New book 'Couples That Work' looks at how dual-career relationships survive and thrive

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PHOTO: A couple fights in an undated stock photo. PlaySTOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
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Jennifer Petriglieri, an award-winning researcher and teacher, is an associate professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, where she directs the Executive Education Management Acceleration Programme and the Women Leaders Programme. Also, an influential author on the topic of management, she's out with her new book, "Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work." You can read an excerpt below.

As Cheryl lay in her hospital bed beside her newborn baby, she couldn’t have been happier. She had saved enough to take a three-month unpaid maternity leave from her job in a financial services firm and was relishing the thought of spending long days learning to be a mom to little Annabel. It meant a lot to her. Throughout her childhood, Cheryl had often had to worry about money, and as a young adult, she had worked hard to make sure that her own children would not have to. Her dream was coming true, and she was proud of it. She was a bit nervous, too, about the bigger apartment that she and Mark had bought -- they had stretched their budget to make it possible -- but she was grateful that Mark’s salary would help cover their expenses while she was on leave.

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Cheryl was suddenly distracted from her reverie when Mark bounded into the room, his face beaming, bearing the bag of baby clothes they had forgotten in their dash to the hospital. For the past two years, he had put up with a corporate job he hated while networking like mad to move into the startup world. The move had proved elusive, but the birth of Annabel had clearly improved his mood.

PHOTO: Couples That Work Jennifer Petriglieri Harvard Business Review Press
Couples That Work Jennifer Petriglieri

Mark kissed Cheryl and picked Annabel up, staring into her eyes as she yawned. “I told you they would be just like yours,” he said, then blurted out, “Guess what?” He seemed giddy with excitement.

“What?” replied Cheryl expectantly. “I just got a call from Sebastien. He secured the first round of funding for his startup, and wants me to join it!”

The blood drained from Cheryl’s face. This was exactly the kind of move that Mark had dreamed of, but joining an early-stage startup would mean a huge drop in salary -- maybe no salary at all. Their scanty savings and their new mortgage meant that Cheryl would have to go back to work after just a few weeks. Trying to be supportive, she said, “That’s so great! Let’s talk about the timing once we get home.”

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We can’t, darling, I’m sorry, Sebastien is moving fast and the time is now,” Mark answered, squeezing Cheryl’s hand. “I’ve already resigned. I start there on Monday!” ----- Cheryl and Mark are real people; I have only changed their names. They are one of many couples I spoke to in researching this book. Their story -- which we’ll come back to in chapter 2 -- highlights a common theme I heard: so often, for dual-career couples, carefully plotted plans are upended by unexpected events, and the happiest moments in life overlap with sudden changes and challenges. The greatest opportunities spark the toughest, and most revealing, conversations. The most meaningful personal decisions seem to coincide with the most consequential professional opportunities.

While the challenges dual-career couples face are fairly well known, there is a surprising lack of meaningful guidance available on how to deal with them. Most career advice is targeted at individuals, treating major career decisions as if we’re flying solo -- without partners, children, siblings, friends, or aging parents to consider.

Moreover, most advice for couples focuses on their personal relationship, not the way it intersects with professional dreams. Even then, couples are bombarded with blanket prescriptions on what they should do: “Divide the housework equally,” “Strike a balance between life and career,” “Make time for one another” -- none of which have helped couples become clearer about, let alone learn how to satisfy, their deepest needs in work and in love. Some even label those who strive for fulfillment in both work and love as hopelessly naive.

I believe most current advice has failed couples because it targets surface-level, practical issues, rather than the underlying forces that create those issues. It tells us how we should prioritize our careers, divide housework, and maintain a healthy relationship, rather than exploring why we are struggling with these things in the first place.

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Many of the people I spoken to had devised intricate ways to synch their calendars, divide up household responsibilities, and balance their careers. Yet they rarely had a conversation about deeper psychological and social forces, by which I mean their struggles for power and control, the roles they expected each other to play in their shared lives, their personal hopes and fears, and the collective expectations of what defines a good relationship and career that exerted a powerful influence on them.

While couples may not talk much about them, these deeper psychological and social forces influence the way they relate and decisions they make. They push and pull on people’s behavior and on the shape of their relationship. At times, such as during the transitions this book focuses on, these forces can seem overwhelming and inescapable; at others, they are just a gentle stream that carries couples along. People can be very aware of some of these forces, but others remain implicit or even unconscious. Through my research, I found that if couples don’t address them, those forces can hold them back and lead them down a path of conflict. If couples understand and work with them, however, they can ease their practical challenges and help them thrive.

Beyond Dividing the Chores

My aim in writing this book is to move beyond the practicalities and provide a greater understanding of the psychological and social forces underlying the challenges that dual-career couples face. I also show how thinking and talking about these forces can help couples be more successful and fulfilled in love and work. Five years ago, I set out to lift the lid on the lives of dual-career couples, to understand not just when and why couples struggle, but also when and why couples thrive. And to develop, based on this understanding, a more nuanced approach to guiding couples on how to make their lives work for them.

I started my research with a simple question: "How can dual-career couples thrive in their love and work?" At the beginning of my inquiry, I naively assumed that couples struggled early in their relationships, then at some point figured out how to fit their love and work together in a way that let them travel through their lives more-or-less smoothly. The further I got into the research, the more clouded the picture became. There were struggles throughout couple’s working lives, which meant that they had to revisit how their relationship and careers fit together more than once.

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As I interviewed more couples, the fog began to lift. I noticed similarities between their struggles. Moreover, I saw that these struggles were predictable across a couple’s life together. I discovered that dual-career couples faced three transitions during their working lives. Each required couples to face different challenges, and each, if well navigated, renewed their relationship and took it to a deeper level.

Mapping out these transitions helped me to understand the challenges that dual-career couples face in a new way. It revealed the psychological and social forces that drove the challenges -- life events, conformity pressures, role changes. It also taught me how thinking and talking about these forces can help couples thrive in love and work, avoiding regrets, imbalance, and slowly drifting apart. The result is this book: a portrait of what dual-career couples’ lives are really like -- and a guide to making them better.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from "Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work" by Jennifer Petriglieri. Copyright 2019 Jennifer Petriglieri. All rights reserved.

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