How to succeed as a dual-career couple
or, an interview with Jennifer Petriglieri about couples that work
I am very excited to share today’s interview with you. Jennifer Petriglieri, Ph.D, is an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD and the author of Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work (which I highly recommend!) She lives in France with her husband and two teenage kids.
Jennifer’s research suggests that dual-career couples face three separate transitions throughout their life together. The first occurs when couples shifts from having independent careers to interdependent ones (this often occurs in conjunction with having a baby or a major career opportunity). The second usually occurs in midlife and is triggered by feelings of restlessness or a reconsideration of purpose. And the final stage occurs later in life, usually after a couple becomes empty-nesters and is reconsidering how they would like to spend the last years of their career.
Petriglieri argues that successfully managing these transitions is paramount to a couples’ happiness and long-term success—both as a couple and as professionals. Read on to learn more…
JW: Your research shows that couples who explicitly talk about how to prioritize their careers reported the highest levels of relationship and career satisfaction. What suggestions do you have for how to navigate these sometimes uncomfortable conversations?
JP: This was one of the most exciting findings of my research, because what I found was it doesn't matter what you choose as a couple, but it really matters how you choose it. There are lots of different models that can work, but what really matters is you go into it consciously and together. Because very often, I think we fall into these agreements unintentionally.
A classic time is when we've had children, and perhaps the woman or one partner has taken time off to look after them. And then we slip into a way of working, both in our careers and in our couple without really discussing it. And then we sort of carry on like that. And, of course, resentment builds.
So how do you discuss these things? The first thing is to break it down into smaller conversations. And I always think the real foundation of these conversations is developing a common understanding of what is it we both want out of life.
Now that sounds like a really big topic, so I tend to think in five year chunks. Five years is a really good timeframe because it's long enough that we could realistically make a meaningful transition—perhaps retrain or move cities or something like that—but it's close enough that we can imagine it. So, you sit down with your partner and think, “what is it we want out of the next five years, individually and collectively?” You’ll likely uncover career, personal, and family things. And every decision should align with that set of desires, values, and goals.
Without these grounding conversations, couples are just making these decisions based on options in front of them. “I've got a job offer in this city, what should we do?” They aren’t thinking about how this fits into what we really want from life. And I always say to couples, at least once a year and at every major transition point, you should be keeping these conversations alive.
JW: The concept of a “secure base” comes from attachment theory and is usually described in the context of a parent-child relationship. However, in your book, you talk about the importance of dual-career couples serving as a “secure base” for each other. Tell us more.
JP: So it's really interesting, isn't it? We always like to be supportive of our partners, and I think there's a real cultural narrative of what that looks like—basically you’re nice and you sacrifice for your partner. Of course that's important in any couple, but it’s not the whole story.
When I was really digging into the research, I saw that the couples who were really thriving were couples who had this function of a secure base for each other. What does that mean? It means that we, instead of holding each other close, actually in some way push them away in a loving way.
Imagine a scenario where your partner is distressed in some way about their career. Maybe they've had a bad day, maybe they want to change careers. The classic way of support would be, "Oh, don't worry, it's okay, everything's going to be okay." Or really trying to help them in an over-invested way. For example, "Have you phoned that person? Did you see this job advert? I thought you could talk to this person. I can introduce you." Actually, what I found in my research is that's not particularly helpful in a couple.
What's much more helpful is that you sort of stand back and really encourage them to go out and explore, but give them rope to come back. So this idea of pushing them away from the safety of the couple and saying, "Look, I believe in you. You go and fix it. I'm here if you want to talk, but I'm not going to be over-involved and I'm not going to be over mollycoddling.” And that really seems to be a secret source in couples—that if we can be that idea of a secure base from which our partner goes out and explores the world but comes back. It helps both people's career development, but it also makes the relationship a lot stronger.
JW: In your book, you point out that couples often make decisions about whose career to prioritized based on who makes more money. Can you talk about why this is problematic?
JP: We tend to be so anchored on economics. Of course it goes without saying, we need a certain level of money to survive and produce a good future for our children, but that level is much smaller than we all think, if we look at the happiness research. Because we overestimate the importance of money, it can become the number one decision criteria. Also problematic is that we tend to use how much are we earning right now as opposed to thinking of our projected earnings.
