A Working Couple: How you can thrive
The most important career decision you will make is who you marry.” When Sheryl Sandberg (the chief operating officer of Facebook) uttered this statement, she put into words what many professionals feel on a daily basis. For good or ill, our soulmates have a huge impression on our working lives. And when both partners in a couple work, the influence exchange is… complicated.
Research shows that working couples enjoy a raft of benefits: more earning power, freedom to take greater career risks and a lower-than-average chance of divorce. But how do you juggle multiple family commitments fairly without having to make sacrifices to your work? Can both partners put the same focus on their professions, or must the couple prioritise one over the other? Does every decision require a trade-off? All these challenges raise a fundamental question for working couples: How can we build and sustain a loving relationship alongside two meaningful careers?
Having studied working couples for more than five years, interviewing more than a 100, I’ve found that the challenges they face are most salient at three predictable life stages. And the way they tackle these transitions can set them up for prolonged struggle, or allow them to thrive, for the long periods in-between.
What makes the difference between couples who thrive and those who struggle, is not the decisions they make, but how they discuss their ambitions and fears openly, and choose their career and personal priorities deliberately.
Take Aisha and Jack. When I met them in their late thirties, their lives felt like an endless run on a precarious treadmill. They would wake up, drop two toddlers at nursery, take a packed Tube into the city. Then they would work while praying neither child falls sick, and no misadventure befell their ageing parents. After work they rush home, spend a few precious hours together, collapse into bed , then repeat.
When they met a few years earlier, Aisha and Jack had great careers and a buoyant social life. Sailing through their thirties, they got married and began planning a family, and little changed until their children arrived.
At first, Aisha and Jack assumed that the key to keeping it all going was logistics. “With two salaries we could afford help in the house and a good nursery,” explained Jack, “we weren’t overly worried about keeping our careers and lives on an even keel.”
Despite careful planning and the means to hire help, their lives changed dramatically. By the time I spoke to them their relationship had become tense, resentments were building, and their fights were becoming frequent and bitter. The more they invested in trying to crack family logistics, the more strained their relationship became. Both told me, separately, that they feared for their marriage in the long run.
Aisha and Jack are not alone. Most working couples flounder at some stage, and many end up questioning their relationship. The best thing couples can do to move forward from this is to step back from day-to-day logistics and instead negotiate and build a “couple contract”. (See “A Guide To Couple Contracting”, opposite). An important part of these deliberations is to agree on a career prioritisation model.
There are three common frameworks to choose from:
(1) Primary-secondary – one partner’s professional commitments take
priority over the other’s.
(2) Turn taking – the partners agree to periodically swap who has the career worth investing more in, as a couple.
(3) Double-primary – the couple juggle two careers that they consider equally important.
Couples can have a loving relationship and two meaningful careers with any of these models, I found. But, couples that pursue the double-primary model are often the most satisfied. Why? Although this model requires a lot of juggling, it forces couples to build a contract. And in doing this they have clarity about what they can let go of, and the conviction to pursue what they want, even if it requires some trade-offs.
Once Aisha and Jack began talking through what they really wanted and needed from each other, they saw that they were actually very well matched. Their bond had just been twisted by unspoken assumptions. By explicitly agreeing a double-primary career model, openly discussing their fears and drawing some boundaries (such as limiting work travel) to manage them, Aisha and Jack lifted the burden on their relationship. They recognised that they could no longer do everything they once did, nor did they want to. They wanted to focus on their family, and their work, and were happy to leave the other aspects of their lives behind for now.
“We gave each other permission to just stop doing some stuff,” reflected Aisha. “It didn’t feel too much of a sacrifice because we were doing it to reach a bigger goal.” By agreeing a model and getting their priorities straight they were back on track in their relationship, careers and life.
If you are striving to flourish in a working couple, you can begin today. When you go home tonight, start building a couple contract with your partner. Discuss your ambitions openly, jointly agree on your ambitions openly, jointly agree on your priorities, career model and how you can support each other to achieve them. That way you can make sure that your partner doesn’t just become the other half of a great personal relationship, but also becomes the most important career decision you ever made.
A Guide to Couple Contracting
Couple contracting is a tool I’ve developed through my research that can help working couples. It involves reflecting alone, then discussing three areas as a couple – values, boundaries and fears. The aim is to build common ground on the first two areas and a deep appreciation of each other’s concerns in the third.
Values are the yardsticks by which we measure our lives. Be specific about what will make for a happy life as a couple, then make sure none of your choices undermine this.
Boundaries that are clear make shared decision-making easier. Consider boundaries such as: Time – how many hours are too many at work? Location – are there places you would like to move and live? Presence – how much couple time do you need each month?
Fears Ask yourselves what you dread happening in your relationship and careers? And what you fear for your family life? If you worry about financial stability, for example, agree to a stricter saving regime to give yourselves a buffer and hence peace of mind.