Winter 1997, Vol. 4, No. 1
A Couple of Social Workers
by Barbara Trainin Blank
When social workers fall in love, does the principle of "opposites attract" apply? Will a social worker be more likely to marry, say, a mathematician or a businessperson than a fellow practitioner? If a social worker does choose another social worker as a partner, does that doom their children to overanalysis and the partners themselves to a competitive relationship in which professional lingo stifles genuine communication?
Those questions will not be answered here in any scientific manner. The New Social Worker has done no surveys or studies. Several social work couples have been interviewed to find out if, overall, they view having a joint profession as a plus or a minus (or irrelevant) in their lives and how they deal with the challenges it poses.
The Way They Met
For a number of couples, social work was the vehicle through which they met and that formed their initial attachment.
Sam Hickman, who is now executive director of the West Virginia Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and a member of The New Social Worker editorial advisory board, met his wife, Elizabeth (Betsy) J. Kent, at a state board meeting of the National Association of Social Workers. Betsy, currently an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry at West Virginia University, was the board secretary. She arrived late to the meeting, and Sam volunteered to take the minutes in her place.
"We stayed afterward and talked," recalls Sam.
"I was looking for someone in the field," says Betsy, "someone who could understand what I was working on and be interested in it."
Hickman and Kent have been together 13 years, 10 of them as a married couple.
For nine years, Victor Groze, associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, has been living with Zane Jennings, a case manager at
Vincet Rose Institute, a mental health facility for the elderly. Groze and Jennings also met in a social services context. Groze was training volunteers at a Gay and Lesbian Help Line. Jennings, who ran his own crisis center elsewhere, was one of those volunteers.
"Our relationship is based in part on similar values," says Groze. "We take a similar view in life. I've been involved with other men and women who didn't have the same values. This works better. This is my longest relationship so far."
Jennings agrees, adding that the "shared set of values social work has as a profession" was in place even before the two men knew anything else about one another. He also sees at least two additional advantages. "Social work helps in communication,'' Jennings says. "You get a lot of training and practice in paying attention to what you say and what you mean by it. Also, as a social worker, you learn how to argue effectively when you want something to change-instead of just saying the same thing over and over."
Joe and Judi Davenport also can attribute the start of their relationship to social work. Both were enrolled in the BSW program at Mississippi State University. She was social work club president; he, the vice president. Three weeks after they met, they became engaged.
The initial engagement didn't take, but eventually the two got together again. They've been married for 30 years.
"Our both being in social work is significant in so many ways," says Judi. "So much revolves around the profession. We have the same ideas and ideals, such as social justice as part of the Civil Rights movement. We have gravitated toward other similar people."
Judi is currently director of the University of Missouri at Columbia School of Social Work. Joe is a private consultant. Both sit on the editorial advisory board of The New Social Worker.
Diane and Charles Gottlieb, co-founders of Networks, an outpatient agency based on the family therapy model in Burlington, Vermont, can also attribute their acquaintance to "social work," though neither was in the profession at the time. They met initially while working as junior counselors in a Jewish camp for development-ally disabled children. Though they went their separate ways, the Gottliebs eventually re-met toward the end of undergraduate school and were married in 1968.
The Gottliebs shared political activism and a social work orientation. "There was an attraction, because we both liked working with people," says Diane. "That strongly bonded us," agrees Charles.
Dan Klimaszewski, assistant principal of the Genesee Intermediate School District in Flushing, Michigan, was a school social worker before moving into administration. His wife, Pat Haber, is a social worker in private practice. They met while working in an outpatient clinic and were married in 1980.
"Marrying a fellow social worker is overall a positive experience," says Haber. "It means you have more in common and you're able to process together."
Once these individuals decided to become couples, what mechanisms and circumstances did they find to be most beneficial to having a smooth relationship?
Overall, the couples interviewed believe having a common profession is a plus. Among the factors that seem to contribute to the success of their relationships are the ability to put aside work in meaningful relaxation and an emphasis on the shared values that brought both partners to social work-as well as to each other.
