flying careers in finance when hers picked up steam while his sputtered for a spell. When she showed up an hour late for dinner, he rolled his eyes. "The eye roll is all you need to know to predict divorce," she says. "It's been shown by research to be a not-very-well-hidden sign of contempt. And once you've got contempt, you've got a problem."
Corinna Perkins* saw her marriage to a renowned scientist implode when she graduated from business school and landed a job with a top-tier consulting firm where 80-hour workweeks were the norm. "When we got involved, I felt like part of what excited him about me was that I was smart and powerful and could keep pace with him, intellectually and professionally," she explains. "But the day that ring was on my finger, there was a shift. And suddenly, things like my not being home so much, which had been a source of friction but not irrevocable, felt like intractable conflict." They tried couples counseling, but Perkins says the therapist pressed her to scale back on her work schedule—a request, she feels, that would never be asked of a man on track to make partner at a law firm. Two years later, the couple split. Part of the problem, says Perkins, is that she was surrounded by women who'd made stark choices in their lives: relinquishing careers to accommodate their families or putting off marriage altogether. "I wanted some type of hybrid, but I looked around and nobody had what I wanted," she says. "My ex-husband wasn't wrong, and I wasn't wrong. There were just no models for us to look to in terms of what a marriage could be like."
"We're in the middle of this sea change in terms of gender roles. It's messy and complicated, and it's going to take a long time to sort it all out," says Anne Weisberg, senior vice president for strategy at the Families and Work Institute. "In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg gives three recommendations: Don't leave before you leave, sit at the table, and find a true partner. [Finding the right partner] is a big part of her message, but it's also the piece that doesn't get a whole lot [of explanation]." (Sandberg declined to comment.)
After divorcing her physician husband after eight years of marriage and two kids, Arielle Swartz* had all but given up on finding a man who would embrace her fast-paced career as founder of an e-commerce startup. "I figured I'd be like Oprah—maybe I'd find a Stedman, but otherwise I was not relationship material," she recalls. But a year later, she rekindled a fling with an old high school friend, now a professor, also recovering from a bruising divorce. Both had careers they cherished and intended on prioritizing. How's it working out? "It's an ongoing experiment," Swartz admits. First they tried an open relationship, but then decided against it. Then they agreed to date exclusively but maintain separate households. Neither interferes with the other's finances; neither plays stepparent to the other's kids. "Some days I dream about marriage, but we never say we're going to be together for the rest of our lives," she says, before adding in exasperation, "Who the fuck knows what the answer is?"
Mohan is also ambivalent in the wake of her "epic breakup." Afterward, she threw herself back into work and reconnected with friends. "I tend to love men who are extremely alpha, men who are my equals, men I can be challenged by and learn from," she says, confessing, "men who aren't willing to play a supportive partner role." She knows that means she likely won't ever have the typical TV family she grew up watching: Dad works, perhaps Mom, too, though both return home in time for dinner with the kids. More likely, she says, is that she'll be half of a romantic partnership between two independent go-getters, two separate lives periodically uniting, but with the emotional support—who will rally her after a career setback, who will be her "emergency contact" on health forms—to be provided by her close network of girlfriends. "I think women are still socialized to think that we have to marry and have kids to fulfill our destiny as women and to subscribe to this social ideal. That might be true for some people, but not necessarily for me. The most important thing for me is being passionate about what I do. Most people spend a lifetime searching for what they want to do with their lives, so I feel super lucky."
*Both Perkins and Swartz, concerned about compromising the terms of their divorce agreements, requested that their names be changed.
Image by Elizabeth Renstrom