How did you come to specialise in the issues of working couples, Jennifer?
First of all, there’s my own personal experience. I’m in a dual-career couple, many of my friends are too, and I’ve seen us all struggle with it but also enjoy it. Professionally, I’m a business school professor and have spent the last 15 years researching careers and leadership development. In this time I noticed a trend of people telling me, “If you really want to understand my career, you should talk to my partner.” They weren’t just referring to questions like: who did the washing up? Who’s dropping the kids off at daycare today? The questions that came up were more like: how do our careers influence each other? Do we take inspiration from each other? How do we balance one of us getting a promotion? So the issue was at a career-to-career level rather than just a work-life balance sort of thing.
And just to confirm, it is absolutely possible for a couple to have two successful careers and a successful marriage?
Absolutely. In the UK 70% of professionals are working couples and they're not all getting divorced. In fact, it’s the norm now. That doesn’t mean it’s easy but, so long as you have a realistic view that it’s not going to be amazing every single day – just like any other relationship, right! – it’s definitely possible.
In the past, probably one person in a couple had a high-flying job and perhaps the other person worked part time. If there are two high-flying jobs, you’re very probably going to need outside help – nannies, for example – but that’s fine. If you think about evolution, we are social animals. We’re not evolved for nuclear families but, particularly in the UK, we’ve homed in on the nuclear family. The reality is that, even with one partner staying at home, you’re still going to need a babysitter a couple of times a week, or a relative round the corner. So it’s kind of crazy to expect working couples to do everything on their own. All couples need support.
Do you think dual careers is now the optimal model for a successful relationship?
Look at what’s going on around the pandemic right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the job market. If you’re a two-career couple, you’re almost hedging your risk. If one of you gets laid off, there’s still another source of income. Unless you’ve got a trust fund or one of you is a hedge fund manager, the economic advantage of that is very clear. That advantage also applies if, for example, one of you wants to retrain or go into entrepreneurship.
We are also starting to see something interesting relationship wise. Dual-career couples tend to be more stable. The lowest rate of divorce (48% below the baseline) is in couples who earn roughly the same amount and contribute similar amounts to the household. The reason for this is essentially empathy. If you’re both working and juggling kids or just life in general, you tend to understand each other better. Couples in this situation tend to be closer and their relationships last longer – so couples really do thrive when they have equality.
So things wouldn’t be better if we returned to old-style single-career couplings?
Not necessarily. As well as the things I’ve just mentioned, there’s been a change in what we expect from a romantic partner. Think back to your grandparents or great grandparents: marriage was basically an economic transaction; you got together to keep the family going – if you were farmers, you’d be given a parcel of land and off you go. It’s only in the last 50 years or so that we’ve developed ideas that our partner should also be our best friend, and amazing in bed, and able to give us expert career advice, and be a workout partner, and and and… These things add a huge amount of pressure, so if you can be on an even keel about work and use each other as sounding boards, that’s incredibly helpful.
Something else has been happening too. Work is becoming a much more important piece of who we are. It’s right at the core of our identity. Fifty years ago, work was a job that gave us money. Now when you meet someone, they’ll introduce themselves with their profession, “I’m Tobias and I’m a journalist.” In this context, to be partnered with someone who has no experience of you in that piece of life which is really important to you is quite jarring. This doesn’t mean couples need to be doing the same job, just that it helps if they share an understanding of what it means to go into an office and deal with organisational politics and perhaps produce or do something that they are each proud of.
Why do you think work has become so defining for us?
That’s an interesting question and one that sociologists are debating all the time. It could be to do with the fragmentation of society. We used to be defined by our community, which would link us to a church or religion or something else. It was a strong root and the community you were from probably said something about your profession – fishermen in fishing villages, for example – and that profession might have run through your family for generations. But we’ve become much more mobile – we’re no longer from where we’re from, as it were. I was born in Stoke on Trent but I live and work in Paris. So we have a lot more choice today, but we can also feel lonely and unrooted.
How do you think men have handled the loss of their breadwinner status?
I think the impact is more complicated than just men feeling threatened and clinging to their old role. That stereotype has hit women too: the flip side of the ideal man being the breadwinner is that the ideal woman is a carer, so actually both genders have felt threatened.
It can certainly be hard for guys. A lot of the social reinforcement and recognition they get is around promotions at work and the like. There’s not a lot of praise out there for men being great fathers, which is wrong. At the same time, women don’t get a lot of praise for having a great career.
