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What Makes Dual-Career Couples Work (or Not)

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For all the strategic thinking we do when it comes to managing our careers, we apply surprisingly little strategy to managing our interpersonal relationships. If strategy sounds like a cold word to use when thinking about managing our personal lives, forgive us. But the ideas driving Jennifer Petriglieri’s research into why some dual-career relationships work better than others are quintessentially human. The best — sanest, happiest, most fulfilling — relationships between working partners are often characterized by particular types of conversations. They are conversations that can be awkward and difficult, requiring honesty about what each partner wants and values — and, yes, that might even lead to a kind of long-term strategic planning we tend to associate with managing a career or a business. Learn what makes dual-career couples work and get your own conversation-starter kit in this week’s episode of Three Big Points.

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For Further Reading
Jennifer Petriglieri is associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. You can learn more about her work at her website. Her recent book is Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work. Her article “Hacking Inequality at Home” appeared in the fall 2019 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.

Transcript

Jennifer Petriglieri: As a society, we’re used to thinking of careers as investments, right? I’m going to dedicate some time to thinking about my career. But when we think about relationships, we’re really stuck in this Disney idea of, you know, I kiss the frog and then I live happily ever after.

The angels are singing, everything’s great, and then they suddenly hit this roadblock — whether it’s geography, a baby arrives, whatever it is — and our thinking tends to become very short term. So we look at what solution is going to suit us today, without thinking through the consequences in three, five, 10 years’ time.

Couples who make this work, who make two big careers work, are ruthless about discussing, very explicitly, the principles of their relationship. Now, what do I mean by that? I mean, you know, what is really important to us? What are the yardsticks by which we’re going to measure our lives?

Paul Michelman: I’m Paul Michelman, and this is MIT Sloan Management Review’s Three Big Points. Each week, we take on one topic that leaders need to be on top of right now and leave you with three key takeaways for you and your organization.

In the U.S, nearly 70% of couples are now working couples — meaning both partners work outside the home.

Many of those couples are trying to achieve all they can in their career — each has lofty professional goals. But when two people are looking for big careers and are also looking to create a meaningful, long-term, successful relationship, it leads to challenges — challenges few of us really look at, at least not in a truly productive or meaningful way.

Jennifer Petriglieri: You know, as a society, we’re used to thinking of careers as investments, right? I’m going to dedicate some time to thinking about my career. I have a vision for my career. You know, I wouldn’t think twice to go on a weeklong course to think about direction in my career. But when we think about relationships, we’re really stuck in this Disney idea of, you know, I kiss the frog and then I live happily ever after. You know, there is a Prince Charming out there or a Princess Charming, and if we can just find the one, then everything will magically come true. And that just is not true.

Paul Michelman: That’s Jennifer Petriglieri, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD and author of the new book Couples That Work. And, no, she’s not promoting couples therapy — at least not in the traditional sense. She’s talking about the need for new kinds of conversations between working couples — conversations that don’t stop at logistics or just getting things done, but that dig deeper, look long term, and maybe even fundamentally change the way we think and the way we act.

Jennifer Petriglieri: The problem when it comes to relationships and careers is the solutions we see tend to be on the surface level. You know, economics — how do we fix this financially? Childcare. Geography. These things are important, but they’re never really what’s going on in a couple. When we diagnose those issues and think about them, they’re almost always issues of power. For example, who has the power to shoot for what they want in this couple? And who gets supported and who’s the supported one? Whose career takes priority, and whose career takes a back seat? And when couples jump into that solution mode, although it’s very natural and understandable, they tend to store up problems for themselves later on.

Paul Michelman: Petriglieri set out to look at all kinds of couples — ones with equally successful careers, ones where one partner has a more intense career than the other, and ones where people alternate who has the primary career over the course of their relationship. And she found that across all types of relationships, couples will hit a few major roadblocks or transition periods.

Jennifer Petriglieri: The first transition is the time when we first come together as a couple and we face our first significant life event. So it could be one of us gets offered a job on the other side of the country. You know, we have to make a choice. Does one person follow that person? Do we go our separate ways? Do we try and make it work long distance? It could be the arrival of children. You know, this is the time when we really have to integrate our lives.

Paul Michelman: At this stage, there are a handful of common traps that couples fall into instead of having the conversations they really need to have.

Jennifer Petriglieri: The first one was over-relying on economic decision criteria. So, who earns the most money? Let’s prioritize that person’s career. How much does childcare cost? How much should we work versus stay at home to facilitate that? Now of course, money is important for all of us. Very few of us are wealthy enough to not worry about money. However, almost none of us live for the dollars in our bank account alone. We all live for other meaningful things in our life — having a meaningful career, growth opportunities, living close to family, etc., etc. And what I found was, although it seemed very rational and sensible to make big decisions based on finances alone, it always came back to bite couples later.

Paul Michelman: Another big problem at this stage? Honeymoon syndrome.

Jennifer Petriglieri: Very related to that was a real short-term bias that couples had at this stage where, of course, they were faced with their first big issue. So they’d been sailing along in this lovely honeymoon period. The angels are singing, everything’s great, and then they suddenly hit this roadblock — whether it’s geography, a baby arrives, whatever it is — and our thinking tends to become very short term. So we look at what solution is going to suit us today, without thinking through the consequences in three, five, 10 years’ time.

Paul Michelman: Couples also tend to make the mistake of overvaluing practical concerns.