Think of the classic thing for new parents. The cost of childcare is rather high, so some people may think it doesn't quite make sense for them to go back to work. But if you look long term, you see that economically, that's a completely crazy decision. Obviously some people don't go back to work because they don't want to, and that's absolutely fine. But if we're just thinking financially—if you don't go back to work, you lose a lot of long-term earning power. So even if childcare is taking up almost all of one partner's salary, economically it is still worth carrying on because you need to think of the long term—salary raises, the kids are not going to be in daycare forever, and very quickly that equation makes sense.
So we need to be really careful both of short term, long term effects of economics, but also thinking there's more to life than money. And it's very easy to make some of these decisions. Let's say you both get offered jobs in different cities, which way do we go? "Oh well, my job pays $5,000 more than yours, so we should go with my job." But it's very difficult actually to predict future earnings based on current earnings. So just economically, that doesn't make sense. And also that's not a lot of money to be negotiating on. And I think when couples do that, they're really avoiding the more difficult negotiation of who has power, who has decision rights, who gets to choose.
JW: What impact has the pandemic had on dual-career couples?
JP: The pandemic has caused a lot of us to go into questioning mode. This can be really painful in a couple, but it's also very exciting. I also think there's more hype than there's evidence for. We always get the case studies of the people who've given it all up and started a cupcake stand or something. But there aren't actually that many of those, in reality. But I think what it has done is made many of us question, not necessarily what we're doing, but the way in which we're doing it.
So it's often less about wanting a radical career shift, but re-thinking how much we invest in work. Certainly we're seeing a shift where both people in a couple are de-prioritizing their careers. That doesn't mean their careers are not important to them, but they're just readjusting the balance between the energy they spend on their careers and the energy they spend at home.
And I say energy as opposed to time because it's not necessarily about part-time working, but it's about how much mental space am I allowing my career to take up? Am I working 8:00-6:00 and then coming home and obsessing about it and emailing all night? Or am I maybe working 8:00-5:00, slightly shorter, but then I put it down and I feel fine about putting it down? On the surface that doesn't look a big change, but psychologically, and for a couple, that can be life changing, just that small switch.
JW: One of the things I talk a lot about in the newsletter is that you can be both a dedicated professional and a really committed parent. What advice do you have for parents who are trying to shift from an “either/or” way of thinking about work and family to a “both/and” approach?
JP: First is understand the data. There are thousands—literally thousands—of studies from all across the world, and none of them have found any significant difference between children's educational development, their social development, their emotional development, as to whether they have a stay at home parent or not.
And I think the data is really important to combat the guilt. We feel guilty because society tells us we should feel guilty, but actually if you look at the science, there is no reason to feel guilty!
There's this really cute survey done of slightly older kids. The researchers asked them, “What do you wish most from your parents?” And of course parents think, "Oh, they'll say they want to spend more time with me." No, that's not what they say. They say, "I would like my parents to be less stressed out."
And very often, the stresses we have are partly self-inflicted. Of course there's many stresses in life. But when we feel that we are doing the wrong thing, we build those up and we become more and more stressed. So I think accepting that actually it's not damaging for you to work and have children. In fact there are many benefits. If we think of role modeling, if we think of the advantages you're giving them, I think it does take away that piece of the stress that is self-inflicted, and it leads to happier and healthier children.
JW: What do you hope to impart to your own kids about navigating work and family life?
JP: I remember learning this from my parents, but I want them to know that work is fun. I think very often we teach our kids, "Ugh, I'm working so hard and it's bad." And I think what kids learn is, "Oh my goodness, work is this thing I have to do, but it's not that great." And of course sometimes it's not that great, but work is also something we enjoy doing. And that does not mean we don't enjoy being with them, but it means we have other aspects of our lives that we enjoy. And I think particularly as children become teenagers, that's a really important message for them to understand.
Finally, I’d like to give a huge thanks to my friend Tania Rabesandratana for introducing me to Jennifer. I strongly encourage you to check out Tania’s new newsletter, Home Mixed Home on multicultural families!
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