Also advantageous was working in different areas or agencies of social work, although a few couples who worked together still seemed to find enough "space" to make their relationships relatively stress-free. Refraining from "analyzing" each other, children, other family members and friends also seems to keep balance in their relationships.
Sam Hickman and Betsy Kent find that what works for them is having overlapping interests but not overlapping areas of expertise. "We understand each other," says Sam. "Most spouses not in the same field wouldn't understand."
Jeff and Debbie Parmley overlap in more ways than one. Jeff is finishing an MSSW from the University of Louisville-Kent School of Social Work, while working as coordinator of a day treatment program in Huntsville, Tennessee. His wife, Debbie, is working toward her undergraduate degree in social work and is a case manager in the same agency. Some of her clients are enrolled in his program.
"Overall, it's pretty positive being a social worker married to a social worker," says Jeff. "But you have to set limits. At home, we don't discuss work issues. We don't tell each other what to do, although at work we do have to discuss cases."
Admittedly, that isn't easy. Debbie has to wear a beeper, which can disrupt their home life.
"But our effort to set limits is an honest one," says Jeff. "We don't succeed 100 percent. Maybe it's 92 to 95 percent."
One reason they think they avoid conflict at the office is that Debbie "is more out of the office than in, so it's no big deal," Jeff says.
The Parmleys also relax with non-social worker friends and through different interests and hobbies. Jeff plays guitar in a rock group, which he calls a "total escape from social work." Debbie helps out with the band and has formed her own strong friendships with the wives of the other players.
Victor Groze describes the "good boundaries" he says are essential to his relationship with Jennings.
"If anyone's job intrudes into our lives, the other has a right to point that out," says Groze. "We don't talk about our jobs. We have other interests-like politics and social advocacy."
If anything, Groze admits, it's his job-with the stress of "campus politics"-that is likely to spill over into the couple's home life more. "I'm not a relaxed person," he says. "Zane has more hobbies, like music, computers, TV."
Part of the "boundaries" concept means not analyzing one another. "The rule is you can't practice on your own family, and we don't," says Jennings.
Rather than trying to get away from it all, Joe and Judi Davenport have made working together a central part of their lives. They attend the same conferences whenever possible as "working vacations." They look for professionally valid reasons to work together, whether on publications or in workshops and presentations.
"We complement each other's strengths," says Judi. "I don't work that well with other people and it's not that satisfying. Nor is working alone."
"I've tended toward research and academia," says Joe of their complementary approaches. "Judi has always been more hands-on. She founded the first rape-crisis center in Missouri."
Most of the Davenports' friends tend to be social workers-often linked to the university or to NASW-or else people "akin to us in values and ways of thinking who are not social workers," says Judi.
Diane and Charles Gottlieb co-founded two agencies and work together. She has an MSW and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and he has an MSW.
"We find writing and teaching together a rich experience," says Diane. "What helps is that we see each other primarily at meetings and training institutes, not on an ongoing basis."
"We joked that Diane would be the gatekeeper," continues Charles. "Once we got home, she'd say there'd be no more work. I learned to stay a little later at work and hold the work talk in at home in deference to family."
The Gottliebs tend not to socialize with other social workers. Each has a number of independent friendships and sometimes they spend time away from each other with those friends. "We're not locked at the hip," quips Charles.
When together, the Gottliebs have a well-developed ability to "turn it off," in Charles's words. "We love to play. We vacation in various places in the world. We ski, sail, and bicycle. We're very physical and into culture. Balance is very central to how we do our lives. If we're on vacation and one of us dares to bring up work, the other lambastes him."
Another advantage to being a social work couple, say the Gottliebs, is the confidentiality issue concerning clients.
"One night Charlie saw someone who was an ex-client and it was easier," says Diane. A non-social worker spouse might not understand, or might need "training" not to ask questions in these situations.
For some social work couples, working together would be too much of a strain on the marriage. Dan Klimaszewski and Pat Haber find their common profession works best when they pursue separate professional courses.
"Once, before marriage, we worked together," says Haber. "Since then, we made a conscious decision not to. It's nice to work together, but we wouldn't want to do it 24 hours a day."
