I like it this article. I’ll hope you too. See you later
Jennifer Petriglieri, associate professor at INSEAD, studied more than 100 couples where both partners have big professional goals. She finds that being successful in your careers and your relationship involves planning, mapping, and ongoing communication. She also identifies different models for managing dual-career relationships and explains the traps that couples typically encounter. Petriglieri is the author of the book Couples that Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work.
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
It was New Year’s Day, 2005. Jennifer Hurd and Gianpiero Petriglieri were sputtering around Sicily on an old Vespa. They were dating. This was a visit to his home. And at one stop they opened a bottle of wine by the harbor. And then quite unexpectedly, maybe as it turned out serendipitously, drew up a contract.
Not very romantic you might say after tooling around the island, but for them it was an act of creation. It gave contours suddenly to their common unknown and they each finished sentences like: I want is, what I’m willing to give is, what scares me is and then they read them out loud to each other.
So, without this relationship contract would they have married? Would they be working at the same business school now? Would they have children? We’ll never know for sure, but Jennifer believes that this off-the-cuff experiment set the stage for the inevitable choices and consequences to come. The give and take, the common pursuit of a couple, each of them after their own ambitious career dreams, as well as a life together.
So, recently Jennifer has researched similar professional couples and today in front of a live audience at the Kimpton Nine Zero Hotel in Boston, she’s here to tell how these couples work together to tackle and resolve the challenges they face throughout their lives together.
Jennifer Petriglieri is an associate professor at INSEAD and she’s the author of Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work. Jennifer, thanks for coming on the show.
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Thanks for having me. [APPLAUSE]
CURT NICKISCH: I have to ask. There you are in Sicily. You’ve just been tooling around with the wind blowing in your hair. And then you somehow pull out some paper and pens and start doing this. And I just have to ask, what were you thinking?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: First of all it was very romantic. You may not think so but it was in the moment. You know we were both at a stage in your lives where let’s just say we had our fair share of failed relationships. And we were at a time in our lives when I think we knew we’d met our match. And there was a feeling of how and we do this different? How can we do this better?
And you know I think it was our fourth or fifth date that day. But there was a real sense that we were in it together and a sense that we wanted to do things differently. So let’s just try and really map thinks out in a conscious way. And it wasn’t a mapping out planning what were we going to do next month. It was really the principles of our love, what’s the principles of our relationship.
CURT NICKISCH: We’ll get to your research and who you talked to in a second but just what do you think that did for you looking back on that date almost 15 years ago?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: I think it set in motion a way of relating in the relationship. And a way of saying what is the important stuff in this couple? What gets discussed and what doesn’t get discussed?
CURT NICKISCH: So you got interested in this. How did you get into the research? Why did you choose the people you wanted to talk to?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: I mean, I think all social science is in part are autobiographical and that’s where this came from. I mean part of it was my, from my life and it was from a year we spent in Boston, actually here seven, eight years ago.
And we were in a situation that I think many of your listeners and probably people in this room can identify with. We had two small children, two kids sort of under three. We’re both trying to strive in our careers, we’re establishing our careers. It’s absolutely crazy in terms of what we’re trying to do and we were both looking for jobs at the same time. So, huge uncertainty.
And I looked around for advice and as every good academic does, I went straight to the library and show me a book, tell me the answer.
CURT NICKISCH: I like how you want an evidence-based career.
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I looked for books, research articles, anything that could help. And I found two things. I found kind of advice on how to divide up the washing up, or how to divide the laundry. Or these stories of power couples who had everything sorted and neither of which were really helpful. And yet I knew from my own experience and from my students, my colleagues, my friends, we were all wrestling with the same thing.
CURT NICKISCH: I’ve known so many people at that stage where they’re almost competing to be the first one to secure the job offer, right, because it just helps. The world is so big, the universe is so huge with so many opportunities you almost want to start narrowing it down.
But that’s probably a mistake to approach it that way. You also found in your research that there are these traps that people fall into as they’re at this early stage, like how are we going to work this out as a couple?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Yeah. And I think what happens in this early stage of our relationship, I mean if you think back to the early days of your relationship, although you may in your mind be totally committed to each other, you’re still on parallel tracks right? You have this career you’re trying to grow. You have your friend at work and you just added on top this wonderful relationship.
