When was the last time you wished for more balance between your work and the rest of your life? If you are like most people, it won’t have been long. Over half of the American workforce declares itself very concerned about it.

The quest for balance is particularly intense for working couples who strive to give their best to work they care about — work upon which their identity rests — without losing each other in the process. Take James and Heidi, whose names I have changed to preserve their privacy. They were in their late thirties with two careers, personal interests, family, friends and two kids to boot. “We have everything we thought we wanted,” remarked James, “but it isn’t enough.” What they lacked, explained Heidi was, you guessed it, work-life balance. “We’re constantly horse-trading with ourselves and with each other. Can I do that extra project or should I say no and spend more time with the family? Whose work trip gets priority? But for all the horse-trading we still haven’t found a good balance. We’re just exhausted from the constant compromises and trade-offs.”

You can see where this goes, over time. All relationships require compromise. But the road to bitterness is paved with trade-offs. 

Studying couples like James and Heidi in depth over the last five years, I have come to the conclusion that the pursuit of work-life balance is a red herring. It’s a damaging preoccupation that keeps much more important and unsettling issues in our relationships under the radar.

Many couples debate and strive for work-life balance in the belief it will soothe their unease or unhappiness. Yet that unease is seldom about how much time we spend at work and at home. It goes deeper than that. It’s often a longing for a different partnership, one in which both we and our partners can thrive in love and in work.

The philosopher Alain de Botton wrote that “there is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” Work and love, especially when we are deeply invested in both things, are bound to unsettle and claim our selves, to give us joy and make demands. The most successful working couples I met through my research didn’t fight to balance these two important facets of their lives. Instead, they fought about what it meant and what it took to be unbalanced well. They faced two fundamental questions head-on: What is meaningful to us, really? (Not me, us). And, what do we mean to each other?

These questions, and the conversations they provoke, are unsettling for couples because to answer them in full we must examine the roles we play in each other’s lives. And we have to face how we are captive to societal expectations of what a good life and couple look like, expectations we learn early on and then place on our partners, and they onto us. These expectations shape who holds power in their pairing, what practical and emotional support we offer each other, and what commitment we have to the others’ success. Breaking free of these strictures requires putting all that on the table, and knowing and coming clean about what we want.

In my research, I found that couples who report the highest levels of satisfaction in their careers and relationships are most likely to have a “double-primary” career model, in which both partners’ careers are considered important and neither is deemed “secondary.” This is the most demanding arrangement of all, one that defies the norms many of us grew up with. Juggling two primary careers requires the most intense conversations and the most work. It takes a lot of energy and returns little balance. But that imbalance was a shared choice, making one’s work and love lives more meaningful for it.

Why does this model work best? It leaves no place to hide. It forces couples to negotiate the roles they play in each other’s lives. There is no way to sustain such a demanding way of life without frequent and open conversations about power, support and commitment. Facing these questions, however, slowly allows couples to view their work and personal choices as opportunities that can benefit both partners. These couples approach choices from a joint perspective. And when they compromise, it is framed as a sacrifice that lets them have the life they have planned and crafted — and be the couple they have chosen together to become.

Alison and Jacob are one such couple. She is an investment banker, he a software developer. They have what could at best be described as a complex life, one they worked hard to achieve. Both work long hours and travel frequently, they have a young daughter and no immediate family nearby to support them. “We couldn’t sustain this life unless we really wanted it” Alison told me. “We’ve always invested a lot in figuring out what we want and how we can get it together. It’s not easy, but we root everything in our definition of success, which is that neither of us are fulfilled unless both of us are fulfilled.” Jacob agreed. “I’m 100% invested in Alison’s success and I know she is in mine,” he said. “Knowing that gives me a huge feeling of security and an immense sense of freedom. For all the madness, we have built the life we want.”

Social norms present us with an image of what a balanced life looks like: Investment in our career (but not too much); a happy family life in which we eat dinner with our kids most nights and attend all school events; a wide array of personal hobbies; a circle of friends; and an extended family. When we step outside this airbrushed image, we are opening ourselves up to criticism. As one man I interviewed ruefully explained, “We both work long hours, most weeknights we don’t make it home for dinner, and at least a couple of times a week we’re not the ones putting the kids to bed. We get a lot of pushback disguised as ‘concerned enquires’ as to how the kids are doing and whether our relationship is on the rocks. Although I know in my heart our life works for us, people’s reactions often make me feel guilty.”

It takes resolve to craft a meaningfully unbalanced life, and it takes defiance to claim this life when it appears unbalanced to others.

Striving for work-life balance, in short, is often just another way of succumbing to social demands. The couples that push themselves to make choices about arrangements that are meaningful for them don’t fall for the red herring. They catch the bigger fish of crafting, not balancing, their lives.

Originally published on Linkedin.

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