Dual-earner couples are on the rise. Many of these are dual-career couples: Both partners are highly educated, work full-time in demanding professional or managerial jobs and see themselves on an upward path in their roles.
Because their working lives and personal lives are deeply intertwined, dual-career couples face unique challenges. How do they decide whose job to relocate for, when it's OK for one partner to make a risky career change or who will leave work early to pick up a sick child from school? How can they give family commitments — and each other — their full attention while both of them are working in demanding roles? And when one of them wants to undertake a professional reinvention, what does that mean for the other?
My research revealed that dual-career couples overcome their challenges by directly addressing deeper psychological and social forces. I also discovered that three transition points typically occur during dual-career couples' working and love lives, when those forces are particularly strong. By understanding each transition and knowing what questions to ask each other and what traps to avoid, dual-career couples can emerge stronger, fulfilled in their relationships and in their careers.
TRANSITION 1: WORKING AS A COUPLE
The first transition that dual-career couples must navigate often comes as a response to the first major life event they face together. To adapt, the partners must negotiate how to prioritise their careers and divide family commitments. Doing so in a way that lets them both thrive requires an underlying shift: They must move from having parallel, independent careers and lives to having interdependent ones.
My research shows two common traps for couples negotiating their way through their first transition:
CONCENTRATING EXCLUSIVELY ON THE PRACTICAL
In the first transition, couples often look for logistical solutions to their challenges. Instead of simply negotiating over calendars and to-do lists, couples must understand, share and discuss the emotions, values and fears underlying their decisions.
BASING DECISIONS PRIMARILY ON MONEY
Many couples focus on economic gain as they decide where to live, whose career to prioritise and who will do the majority of the child care. But as sensible (and sometimes unavoidable) as this is, it often means that their decisions end up at odds with their other values and desires.
Couples who are successful discuss the foundations and the structure of their joint path forward. There are three basic models to consider: 1. In primary-secondary, one partner's career takes priority over the other's for the duration of their working lives. The primary person dedicates more time to work and less to the family and his or her professional commitments usually come before the secondary person's. 2. In turn-taking, the partners agree to periodically swap the primary and secondary positions. 3. In double-primary, they continually juggle two primary careers.
TRANSITION 2: REINVENTING THEMSELVES
The second transition often begins when one partner re-examines a career or life path. That person must reflect on questions such as: What led me to this impasse? Why did I make the choices I made? Who am I? Such individual reflection and exploration can lead couples to the first trap of the second transition:
MISTRUST AND DEFENSIVENESS
Living with a partner who is absorbed in exploring new paths can feel threatening. Painful questions surface: Why is my partner not satisfied? Is this a career problem or a relationship problem? Am I to blame? These doubts can lead to mistrust and defensiveness, which may push the exploring partner to withdraw further from the relationship, making the other even more mistrustful and defensive, until eventually the relationship itself becomes an obstacle to individuation, rather than a space for it.
In such a situation, people should first be open about their concerns and let their partners reassure them that the angst is not about them or the relationship. Next, they should adopt what literary critics call suspension of disbelief — that is, faith that the things they have doubts about will unfold in interesting ways and are worth paying attention to. This attitude will both enrich their own lives and make their partners' exploration easier.
Finally, they should understand their role as supporters. Psychologists call this role in a relationship the secure base and see it as vital to the other partner's growth. Being a secure base for a partner presents its own trap, however:
In some couples, one partner consistently supports the other without receiving support in return. It is important to remember that acting as a secure base does not mean annihilating your own wishes, atoning for past selfishness or being perfect. You can be a wonderful supporter for your partner while requesting support in return and taking time for yourself.
TRANSITION 3: LOSS AND OPPORTUNITY
The third transition is typically triggered by shifting roles later in life, which often create a profound sense of loss. Careers plateau or decline; bodies are no longer what they once were; children, if there are any, leave home.
Although loss usually triggers it, the third transition heralds opportunity. Chances for late-in-life reinvention abound, especially in today's world. Life expectancy is rising across the globe, and older couples may have several decades of reasonably good health and freedom from intensive parenting responsibilities.
The third transition also has its traps:
I found that the most common challenge in managing this transition was overcoming regret about perceived failures in the way the partners had "worked" as a couple. To move through the third transition, couples must acknowledge how they got where they are and commit to playing new roles for each other in the future.
By the time a couple reaches the third transition, reinvention may be beyond consideration. In addition, because previous generations retired earlier, didn't live as long and didn't have access to the gig economy, many couples lack role models for what reinvention can look like at this stage of life. If they don't deliberately broaden their horizons, they miss opportunities to discover themselves anew.
The challenges couples face at each transition are different but linked. No one right path or solution exists for meeting these challenges. Although the 50/50 marriage — in which housework and child care are divided equally between the partners, and their careers are perfectly synced — may seem like a noble ideal, my research suggests that instead of obsessively trying to maintain an even "score," dual-career couples are better off being relentlessly curious, communicative and proactive in making choices about combining their lives.
A guide to couple contracting
Drawing on my research, I've developed a systematic tool to help dual-career couples who are facing any of the three transitions described in this article. I call it couple contracting, because to shape their joint path, partners must address three areas — values, boundaries and fears — and find common ground in each. Values define the direction of your path, boundaries set its borders and fears reveal the potential cliffs to avoid on either side. Sharing a clear view in these three domains will make it easier to negotiate and overcome the challenges you encounter together.
First, take some time on your own to write down your thoughts about each of the three areas. Then share your reflections with each other. Listen to and acknowledge each other's responses, resisting any temptation to diminish or discount your partner's fears. Next, note where you have common ground and where your values and boundaries diverge. No couple has perfect overlap in those two areas, but if they are too divergent, negotiate a middle ground. If, for example, one of you could tolerate living apart for a period but the other could not, you'll need to shape a boundary that works for both of you.
When our choices and actions align with our values, we feel content; when they don't, we feel stressed and unhappy. Openly discussing your values will make it easier to make choices that align with them. For example, if you and your partner know you both greatly value family time, you'll be clear that neither of you should take a job requiring 70-hour workweeks.
Questions to ask each other: What makes you happy and proud? What gives you satisfaction? What makes for a good life?
Setting clear boundaries together allows you to make big decisions more easily. Consider three types of boundaries: place, time and presence.
Questions to ask each other: Are there places where you'd love to work and live at some point in your life? Are there places you'd prefer to avoid? Understanding that we may sometimes have to put in more hours than we'd like, how much work is too much? How would you feel about our taking jobs in different cities and living apart for a period? For how long? How much work travel is too much, and how will we juggle travel between us?
Monitoring each other's fears can help you spot trouble and take preventive action before your relationship enters dangerous territory. Many fears are endemic to relationships and careers: You may worry that your partner's family will encroach on your relationship, that over time the two of you will grow apart, that your partner will have an affair, that you will have to sacrifice your career for your partner's or that you may not be able to have children. But sharing these fears allows you to build greater empathy and support. If you know that your partner is worried about the role of your parents in your lives, for example, you are more likely to manage the boundary between them and your partnership sensitively. Likewise, if you are interested in a risky career transition but worried that financial commitments would prevent it, you might agree to cut back on family spending in order to build a buffer.
Questions to ask each other: What are your concerns for the future? What's your biggest fear about how our relationship and careers interact? What do you dread might happen in our lives?
Written by: Harvard Business Review
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