CURT NICKISCH: And you’ve been mostly independent up until then.
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: We’ve been independent and it never lasts. It’s wonderful, but it never lasts. And what happens for all of us eventually is we face some kind of hard choice in a couple. And what this hard choice does is makes us realize we’ve got to figure out how do we make this work? How do we structure our lives in a way that we can have two careers and a good relationship?
And that may be for example a geographic move. One of us gets offered a job on the other side of the country, end of parallel living. Do we move together and one person followed, do we go our separate ways? It might be the arrival of a child. For anyone who has children that’s the end of parallel living for sure, right?
For those of us who get together later in life, maybe after another relationship has run its course, how do we blend our two families? And what these do is present what on the surface looks like a practical problem which is like childcare, geography, spare bedrooms.
The trap most couples fall into is treating it as a practical problem and trying to solve, like for example, finances. If I get offered a job on the other side of the country, can we both move and sustain our standard of living? But this is not a financial question. It’s a question of who leads and who follows in the relationship? It’s a question of where does the power lie in the relationship? And these fundamental questions are very often overlooked in the face of these, what look like very practical issues, but they’re never about the money or the childcare really.
CURT NICKISCH: What scared me though is reading about couples that start off on these tracks and then the power dynamic that you’re talking about ends up getting reinforced by the decision they make and so then that same decision about economic practicality in the future just ends up being the same decision again. And they’re stuck in a course for a long time.
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: I mean I think when we don’t start off discussing the power dynamics and the other stuff that’s happening underneath the practical decisions, we set off a vicious circle. And very often we don’t realize it’s a power dynamic until a long time down the road when we’ve swept a lot of things under the carpet and then suddenly we’re facing a mountain of things to sort out.
Because it’s rare, I won’t say never, but I think it’s very rare that someone goes into a couple thinking I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to grab all the power. This doesn’t happen very often. What happens is a series of well-meaning decisions end up with one person having much more power than the other.
And when I say power, what I mean by that in a couple is do I get a shot to pursue what I want to pursue? Like if I want something, can I go after it? So, this is not necessarily linked, in fact not at all to who earns the most, or who has the most prestigious job. It’s really about can, do I get a shot to follow my dreams?
CURT NICKISCH: So, what do you recommend people do?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: The hundred million dollar question. So, we’ve got to discuss these dynamics. Obviously the earlier we do that the better, but now is better than next week, or next month. And I think there’s two layers of discussions and it’s very important for couples to take it out of the day to day. This happened today and I’m frustrated with you. It’s fine. You can add that.
But we really need to get back to the fundamentals of relationships and start thinking about we’ve got to set the principles on logic of our relationship before we tackle the practicalities. So, principles first then practicalities. Now, what do I mean by that? It’s like what really matters to us as a couple? It might be specific career goals. It might be building financial stability. It might be having enough time to pursue certain activities.
If we set those principles then it becomes easier to see what we should pursue and what we shouldn’t. Then it makes it easier to make those decisions. And specifically easier to say no to things without regret. Because we understand why am I doing this? Why am I making the sacrifices I am?
The second thing that’s really important is what are the lines I’m not willing to cross? Very few couples have this conversation early on and it really leads to difficulties. So, for example, are there geographies that are just off the table? And knowing those in advance is really helpful because if you have a career that’s quite mobile and you get this amazing opportunity, but it’s in somewhere that’s off the table, it’s an automatic no and it’s much easier to say no to. Other boundaries around time, like how many hours a week do you need to work that it really starts to negatively impact my career? Having these lines again makes it easier to make decisions.
CURT NICKISCH: I want to talk about some of the power dynamics that you kind of identified and outlined in your research, but I’m also wondering, is it ever too late? Like we’re talking a lot about people here making these mistakes or what they should do at the beginning of their careers, but some people are sort of down the path already. And the power dynamics have emerged. Can you start this culture of conversation at any point?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: So, it’s always worth a shot.
CURT NICKISCH: Please tell me we’re not hopeless.
