How to balance your relationship and your career
One secret to happiness for dual-career couples, says author Jennifer Petrigliani: Talk frankly about long-term goals
“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness,” Sigmund Freud famously said. But alas, life is “not a bed of roses for two-career couples,” notes Jennifer Petrigliani, PhD, author of Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work.
On the one hand, a growing body of research confirms that, when domestic partners both work, their relationship is closer, they have more respect for each other, and their kids (if any) benefit. At the same time, though, day-to-day logistics—who takes the dog to the vet, who’s doing the laundry, and so on—“can be a minefield,” Petriglieri writes.
The big question: Can both halves of a couple pursue equally important careers, or must one partner’s work always take priority over the other’s?
Petriglieri, who teaches organizational behavior at Paris-based business school INSEAD, is part of a two-career couple herself, with two children.
Yet, about 15 years ago, when she started looking for knowledgeable advice on how to juggle the different parts of her life, “I found almost no research on this,” she says now.
To fill that vacuum, Petriglieri launched her own project, interviewing 150 couples around the world who are thriving both at home and at work. The result is this book, which is packed with detailed case studies of exactly how they do it.
Monster asked Petriglieri what she learned that other working couples can apply to their own lives.
Monster: What would you say is the biggest obstacle to keeping a relationship happy while you both pursue different careers?
Petriglieri: It’s clear to me that so much of the friction [heterosexual] couples encounter comes from trying, consciously or unconsciously, to conform to traditional gender roles, where the man is the main breadwinner and the woman takes all or most of the responsibility for the home. We think of this as mainly affecting women, since women get pushed toward the homemaker role, companies offer them “mommy track” jobs, and so on.
But this limits men, too, because they're under such pressure to always be ambitious and full-speed-ahead in their careers. And, while it’s socially acceptable now for women to push back and say, “I want both,” it’s much less acceptable for men to say that. The problem is, the only way two-career couples can thrive over the long term is for men to have that option, too.
Monster: We hear a lot about “work-life balance” and how to achieve it, but you say it’s a myth, and often a destructive one. Why is that?
Petriglieri: The idea that we can always spend an equal amount of time and effort on our jobs and on our homelife is a noble ideal, but when we just can’t live up to it, it becomes a rod to beat ourselves with. Everyone has times when they absolutely must focus on work, to the exclusion of almost everything else, and other times when our lives outside of work must take priority. The idea of a 50-50 split, where people—especially women—try to achieve a perfect “balance” all the time just makes people feel needlessly guilty and frustrated.
The images constantly fed to us by the media and the Internet—where everyone has a perfectly clean house, and they’re fabulous cooks with great sex lives, who are also hugely successful at work—really holds everyone to impossible standards, whether we’re aware of it or not. We come to believe that if we’re not doing it all, there’s something “wrong” with us.
Monster: So what’s the solution? Toss out the TV and quit social media?
Petriglieri: The first step is to stop and think about what’s most important in a couple’s, or a family’s, life together. Do we really need to bake for every bake sale, keep the house spotless, attend every single client dinner, and do everything else we’re doing? What do we really care about, what really makes us happy, and what can we cross off the to-do list? Domestic partners often don’t sit down and have a candid conversation about this, but it’s absolutely crucial to talk about it.
Monster: Does it matter if one person in a relationship earns more money than the other?
Petriglieri: There’s no harm at all in that per se, but what can damage a partnership is when money becomes a proxy for power—that is, when one person gets to make all the big decisions, from where to live to what to do on vacation, because he or she makes the most money. It can be very tense. Money is not the real issue. The issue is, does one partner have a goal that he or she feels is being discounted or ignored? Of course, life always involves some trade-offs and some compromises, but in successful couples, both parties feel they’re being heard. Honest communication, and not letting resentments fester, is the key.
Monster: Your research is encouraging, because the couples you met do manage to combine domestic happiness with big careers. How?
Petriglieri: Being very open and honest with each other, at every step, is enormously important. So is agreeing on long-term goals, which means setting specific priorities and then sticking with them. The happiest and most high-achieving couples are very deliberate about how they spend their time and attention. They’re good at saying “no” to anything that doesn’t further their long-term dreams and objectives in some way.
It’s actually easier to make hard choices about how you spend your time and attention if you’re part of a couple than if you’re deciding on your own, because the other person can help you by pointing out when you might be getting off track. I think that’s a very hopeful finding.
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Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1994. She is a columnist for Fortune.com and the author of If My Career’s On the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?