A number of the couples interviewed made the comment-somewhat facetiously-that probably there are many social work couples who are on the verge of divorce or very stressed but that they are not likely to come forward to volunteer to talk about it to a reporter.
Even the couples who did agree to be interviewed, and who overall have struck a healthy balance in their lives, acknowledge there are down sides to being a social worker married to one.
"It's an angst trade," Hickman says. "There's a general ability to worry about things and a guilt about not doing things right."
Then there's competitiveness. "I haven't worked full time since our son was born," says Betsy. "Sometimes I don't get the professional recognition Sam does. He has more status. I also have less adult socialization, while Sam continues to be out in the community. That's been hard."
On the other hand, Sam sometimes misses having more time to spend with their son, he says.
When two parts of a couple are working together on a daily basis, other strains may occur.
"I've tried to persuade Debbie to my point of view on work matters, and vice versa," Jeff says, "but in the same context as I work with any other worker. Our philosophies match, and there's no need to tell her how to do her job. She wouldn't tell me how to do mine, either."
The Parmleys say they are not 100 percent successful at avoiding one commonly perceived flaw of social workers-the tendency to analyze other people. "But we make a conscious effort," Jeff asserts.
For the Davenports, one negative of their shared career has more to do with the vagaries of academia than with social work per se. "We were both instructors and professors at the university, and when one of us went into administration, that eliminated the possibility of the other doing so," says Joe. "Some schools won't take two members of a couple, and if they do, other faculty members may start to resent you. You have to work harder for less. There's a fear of favoritism. That wouldn't happen if we were in two different disciplines."
On the other hand, the Davenports know at least four other social work faculty couples who are not in the administrative end of things.
Despite everyone's best efforts, admits Charles Gottlieb, it is "worrisome" when both partners are in the middle of something at work and come home with it. "If one of us makes it pillow talk, the other one has to say 'cut it,' " he comments.
Also distressing is the tendency to take overboard what is essentially a positive approach to life. "If you process things, you tend to look too deeply at them," says Haber.
The only "negative, if it is a negative" to two social work partners, comments Jennings, is that their friends tend to be social workers, as well. "Vic met a guy who was just a writer, and it was good to get out of that circle," he comments.
While the fear they will "social work" their children is a concern to some of these couples, for many that concern is readily forgotten-or even turned into a fond family joke-when those same children grow up.
The Davenports say their one child, now grown, was sensitive to the presence of two social work parents. "One time she gave signs of clutching her throat with her hand," recalls Judi. "She said, 'I've had social work up to the throat.' "
But their daughter, an insurance agent who studied humanities and languages in college, still "naturally works well with people," says Joe.
For Hickman and Kent, the issue hasn't yet arisen. Their son is only nine.
"He hasn't figured out the social work part yet," says Betsy. "He's high energy and strong willed, a football type. At conferences, he already wants to give out packets. He loves receptions. At one conference, he made placards that said, 'Social Workers Club.' "
The Gottliebs have one daughter, who is now 25 and a Latin American scholar. They recall on at least one occasion, when she was 11, she turned to them in the course of a family quarrel and said, "Don't use that social work talk on me. I'm not one of your clients."
Much has changed since then. Their daughter has invited the Gottliebs to teach classes on international social work.
For at least one couple, being social workers was a decided plus with their children. Both Klimaszewski and Haber were married before to non-social workers. Each has two children from that previous marriage.
Social work came in handy when Pat's ex-husband died right before her second marriage, and her children were 14 and 11.
"It was very difficult losing their father at those ages," says Dan. "The fact that both of us had a background as social workers helped. We knew we weren't the kids' therapists. But we knew what to look for and when they needed help."
Summing It Up
Rather than believe their profession intimidates or alienates others, these couples, overall, believe it's a drawing card. Charles Gottlieb spoke of people with problems who feel more likely to turn to him and Diane for advice, "like the friend who asked what to do with his kid who had nightmares."
Perhaps Pat Haber captured best what it could mean to be a social worker, especially one married to another social worker. "It makes you more sensitive to things. The problem is, you tend to be too sensitive. But it's better than not being sensitive enough."
Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance writer in Harrisburg, PA.