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Don’t panic. We can talk about your relationship later if you’d like. And then you have to pay me. [LAUGHTER] No, I think, I think it’s amazing the scrapes that couples can pull themselves out of. So, in fact I was talking to a couple just last week who I sent an early copy of the book. I knew they were in quite severe relationship difficulties. They had a small child, pregnant with a second and they were really at a crisis point.
And through these conversations they, it really helped them to turn around. However, I think there are situations where you know it, get the resentments build up and build up and build up and it is very difficult to unpack. So, I don’t think it’s a foolproof, it’s going to work 100 percent of the time. I mean I think nothing works 100 percent of the time.
But I think these are conversations that look, we all crave this kind of conversation. We all crave to talk about what is really meaningful in our life and how are we going to pursue it. And I think the sad thing in couples is we have someone with us every night, who we can have these conversations with, but we’re too busy. Or, we need to talk about who drops the kids off tomorrow. And my experience is that when couples start having these conversations it always unlocks something.
CURT NICKISCH: In your research you identified a few different models. These may not be new to some people, but a few different models for dual career couples to kind of sort the priority of their careers. One is primary-secondary and that’s kind of the, like the old model, classic. I mean that was my parent’s model. My mom wanted to be a career woman and my dad was in the Army and got stationed different places and eventually she just didn’t have a career that strung together.
There’s the turn-taking model of you take this opportunity now, it’s my turn next to choose. And then the double primary. Explain that one a little bit more because that may be a little less familiar to people and then we can talk about which one you think might be best.
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Yeah. So, the double primary is something that, I think it’s really emerged in the last sort of decade or two. And it’s a model where couples pick a certain constraint. So, for example we’re not going to leave Boston, but within that boundary we’re both going to go kind of full equal priority careers.
And it’s a model that more and more couples are adopting. In full disclosure it’s the model that Gianpiero and I have as well, so. And one of the things that I was fascinated with my research is, I went into my research wanting an answer and feeling like if I can just find the arrangement that works, I will be able to solve everyone’s problems.
Of course it was not that simple. And I had this experience for two, three years and I was not finding the answer. I was finding couples who had, you know 50/50 couples, primary, secondary couples who lived apart, couples that lived, all shapes and sizes could work and the same shapes and sizes could not work. And at this point, as every researcher will identify, I was in complete panic mode. My god, I’ve wasted all this time, there’s nothing in my data. And then it really makes me realize, OK. It’s not the model. It’s not the arrangement. It’s the way in which we get to that arrangement.
And when I looked specifically at these career prioritizations, I did find that on average the double primary was more successful. And I was like yes. That’s my model. Nice. I can go home now.
But I was also suspicious because as a researcher your data always initially tells you what you wanted to find when you have to dig a little deeper. And when I did that digging deeper, of course there were couples in the other models that worked very well as well. So, I looked across them and I saw the couples that really worked had one simple thing in common that they had very explicitly negotiated and agreed what their model was. And the only reason the double primary has more successful couples in it is because it’s so difficult. You are forced to negotiate.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s so interesting and it’s just magic words of course through a communication professional right, to hear that oh, we actually learn things by talking to each other. You can solve problems. It’s really nice.
You also in this challenge, this early transition that couples face when they’re building and living this life together, you, talk about the importance of career mapping. What do you find so helpful about that because that’s different from contracting a relationship.
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Yeah. So, if we, if everyone just take a minute, take a second to think around what is the shape of your career? Most careers have periods of heavy investment and periods of less. We can’t all be maxed out all the time. We’d just burn out. So, if I take my career, an academic career or a professional services career, there’s a long kind of apprenticeship and then you sort of buildup. We can think of that in medicine as well, in law. Corporate careers there may be periods where we’re really pushing hard for promotion and then we can just take the foot off the gas a little bit again.
And so, there’s a way in which we can map out our careers and think about the next five, 10 years and what are those pinch points for us which, where we’re just going to have to go full blast. And it can be really insightful when couples do this and then overlay their maps and look at those pinch points and try to make sure there aren’t too many periods where we’re both maxing out.
Because that’s going to put enormous pressure on a couple. Because the reality is there’s no such thing as a 50/50 relationship every single day. There’re always periods where one person is going to have to push a bit more than the other. Doing this mapping can be a really helpful way as more planfully thinking around OK, when is it your turn for that like push on the accelerator, and then when are we going to swap? And more dynamically juggle to primary careers then.
