The majority of couples today are dual-career couples. As anyone who’s part of such a relationship knows, this presents big challenges: trying to raise kids and achieve career goals while caring for and supporting your partner can seem impossible. Yet most advice for dual-career couples fails, framing the challenges as a zero-sum game in which one partner’s gain is the other’s loss and solutions feel like sacrifices or unsatisfactory trade-offs. Based on a five-year research project, the book includes interviews with couples from over thirty countries–from executives to entrepreneurs and from twentysomething newlyweds to dual-career grandparents.

This book is different. In Couples That Work, INSEAD professor Jennifer Petriglieri rejects conventional, one-size-fits-all solutions and instead focuses on how dual-career couples can tackle and resolve the challenges they face throughout their lives–together. I was fortunate enough to hear Jennifer speak at the INSEAD Alumni Event Geneva and her words really resonated with me and you I know they will with you too!

What gave birth to this book? A combination of personal experience, academic interest, and Sheryl Sandberg. Gianpiero (my husband) and I, and many of our friends and colleagues are working couples. I know first-hand the challenges and joys of combining two careers and a relationship. But as a researcher and a teacher, I was struck that most authors who write about careers and most corporate talent management practices still treat careers as if people fly solo with no strings attached. Then in 2011 I spent the year in the US at the time when Sheryl Sandberg was gaining prominence with her TED Talk.

Couple that thrive invest time in talking about their relationship, their work, and what they want from life.

I was taken with her statement that one of “the most important career decision you will make is who you marry.” That was a lightbulb moment for me. I realised that many people, like me, saw that relationships and careers as intertwined, but there was no research about how to weave them together well. This is what marked the start of a 6 year research project for which I followed over 100 working couples from all over the world. That study formed the basis of Couples That Work.

How has work life changed for couples in the last decade? There are two major trends. The first is the rise of the “gig economy”, its easier than it ever has been for people to strike out on their own and work as freelancers, and that comes with flexibility benefits, but also a lot of uncertainty. The second is the lengthening of our careers. Few of us working now will retire at 65. What that means for couples is that there is more scope to take turns pushing ahead in their careers, and investing in the family.

You say in your book that every couple wants a happy relationship and a meaningful career. How have you balanced both? From the start of our relationship Gianpiero and I have invested a lot in talking about our professional and personal goals, and agreeing to support each other in reaching them. This hasn’t immunised us from challenges, but it has made it easier to keep on track and make decisions together. I found a similar pattern among the couples I studied for the book. Those who thrived were clear about what mattered to them and what lines they were unwilling to cross. This helped them know what things they should pursue and what opportunities they should pass on with minimal regrets.    

The idea of having secure bases in our relationships is fascinating, can you elaborate? When we think of being supportive of our partner we tend to think about offering sympathy and praise to plump up their self-esteem. I’ve found a different form of support that is important for working couples to develop, that of being a secure base. When we are a secure base for our partners we take seriously and empathise with their anxieties but at the same time we encourage them to take risks and explore unfamiliar options. This support can feel counterintuitive because it involves encouraging our partner to move away from the cocoon of our relationship, a loving push of sorts.

Couples that are too comforting, over time, paradoxically, can become suffocating.

Words have power and you say we need to shift away from the language of sacrifice and trade-offs and focuses on how couples can successfully tackle the challenges together. How can we do this? When couples approach career choices they often do an individual tally of pluses and minuses and then think about what their partner might have to give up for them to make a move. Couples that successfully tackle challenges together approach every choice from a joint perspective. What are the pluses and minuses for the couple (and the family if they have one) ? What might a choice allow them both to do? Of course all of us need to make trade-offs at certain points, but a joint approach makes these feel like willing sacrifices as opposed to credits that need to be repaid later.

I loved the stories of all your couples and I could relate! What surprised you when you were interviewing them? What surprised me most was how many different models worked for couples. I had gone into this project to find “the best way,” the “dual-career couple love life hack.” But there was none. Some placed equal emphasis on their careers, others had a career leader and a career follower, others took turns. All these models worked for some couples, and made others miserable.

Eventually I realised that the secret glue that held them together, and their relationships and careers together, was the conversations that couples had to sustain the feeling of mutual choice.

Thriving at work and love is it really possible? YES! Its not easy, but it’s possible. And there are many couples out there who are making it work.

You mentioned that your parents were a couple that worked what did you learn from them? That being in a working couple is normal, that it takes some getting used to and that it is fun as a family to talk about everyone’s careers and studies.  

To sustain this balance how do we get out of our own way? We have all got to let go of the ideal images that the magazines push of the perfectly balanced life…the perfect parents and the perfect relationship. Aiming for “good enough” can lead us to much happier lives. Especially if it is our good enough, not some model imposed from social pressure near and far.

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