We have moved to a world where it is commonplace rather than the exception for both partners in a couple to work. But little study has been done on such dual career couples, and the problems they face.
Jennifer Petriglieri, an associate professor at France’s Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires (INSEAD), collected detailed stories from 113 couples and found dual couples experience three vital transitions over the course of their careers and marriage. The specifics can vary, of course – some folks marry late, others divorce and remarry – but as we age the patterns occur repeatedly.
The first transition – labelled how can we make it work? – occurs in our 20s and 30s, triggered by the arrival of a new child or a career opportunity for one partner that presents hard choices for the couple, she explains in her new book Couples that Work. Other triggers might be a relocation offer or the joining together of two families from previous marriages.
The couple has to move from parallel, independent careers to interdependent ones, relying on each other to be successful and fulfilled. They need to figure out how to structure their lives so both can thrive in love and work through what she calls “couple contracting,” in-depth discussions of values, boundaries, and fears.
While couples usually share high-level values like family, integrity and friends there can be big differences in how those are interpreted. The couple must consider boundaries on place (where they will work); time (how many hours they will give to work, in general and in peak periods, and how those would be allocated over the day and week); and presence (will the couple be comfortable with jobs in different cities for a period). As for fears, she warns that “much like the canaries that miners once used to warn of gas leaks, explicitly discussing fears can help you to spot when your relationship is entering dangerous territory. It can also lead you to take pre-emptive actions to ensure that your fears are not realized.”
The second transition is summed up with the question: What do we really want? It comes generally in their 40s as a new set of challenges arise. “Rather than wrestling with the life events that trigger their first transition, couples must now contend with existential questions and doubts about the foundation and direction of their lives,” she notes. It starts with niggling questions like is this the career I want or where does my passion lie and expands into broader issues about whether the relationship itself is right, and who do I really want to be? She calls the challenge reciprocal individuation: Couples must be able in this transition to support each other’s individuality and recraft their joint path to align with both of their interests and desires. Mistrust and defensiveness can snare them if they aren’t careful.
The third transition comes between their 50s and retirement, as careers plateau, their bodies are no longer as vigorous as in the past, the children have left home and life’s big expenses are behind them. In the office, they have reached what is likely their senior role and they have become part of the organization’s old guard. They need to consider: Who are we now? Her research showed if they have shared passions – something they engage in together – it will help in the years ahead.
Often dual-career couples are caught up in the latest urgent hassle. Understanding these three passages through life illuminates the bigger picture and can help to ease pressures and achieve the deepest goals.
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