ADVICE

Talk It Out

How to make decisions with your sweetheart about love, work, home, and family.

July 17, 2023

Reading time min

An illustration of a couple, both sitting on a couch. One is thinking about money problems, the other just thinking. Behind them on the wall is their shadows, but their shadows are kissing.

Illustration: Michele McCammon

When Abby Rubin Davisson, MA ’08, MBA ’08, and her then-boyfriend, Ross Davisson, ’01, MBA ’08, were deciding whether to move in together, they wrote a 20-page research paper about it, covering everything from how they would manage finances and divide household tasks to where they would spend holidays. At the time, they were students in Work and Family, a popular course taught by Myra Strober at the Graduate School of Business for more than four decades. The paper was for course credit; it also formed the foundation of their future life together.

“That became the blueprint we have followed for more than 15 years,” says Davisson, a former president of the Gap Foundation, who has been married to Ross since 2009.

Davisson kept in touch with Strober after graduation. She and Ross were even guest speakers in Strober’s class. A few years ago, Strober and Davisson teamed up to write Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life’s Biggest Decisions. The book, published earlier this year, is designed to help readers create their own blueprint for a successful partnership. It provides a guide to some of the many discussions and decisions couples will face as they pursue a life together—about their individual career pursuits, where they want to live, how they’ll manage money, whether to have children, how they’ll raise children if they have them, how long is too long for the in-laws to stay, and why, why haven’t you called the plumber yet?

Strober, a professor emerita of education, is a labor economist by training. Her dissertation at MIT was about manufacturing wages in 53 countries. But after she was told by one university that she would never be given tenure because she was the mother of young children, she decided to examine “the bigger picture” of gender in the workplace. That research led her to create the Work and Family course, which she first taught at Cal and then at Stanford starting in 1972—when she and another woman became the GSB’s first female faculty members.

Over the years, the class became increasingly popular, first with undergraduate women, then with women enrolled at the GSB (once greater numbers were admitted), and finally with men.

Strober says we all have something to learn when it comes to balancing our personal and professional lives. “Everybody needs to figure out how they’re going to divide the housework, how they’ll take care of children, whether they’re going to get married,” she explains. “These questions transcend race, gender, and social class. These questions are everywhere, for everybody.”

That fits what Paula Holt, ’88, has seen. She’s the host of Practically Married, a podcast based on a 10-part marriage preparation program she has licensed to couples’ therapists since 2019. Her program covers some of the common sticking points in relationships—such as career goals, sex, and money—but also less obvious obstacles, including mental health.

According to Strober, Davisson, and Holt, good decision-making in a relationship—a process that takes each partner’s needs and desires into account—requires a level of communication and candor that some people aren’t accustomed to. The good news is that we can improve upon our habits, on our own or with professional help. The trick is in taking that first step. “I always told my students, ‘The diving board is there,’” Strober says. “‘It’s not getting any lower. The question is, when are you going to jump off?’”

Start the Conversation.

Don’t: Spring a serious topic on someone.
Do: Schedule a time to talk, as you would a work meeting.

Before she was even engaged, Holt was interested in what she came to think of as “marriage planning.” She had seen an episode of Oprah that talked about post-wedding life and noticed that while wedding planning was in high demand (and supply), the market didn’t offer much in the way of helping couples navigate the realities of a committed relationship. She felt she had identified a gap in the cultural zeitgeist.

Then she fell into it.

Married since 2003, Holt and her husband made some early decisions without really thinking about them, she says. For instance, after moving to New York for his job and getting pregnant sooner than they expected she would, Holt became a stay-at-home mom. Not because that’s what she had intended to do or wanted to do, but because the pair hadn’t planned for anything else. “That was never really my intention,” she says. “But we got engaged in June and married in September. That didn’t leave time to be intentional and proactive.”

Holt says premarital counseling—or even a self-guided reflection process—is important in any relationship. “Premarital counseling has gotten a bad rap,” she says. “Some people think it means you have problems. There’s a branding issue. I really consider it marriage preparation.”

Starting discussions about finances, job opportunities in far-flung locations, or children can be difficult, even when you know you need to have them. Davisson and Holt say it can help to use a book, article, podcast, or TV show as a segue into a serious talk. (Holt recommends the Netflix series How to Get Rich, hosted by Ramit Sethi, ’04, MA ’05.) “It’s a conversation starter,” Holt says. “And it’s seeing other couples who are struggling too. Sometimes you can think, ‘It’s just us.’ Shows like that demonstrate that it’s not.”

After you’ve broached the topic, set aside time for the discussion. “You don’t want to get somebody walking in or out the door,” Holt says. “Just ask: ‘I want to talk about our money situation. When would be a good time?’”