Jennifer Petriglieri: When it comes to our home life, we’re all about the practicalities, right? Whose turn is it to take the trash out? You know, who’s picking up the children from childcare? These kinds of things. We don’t spend enough time applying the deep thinking we do in our careers to our relationship. These are conversations we all crave, but we’re not used to having them, so they can feel a little bit frightening. It’s really a question of “Can we be deliberate about what we desire from each other and from our relationship?” and when we just focus on these practical issues, we miss that.

Paul Michelman: Finally, we often just ignore the problem entirely and do our best to muscle through a big life change.

Jennifer Petriglieri: How many times are we told we cannot have it all? All the time. And yet, what I found in their early years is that most couples act as if maybe we could get away with it. What that does is it drives us into a trap of trying to do it all and trying to do too much. And this really piles on the stress and essentially leads to burnout in couples. So let’s take the scenario where we’ve had a new baby, right? We still want to maintain our social lives, be in the community, have our careers going full pelt, have an amazing relationship, the house needs to be perfectly tidy. At times like these transition periods, it’s really important that couples make some choices and say, “OK, these three or four things, these are the priorities.”

Paul Michelman: When she set out on this research project, Petriglieri hoped to identify the best strategy for dual-career couples. But she ultimately found there isn’t always going to be that easy answer — that this is about the process. And that process requires conversations, the kinds of conversations many couples find uncomfortable.

Jennifer Petriglieri: Couples who make this work are ruthless about discussing very explicitly the principles of their relationship. You know, what is really important to us? What are the yardsticks by which we’re going to measure our lives? They’re very clear on what their priorities are. And they’re ruthless about dropping the things that just don’t align. The second thing these couples do is talk about what are the lines we’re not going to cross. It might be geography — you know, we’ve both got these big careers, but we would never consider a move to whatever city or country in the world. It might be about time, right? We’ve both got these big careers, but if you travel more than 30%, that’s really going to negatively impact my career. And what surprised me in these couples is the couples who were supporting each other the most in some ways have the most challenging lives. But the way they thought about that challenge was, you know, this is a struggle we have chosen — it’s our struggle, and it’s our big adventure. So they didn’t see those challenges as a negative. They really found them as a choice and something that they welcomed in their lives.

Paul Michelman: So there isn’t a perfect answer for everyone. But we all face certain common challenges, and Petriglieri’s work gives us both a shared vocabulary and a set of frameworks that help us navigate our way forward.

Jennifer Petriglieri: To change the way we talk about these issues and to change the conversations we have in our couples and also in our workplaces and in society more broadly. And I think you are dead right: We don’t have, or we haven’t had, the language or the frameworks to talk through these things. We feel the struggle, but we’re not really sure how to talk about it and how to think about it. And really, my key ambition for the book is to say to people, you know, we’re all in this together, we’re all struggling with this, and here’s a way of thinking about it that might help us talk through these issues.

Paul Michelman: That’s Jennifer Petriglieri, author of Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work.

OK, let’s wrap it up: three big points about what dual-career couples should start doing today.

Number one: Start talking about the stuff that matters.

Jennifer Petriglieri: I think your listeners can do this, this evening: Go home and develop the habit of having conversations with their partner about the principles of their relationship before they focus on the practicalities. What do I mean by that? I mean really sitting down and understanding what matters to each other. That might be a career goal. It might be, “Who do we want to be as a couple?” When we understand these principles, we can really work to support each other.

Paul Michelman: Number two: Rethink how you support each other.

Jennifer Petriglieri: The way we tend to think of a supportive relationship in the U.S. is, if I can use a British analogy, tea and sympathy, right? I’m going to plump up your self-esteem and make you feel good about yourself. And that’s wonderful. But it’s not enough to sustain two big careers in a relationship. If we want to sustain two big careers, we need to flip to a model that I call a secure-base relationship, which is a type of psychological support. When we see our partner disgruntled by something, we need to not keep them in the comfort zone of our relationship, but instead push them out and say, “OK, if you’re not happy with this, go and explore.” And what I found time and time again in the research is, the couples who could push each other to be better, to push each other to go for gold in their career or in whatever they were pursuing, were the couples who really thrived.

Paul Michelman: Number three: And this is an important complement to number two — practice kindness.

Jennifer Petriglieri: Now, the way to think about kindness tends to be, “Am I doing kind things for my partner?” You know, am I buying them the little gifts, letting them have a lie-in at the weekend, giving them compliments? This is all nice. What’s more important is, “Am I thinking kindly of my partner?” So when my partner does something — for example, arrives home without the milk I asked them to buy — what do I think? Do I think they’re lazy, they couldn’t care less? Or do I think, “You know what? Maybe they’ve had a bad day; they wouldn’t normally do that.” What we find in the research is when we can think kindly of our partner, when couples can do this, it makes a whole world of difference in that relationship. And couples who have this element of kindness really baked in can overcome pretty much any adversity together.

Paul Michelman: That’s this week’s Three Big Points. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and wherever fine podcasts are streamed. We will be forever in your debt if you’d take a moment to rate our program or post a review on Apple Podcasts.

Three Big Points is produced by Mary Dooe. Music by Matt Reed. Marketing and audience development by Desiree Barry. Our coordinating producer is Mackenzie Wise.

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Hemanth Kumar M S
Thanks for this session. Helped me in understanding my better half better and confirmed to me on the stuff that I was doing right already.
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