CURT NICKISCH: That sounds so nice. I mean that sounds really lovely.
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: It is.
CURT NICKISCH: Can you plan that today maybe? I mean corporate ladders used to be much more regimented. Certainly in some careers you know those times where you have to be getting ready for tenure and then life is different.
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: But I think it’s like the army. You need to plan for battle and when the battle happens then you have to adapt. You know, I would never advise, I mean some couples, especially some of the younger couples come to me and say, well we’ve got this Excel spreadsheet and we’ve decided that in two years and three months the first baby will be born. And I’m like uh huh. And then I’m going to take this month to get maternity leave and then seven, I don’t know, three years and two months later the second baby will be born. OK. And then, I mean this is completely unrealistic. This is completely unrealistic.
However there are general patterns that we can predict. And stuff happens along the way which is why we need to keep talking.
CURT NICKISCH: I want to bring in some more voices into this conversation from out here. Yeah, just raise your hand. We have one right here in front.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I was just curious to know what you see in your research for couples where they’ve had the conversation, they’ve laid out goals, they’ve laid out deal breakers and then there’s an unforeseen circumstance. So, maybe you have children and then oh, I got really bad postpartum depression, or someone got terminally ill. What do you use them do with the contract at that point? Is it on pause? Do you rewrite it?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: It’s a great question. So, as one of my colleagues says, nothing immunizes you against life. The idea of a contract is, and this is why it’s really a psychological contract. It’s not a legal contract. It’s not I sign in blood and we do this, whatever, is it really gives us a set of principles to work off. But of course, life happens.
For me it’s more of a habit of talking about the stuff that matters in a relationship. And so, what I found in my research and I’ll give you an example in a second is that couples who develop this habit were much better at coping with those things. So, I’ll give you an example. One couple I spoke to had two young children and then his sister and her husband died in a car crash, and they inherited three more. So, in the space of three years they went from zero to five kids. No one is going to predict that right?
Now let me tell you, it was not easy. They had a real solid foundation of their relationship in terms of what mattered, how they would cope and they got through it. Now, I’m not going to lie. It was not an easy journey for them. But they both came back and said you know, if we had not had those discussions, and of course at that point we didn’t think we were going to have five children. But they were the things that helped them cope with the unexpected.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi! You talked a little bit about the dynamics when you’re in a dual career and it seems like you’re sort of on the same type of a parallel, but how do you manage it when one individual has significantly higher resources and you’ve maybe figured out the day to day, how the resources get managed. But from a long-term planning perspective, how do you manage it when someone has significantly higher resources than the other member of the couple?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: I think like everything there’s two levels. There’s the money level and then there’s the what the money means level. So, in terms of the money itself, I think it’s really important couples talk through what is their approach to finances. And again, this is from a principle, this isn’t a practicality, how we’re going to use it. But are we what someone said to me the other day is are we a one pot family? Or, are we kind of secret, it’s really important to lay out those principles.
The day to day, when couples fight about money, they are not fighting about money. They’re fighting about power and control. And who gets to call the shots. And that’s why it’s really important to take a step back from the money itself and think about what does money buy us in this couple? If I can put it like that, right.
Is it that I’m earning more and therefore I’m going to control what you spend? That is really not great. Or, I earn more so I get to decide which house we buy. This is where things kind of go. So, money is almost always a proxy for something else.