For example, when a new baby comes along, in the UK we’re not quite at the stage where parental leave is evenly split. Then, as children get older, you’ll find schools will tend to call the mother about any issues, so will doctors if there’s any illness. I think it’s easy to blame men for this, but actually it’s society still reinforcing the old roles even as we’re all saying we’re all for equality.
What are the most common reasons for dual-career couples to split up?
The most common one is an imbalance of power. Power here is the power to make decisions – the power to choose. Early in a relationship this tends to be pretty balanced; we support each other and everything goes well. Over time, that balance can easily tip. Both people in the couple are working, but one of them gets to go for a promotion or something else and the other one becomes support crew. And it isn’t always the way round you think it would be – it doesn’t matter who earns the most. I’ve known a super powerful CEO who felt he had no power in his couple because his wife was an entrepreneur. Her business was up and down, so he had to keep his head down and get on with the rat race. He couldn’t do the other things he wanted to do.
When there is an imbalance of power like this, it will tend to show up in other things. You might argue about who’s picking up the kids, but the argument isn’t really about that. It’s about whether you both roughly get equal treatment, i.e. you can both do what you want to a similar extent. This doesn’t just apply to career issues; it could be another big decision like whether you move to a new place or stay put.
So being in a dual-career couple is a balancing act then?
That’s the trite way of putting it! It’s a balancing act, but it’s not necessarily a 50:50 thing. It’s about balance over the long term. There will be times when you’re crazy at work, so I have to pick up the slack elsewhere. Then we swap round. It’s a sort of dynamic flexibility that’s required, not an Excel spreadsheet that tots everything up and, at the end of each week, you can say, great, we’re balanced 50:50.
The other big piece of this is: can you and your partner hold each other in mind as a complete person? That means not just recognising their contribution to home or family life, but understanding their personal ambitions and professional goals – are there big things they want to have a shot at? My research has shown it doesn’t actually matter to couples if the person achieves their ambition. The important thing is that they felt supported along the way. For example, I have a full-time job as a professor. If I decide to take time out to write a book, it’s not an individual decision; it’s a family decision. If my husband picks up the slack that allows me to have my shot, my research says it doesn’t matter whether I actually finish the book or not.
Established couples often think they know each other, but over time they can stop talking to each other in the way they did when they were new and they would discuss their dreams. Often when you stop talking about your dreams, I think that’s when affairs come in – you meet someone new and they’re interested in you in the way your partner used to be. Relationships can get stuck in ruts and we forget we’re in a couple with a really interesting person. So perhaps we should ask about them once in a while!
If it turns out one of you does want to do something big like write a book, what’s the best way to approach that decision?
You’ve got to go back to first principles. A decision about whether to write a book is never actually a decision about writing a book. It’s about what’s underneath that decision. So your starting point should be: are you both aware of each other’s goals? You’d be surprised how few couples are. It’s been a real litmus question for me in my work: do you know what your partner would like to have a shot at in the next five years? The couples who can answer that question tend to do pretty well.
That’s your absolute baseline. Have the conversations about what you both really want and what a good life looks like for you both. Then I think there are two more things. First, what are the boundaries? One of the problems with today’s world is there is so much choice. That choice can be maddening. Our research shows that too much choice leads to uncertainty and that can be destabilising for a relationship. If you can work out boundaries – for example, the geographical boundaries of where you could both happily move to – you’re taking choices off the table and that’s a good thing.
Second, how do we prioritise each other? In terms of careers, you could say our careers are an equal priority, which is fine but very difficult to maintain. You could agree that one career takes primacy. Or you could take turns at being primary and secondary. Couples who are really explicit in the agreement they come to tend to do well because they nip a lot of resentment in the bud.
That’s how to get ahead of any issues. What about if you’re already behind? If the resentment is already simmering…
I think the first thing is tackling the issue as soon as possible. When resentment really starts to build big, it's pretty hard to walk back. Resentment very often builds not through lack of effort but through lack of understanding. Couples don’t often fail because they don’t support each other. They fail because they were supporting the wrong thing.