Davisson says she and her husband often have their best talks while hiking. “We’re not in our house with the dishes piled up and laundry all over the place,” she says. “We can think more expansively, let our kids run up ahead.” And maybe crucially, they’re not facing each other. (That tactic transfers easily to the car, BTW.) “Sometimes it’s easier when you’re both looking in the same direction.”

Think like a Team.

Don’t: Try to prove a point.
Do: Think of the problem as your common enemy.

Once you’re on the figurative or literal trail, there are some best practices to keep in mind to keep the discussion from going off a cliff. Strober and Davisson offer their so-called 5Cs for decision-making:

- Clarify what you want as an individual.

- Communicate with your partner.

- Consider a range of choices.

- Check in with people you trust.

- Think about possible consequences.

Once you’re in the communication stage, mindset is important: If you go into the discussion with an agenda or to prove a point (“You never help with the chores”), you’ve already lost. “One of the images I find very powerful,” Davisson says, “is that rather than viewing the discussion as you against your partner, think of it as you and your partner together against the problem.” Your goal is to make the best decision for both of you.

Even discussions that seem inherently oppositional can be reimagined. In Money and Love, Strober describes the process of creating a prenuptial agreement with her second husband. Rather than hire separate attorneys, they used a single lawyer. “The attorney was for both of us to help the relationship move forward,” she says. “We were on the same side of the table.”

Listen Up.

Don’t: Be on your phone.
Do: Be willing to change your mind.

Davisson and Strober describe the continuous communication a healthy relationship needs as a dance: Each partner expresses their views individually, and then both partners come together to try to connect on a way forward. “It’s a dance between clarify and communicate,” Strober says. “It’s a little solo by yourself, then you dance together, then you go back and do your solo. It’s an ongoing conversation. Once you hear each other’s goals, you may change your mind.”

Holt likes to quote author Rosalind Wiseman, who defines listening as “being prepared to be changed by what you hear.”

“Most of us don’t do that,” Holt says.

That kind of listening and connecting requires your full attention. So, as basic as it sounds, put your phone out of reach. “Even just the presence of a phone face down on the table will inhibit someone’s willingness to get vulnerable,” Holt says, “because they know at any moment it might ring or you might pick it up.”

Remember that This Is a Process. 

Don’t: Keep your feelings bottled up.
Do: Revisit existing arrangements when life changes.

Holt initially created her program for premarital counseling. But after she heard from a therapist who had used her module on sex to help a married couple “start from scratch” in their approach to intimacy, Holt changed the language to encompass couples at any stage of their relationship. “It’s never too late,” she says, to have conversations about the dynamics of your relationship. In fact, certain inflection points—a new job comes along, children go off to college, one of you is ready to retire—may require revisiting past arrangements.

That said, Holt, Strober, and Davisson all point out that once habits and patterns have become entrenched, you may need outside help to escape them. Take Strober and Davisson’s example of a husband who decided, after 20 years of marriage, to help his wife with the housework. He offered to do laundry; she countered with toilets; he refused, and the conversation, along with his good intentions, went down the drain. “Conversations around division of labor are hard,” Holt says. “If you’ve let it fester for all this time, and if you didn’t let it be known at any point [that you didn’t want to do a particular task], you can’t come in hot,” she says. “You’re not going to get anywhere with that.”

Keep Talking, even if You’re No Longer Together.

Don’t: Stop talking
Do: Compromise.

Relationships are all about reaching a resolution to disagreements, Davisson says, “that maybe ‘I don’t love but I can live with.’”

But sometimes we can’t live with each other anymore.

Strober says she has received emails from former students who tell her that, because of what they learned in her class, they are no longer with their partner. Still, she considers that a success of sorts. “Better to find out now,” she tells them. When it comes to the diving board, she adds, “sooner is better; later is less good.”

Even if couples decide they are no longer compatible—or realize they never were compatible in the ways that really matter—difficult decisions don’t go away. Dissolving a partnership requires compromise, too, and having a history of healthy communication can help. Strober and Davisson wrote an entire chapter about “choppy waters,” including divorce.

Clarifying the terms of separation “can be very helpful in leading to an amicable divorce,” Davisson says. In the book, Strober uses her own marriage as an example. Her second husband (who died while she was writing the book) suggested they include their exes in their Thanksgiving celebration as part of their extended family. After a few years, Strober agreed. “It was a great thing to do—for us, for the children, for everybody,” she says.

Strober admits that in her first marriage, she didn’t do any of the things she taught students to do. “In retrospect, that’s part of the reason it was unsuccessful,” she says. In her second husband, however, she had a willing partner. “His fingerprints are all over that book; they were all over the class,” she says. “I learned a tremendous amount from him about how couples need to share and interact.”


Rebecca Beyer is a Boston-area journalist. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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