Ambition: is it a gift or a burden? – by Relate’s Sue Reed

25 June 2014

Traditionally ambition has been acted out in the workplace by men, but as women became high flyers in the work force the balance has shifted. Whereas women were seen to support successful men, they are now successful in their own right.

This change has created tension in many relationships. Ambitious women have often been seen as more dangerous than ambitious men. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth as the force that drives her husband to take the throne is seen as a wicked aberration of womanhood.

But it appears that ambitious men and ambitious women share many key traits.The highly ambitious person is generally exciting, enthusiastic, and full of life. They work hard and are more likely to take risks, but can also be intolerant of people who can’t keep up with their pace.

They are usually creative and full of ideas, enjoying new initiatives and innovation. Ambitious people take on responsibility and stress, but sometimes bite off more than they can chew.

Often self-focused, it can be hard for very ambitious people to recognise other people’s needs and, even if they do, to act upon them. Conversely, many people identify that their ambition is often rooted in a desire to be appreciated, validated and loved.

In a relationship where both partners are ambitious the tendency to become competitive with each other is a potential pitfall. Competition over who earns most, who is involved in the most important project or whose contacts list is most prestigious can ring the death knell on a relationship.

The “work-life balance” can be severely compromised if both partners are not prepared to work together and acknowledge their relationship needs time and attention.

Relationships where one partner is an ambitious high-flyer and the other is more laid back can also have stress points. The less ambitious partner will often want to be loved for being who they are and not for what they have achieved and can struggle to understand the way their partner prioritises their time. Couples in this type of relationship describe some common features:

  • Resentment. The balance between home life and work life causes friction as one partner feels the burden of either the home or the income falls to them.
  • Resignation. Both partners feel they can’t get the relationship right and will often say,” I can’t work out what s/he wants. I give up!”
  • Libido problems. Highly driven individuals may also have a high sex drive, although this has often been identified in ambitious men, it can also be a feature for women. Sex is not usually the main issue, it is more about feeling valued and fully alive.  However, if work is overstretching and exhausting libido can plummet. The less ambitious partner may feel undervalued if the sexual relationship seems to be one sided.

Ambition is an important human trait, it creates change and innovation, but it is at its most useful when we are in the driving seat and not when it is driving us. A bit of ambition for our relationship can be a very good thing indeed.

If you make promises to do things with your partner and children, keep them. Don’t let work or business opportunities pre-empt prior family commitments.

-Sue Reed

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