Our relationships are supposed to make us stronger: “you challenge me to be better,” “I learn so much from you,” “you’re my best friend.” They’re all clichés you hear at weddings and see on anniversary cards. Yet, as a recent New York Times article reminded us, relationships don’t always turn out to be fountains of support and encouragement — particularly for women.
The stats show that despite what the fairy tales tell you, women are less happy when married and our earnings go down when we have families (while men’s remains unaffected). So for many women, the struggle between love and professional excellence is on-going and often ending in loss: careers suffer, relationships suffer.
So what’s a modern, ambitious woman to do? Where can we look for role models? Please don’t point me to the thousands of starlets and women business leaders who’ve answered the “how do you balance it all” question. That’s a dead end — I’ve never found anything useful there and I bet you haven’t either. Instead, let me present an unlikely source of knowledge and understanding: Shonda Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy.
Most medical shows have life-and-death as their central conflict (and Grey certainly has plenty of that), but for the last 15-seasons, I’d argue, the show’s central question has been how do you navigate the intersection of love and excellence, the ways in which they conflict and the ways in which they merge.
Hear me out. The show literally starts with young resident Meredith Grey sleeping with her superior. Their relationship — Meredith and Derek — propelled season after season of the show and arguably still does, even after Derek dies in season 11. Yet, it wasn’t all candlelight, love triangles, and steamy sex. There was also Meredith navigating how having Derek as her partner helped and hurt her career. It starts with her subverting the perception that she’s sleeping her way to the top. Then, there’s how she changes her specialty, giving up neurosurgery because it’s better for her relationship if the two don’t work that closely together.
In the later years, when Derek’s tapped by US government (this was under Obama mind you) to head a groundbreaking research product into the human brain, Meredith has to grapple with balancing Derek’s needs and her own. How can she fight for her career and the community she’s built in Seattle if they stand in the way of Derek’s destiny to save humankind? Unsure of what to do and even what to feel, it’s Meredith’s (real) person Cristina who has the solution. She says Derek may be very “dreamy, but he is not the sun. You are.” With these words of wisdom, Meredith goes ahead and picks herself. It’s a brave and somewhat controversial chose, particularly for us women who are taught to be self-sacrificing, especially in this sphere. Her stance works for her but it’s not easy — Derek, like so many real men, doesn’t just see Meredith’s worth and respect it. He has to be dragged into accepting her autonomy and her status as an equal. And he’s one of the good ones!
Of course, Derek isn’t all bad for Meredith’s career either. Yes, he gets her more time in the OR and research opportunities (even if they’re ill-fated), but he also serves as an intellectual partner, encouraging her to challenge herself. They draw that tumor on their bedroom wall and figure out how to tackle it together. They bounce ideas off each other and share successes and failures. It’s not as simple as him standing in her way. It’s complicated.
And Meredith isn’t the only one with complex relationship dynamics. Think about Cristina’s pension for sleeping with her mentors. Burke, Colin Marlow (her professor at Stanford), even Owen — she picks her partners because she finds their brains, their knowledge, their accomplishments sexy. They teach her so much, particularly Burke whose tremor and the ensuing cover-up send Cristina’s learning and skills at cardiothoracic surgery into warp drive. But the lines get murky when this extremely ambitious woman finds that her lovers’ wants don’t match her own (see having children). When you’re in a relationship with your mentor, breaking up means a broken heart and major career setbacks.
It turns out, aligning two separate people’s dreams and ambitions is not easy. Navigating this conflict is made more difficult in our patriarchal society that puts men’s needs above women’s, particularly when it comes to career. But that doesn’t mean these issues only exist for women in heterosexual relationships. Callie and Arizona deal with it, both about going to “Africa” for Arizona’s Carter Madison grant and then later co-parenting Sophia with Callie’s very heterosexual baby daddy Mark.
In a recent episode, we see Meredith’s latest love interest Deluca unsure how to navigate his colleagues and particularly his superior Richard Webber (and Meredith’s defacto father) knowing about his relationship with Meredith. Deluca brings his awkwardness into surgery, potentially letting his love life get in the way of his learning. The scene mostly plays for laughs — it is easier for men in this particular sphere after all — yet the conflict remains.
It turns out there is no easy answer for how to navigate the intersection of love and excellence. Remember that episode in season six “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked,” when the residents discuss “if you had to choose between the thing you love, surgery, and the person you love, which would you choose?” Of course, it’s Cristina asking the question (because she’s facing it with the Owen-Teddy-Cristina love triangle to end all love triangles). And of course, Cristina chooses surgery while Izzie chooses love. But the rest of the group is unsure. Meredith tries not to answer, advising her friend not talk about it. Cristina only sort of heeds her advice, declaring later to Teddy, “I choose surgery over a guy. I’m not gonna apologize for it, especially to you… I want to be great, and I want to learn from you. I choose my gift.” And the episode ends with a tense conversation between Meredith and Derek in which she tells him “in the choice between surgery and love, You chose surgery. You chose ambition today.” And he responds, “so did you… We’re the same.”
These discussions where we clearly name how our relationships hinder and help our professional ambitions are rare. They’re infrequent in real life and on screen — even broaching the subject can be taboo. But they are vital to address the gender gap at home and in the workplace. How else do we suss out our personal priorities, get the support we need (from our partners and friends), and make the best decisions? We can’t unless we know what we are facing. So let’s follow Shonda Rhimes’s lead and recognize the intersections of love and excellence. It’ll be good for all of us.