And I think there’s another question which she didn’t quite ask, but I’m going to answer anyway which is, what happens if one person is more successful than the other? Which may be in terms of money, or it be just be I really wanted to do this and I achieved it. And maybe I’m still earning less than you, but like I’m on a professional high. And this can be really tough in couples because one of two things can happen. Either that, and of course it’s very natural. It’s really rad that both of us are enjoying the same level of success at the same time. And there’s two things that can happen. One is the person who’s on the success wave feels they have to dampen it down. We can’t celebrate my success because I don’t want my partner to feel bad, which is really sad. At the same time, the person who’s maybe not on that wave now can feel like, oh I have to put a lid on how I’m feeling so this person doesn’t feel sorry for me. Both of these dynamics are really punishing couples. It’s really important in our couple we can hold onto both sides of that polarity. Can we celebrate whoever’s being successful while at the same time acknowledge the person who is maybe in a really bad run with a boss, or has just had a career failure, or they’ve taken a risk and fall flat on their face. And what often happens in couples is that they’re OK with one side, but not OK with the other. So, they’re great at celebrating success, but they kind of like just sweep the disappointment under the table. Or, they’re so focused on plumping each other self-esteem up that they don’t celebrate success and then the person who’s been successful feels kind of like, a bit undervalued.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. So, aside from the idea of creating a contract one time, are there other sort of routine check-ins or questions that should be revisited in certain periodic ways to kind of help to steer you back towards that contract, or find out if there’re modifications that need to be made, and what are the frequency and type of things that you would be asking?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Yeah. So, I’m sorry if I misrepresented that. So, I mean for me it’s really about developing the habit of having these conversations. It’s not about doing it when you’re 28 and then that will last for your whole life. I mean it would be very strange if that lasted for your whole life.
So, within the couples who really do well, revisit it periodically. Sometimes that is their anniversary. I know for, we’re both academics. So, we always do it at the beginning of the academic year and the beginning of the New Year. Can’t get away from farther school year. And then every big transition point. So, it’s an ongoing conversation. It’s not a kind of like well let’s sign something in blood and then put it in a drawer and put it away.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, so one of the things I’m kind of curious is regardless of how good your foundation, your base is, et cetera. A lot of this is all dependent on the impulse function of stress, right? So, you have something that comes up, whether it’s something small like today I had something that came up at work and now things are changed. Or, something bigger like oh my gosh, we’re going to have another kid. Something like that. So, in your research did you find that certain types of responses to stress were more effective kind of regardless of this strong or weak underlying base, based on these conversations you’re talking about?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Yeah, so obviously we all have a different propensity to stress. We know this and we all react in different ways. But it’s really interesting to think of how do we defuse stress and we know that our close relationships and our partner is obviously one of our closest relationship, if not our closest relationship, is a really important pressure valve to release the stress.
And there’s a lot of work on spillover effects that if we can release the stress in our relationship then it releases at work. So, our relationships are very important for us to process that stress. And so, of course the stress carries over in our relationship. But if we have the habit of talking about it openly, it makes a huge difference in couples. And I think this comes back to a slightly different question, is can couples sustain two big careers? Because this is often very stressful. And the answer is actually yes.
And in fact these couples are often doing pretty well. And it’s very interesting because they also often have the craziest lives. Really challenging lives. But because they’re in it together and having these conversations the way they talk about it is it’s a huge struggle, but it’s my struggle. I chose it.
And we know with stress a lot of it is how you frame the situation. We can have the same stressor and I confirm it in one way versus the other and it feels really stressful. This is not that stressful at all. And what I found in these couples who were on paper in a very stressful situation, was that they were framing it because it was their choice, they were framing it as like, it’s my struggle and it’s our adventure as opposed to this is a total grind.
CURT NICKISCH: I’m going to give you one final question. And that is: it must have been so interesting looking at this hundred plus couples. I’m just wondering what big lesson you took away from the successful dual career couples that you studied. What have you incorporated just as a big aha for yourself?
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: So, the couples who really worked saw their lives as a joint project. Now what do I mean by that? I mean that they seemed to be as invested in each other’s success as they were as their own. So, their relationship moved away from being kind of tit for tat. Like I sacrifice this, you sacrifice that. To looking at like OK, how can we grow the pie for both of us? And every decision they came to, even if objectively it looked like you had an opportunity, how can we make this work? They tried to look at OK, what could be the benefits for both of us and what could be the downsides? And that framing of choices made a huge difference.
CURT NICKISCH: Jennifer, thanks so much.
JENNIFER PETRIGLIERI: Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Jennifer Petriglieri. She’s an associate professor at INSEAD and she’s the author of Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work. You can find it at HBR.org.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get production help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Adam Bucholz.
We also want to thank the Kimpton Nine Zero Hotel in Boston for hosting this event. You were a fabulous audience. [APPLAUSE] Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.
This is a contribution of Gustavo Mirabal to a better life
via Harvard Business Review http://hbr.org
October 15, 2019 at 12:43PM