“This is kind of the ‘lean on’ phenomenon,” study author Joshua Jackson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington in St. Louis, told Yahoo Health. “You lean on your spouse to help advance your career.”
It’s no surprise that your home life spills over into your work life — a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as the “crossover effect.” However, the work-home connection has primarily been studied in the short term — for example, how a spat with your spouse in the morning may make your fuse a little shorter at the office throughout the day.
The researchers in this case wanted to take a broader look at the connection: Specifically, how does your spouse’s personality affect your workplace success? To answer this, they tracked the career progress of 4,544 married people over a period of five years, and assessed couples’ division of household duties, how they spend their free time together, and their level of relationship satisfaction.
The study participants also took a personality test assessing what’s commonly referred to, in psychology, as the “Big 5” traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. “They’re ‘big’ because these five constructs are supposed to define most of human individual differences — the ways we differ in terms of personality,” Jackson said.
Interestingly, only one spouse personality trait emerged as a significant predictor of career success: conscientiousness, which encompasses a number of positive qualities. “Conscientious people tend to work hard, follow rules, be orderly and organized, responsible and reliable, and they’re able to control their impulses and delay gratification,” Jackson said. “They understand that they’re going to feel better and accomplish more just by working hard, as opposed to procrastinating.”
In the study, employees with a conscientiousness partner tended to make more money and receive more promotions. This was true regardless of the spouse’s employment status — in other words, people’s careers enjoyed a boost when they were married to a reliable person, whether their spouse stayed at home or worked. And gender wasn’t a factor: Both men and women benefited from a conscientiousness significant other.
Why is conscientiousness so critical? The most obvious explanation is that, if you have a reliable spouse, you’ll likely feel less pressure at home — that is, he or she will absorb some of the household duties that would otherwise distract you from getting the job done at the office. The study showed, in fact, that partner conscientiousness was associated with “outsourcing,” or assigning domestic duties to your spouse.
The benefit boils down to mental energy and time. “If you can come home after a hard day of work and not have to do a number of different tasks, then you can get the rest you need to start afresh the next day,” said Jackson. “You can also take your work home, allowing you to work even harder.”
Outsourcing even played a role for dual-income families — not just those where one spouse stayed home. How? Working partners can still help manage finances, remember appointments, or even hire a nanny, all of which can ease your stress at home, allowing you to excel in your career.
Jackson speculated that highly conscientious couples divide responsibilities according to their strengths, rather than traditional gender roles. That may make them more efficient at completing household tasks — if you enjoy your chores, they probably won’t feel like work. “You’re doing your specialty,” he said. “Maybe you’re the person who cooks — and you enjoy that. You could use that task as a way to decompress after a hard day.”
Another factor at play: Over time, your spouse’s reliability may rub off on you. Psychologists widely agree that married couples tend to adopt each other’s traits, especially positive ones, which means years of living with a spouse who’s on top of things could eventually make you more conscientiousness. “View the relationship as a new entity, a group, that’s influenced by both spouses,” said Jackson. “If your spouse is working hard, it kind of sets the tone. That could easily rub off on you, in terms of what is acceptable, what is prioritized within the relationship.”
Finally, spending lots of time with a responsible person may enhance your satisfaction in the relationship, which can carry over to your attitude on the job. “Conscientiousness is related to happy, better relationships,” explained Jackson. “Better relationships lead to better work — you’re able to focus on the job instead of worry about your relationship.”