I can give you a topical example from the pandemic. Imagine a young couple in a small flat. They’re both working from home, both trying to use the wi-fi. There’s no home office. Who’s working in the bedroom? Who’s in the kitchen? It can be a tense situation and resentment can build. They can really help themselves if they just sit down and explain some basic things: “I really need the kitchen at 3 o’clock today because I need to look professional on a Zoom call.” It’s surprising how infrequently we go to that level of ‘why’. We say what we need; we don’t say why we need it. When you have the ‘why’ it’s very rare for resentment to build up – unless, quite frankly, someone is being unreasonable. And that’s quite rare too – people aren’t usually just outright selfish, but they can seem to be if you don’t understand ‘why’ they need something.
Are there any red lines that, once crossed, there’s no coming back from for a relationship?
Not all relationships are destined for the long term, right. But this isn’t necessarily an issue of chemistry or fit. We know this from arranged marriages. The premise of an arranged marriage is that you work at it. There are plenty of people in the UK today in arranged marriages and they work very well. Guess what? The premise of a non-arranged marriage is exactly the same. You need to work at it. There’s no kissing of frogs that turn into princes and everyone lives happily ever after.
When partners have systematically neglected a relationship over time, it’s difficult to come back from. Each one will have built up their piggy bank of resentment and it’s hard then to even lift the lid on that. That’s when you have to ask: are you willing to do that? Or do you want to just move on? Obviously the conversation changes if there are children involved. Nevertheless, I think it’s unrealistic to believe every relationship is salvageable. If you didn’t invest in it properly, you’re unlikely to reap rewards. The ‘disneyfication’ of relationships has perhaps blinded us to this. If we don’t meet ‘the one’ and live happily ever after, we think we made a mistake and wonder what’s wrong with us. It’s just human nature. Everyone is fallible.
You mentioned children there. How do they tend to change the dynamics and the decision-making processes for a nicely balanced dual-career couple?
First of all, it’s very hard to anticipate what children will do to your lives. You can read all the books in the world, but eventually you have to work it out as you go. When children actually arrive and the reality hits, it’s about having a much more flexible mindset, and looking at how you can increase the flexibility and dynamism in the coupling.
I also think it’s very easy to think about kids as constraints. When they get a bit older – mine are early teenagers now – they can be real relationship enhancers. Having a little person who wants to make sense of your work and often talk about it in a very funny way can be really helpful. It helps detach you a bit and give you the perspective you need to see that, actually, that big business meeting is not going to mark the end of the world if it doesn’t go quite right.
Bezos, Gates… There have been a couple of high-profile divorces announced recently. Are there any lessons we can take from them?
You have to be very careful drawing conclusions from such small sample sizes, but you could say they follow a pattern. Relationship breakups are not linear across time. There are certain periods when there’s a much higher risk of breakup. With those two couples, the split has happened at a time that is classically higher for breakups – when the children have left home. I have no idea what happened in these particular cases, but you do see it a lot: the children leave, you turn to each other and suddenly think, who are you? Because the practicalities of family life have got in the way of those conversations about goals and ambitions again.
The couples who tend to get past these transition points are the ones who managed to keep those conversations going – not every night, but they made time to make sure they had them even once or twice a year.
We’ve touched on it briefly, but have you got any early thoughts on how the pandemic has changed things for dual-career couples?
In the immediate term I think it’s had a massive impact on desire in relationships. What attracts us to our partner is not sitting next to them in their pyjamas with a computer on their lap. Desire is a counterintuitive thing: we want what we can’t quite have. Very often we’re most attracted to our partner when, for example, we’re at a party and we see them talking to other people across the room, or perhaps we see them performing well in a professional setting. When we’re both at home all the time, we never get the opportunity to experience that distance. By distance, I don’t mean absence!
So there’s going to be a question about how we get back that distance, but at the same time blended working could be a huge benefit for working couples. So many of their pain points are around simple things like who can be around to let the boiler repairman in – and that’s before I mention the logistics of kids. I don’t believe full-time home working is healthy for most people and there’s no evidence to say it is, but I do think blended working could be helpful.
Any final words of advice for us, Jennifer?
This stuff about talking is not quite common sense, but it’s not rocket science either. If you’ve reached a crisis point in a relationship, counsellors and therapists can be helpful, but I think there are pointers you can follow to avoid all of that. Conversations about goals and ambitions go beyond practicalities, but they’re not existential crisis conversations we need to get worked up about. They’re just the conversations you would have had very freely when you first got together. It’s just about rekindling that habit. It really shouldn’t be scary. And if you’re worred about looking under that particular rock because of what you might find, my research says those fears are almost always completely exaggerated.
Jennifer Petriglieri is associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD business school. Find out more about her book, Couples That Work, here.
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