We enter into marriage with the full intent of realizing our professional goals and supporting our partner’s dreams, too. And then life happens.
Responsibilities increase. The number of hours in the day do not. Amid the stress and frantic pace of managing children, jobs, relocations, illness, money worries, and countless other duties, even the best-intentioned couples can find themselves falling into roles at home and at work that fall short of their ideals. Navigating a dual-career marriage can at times feel like a zero-sum game, one that leaves both parties feeling resentful, exhausted, and confused as to just how they ended up here.
Could we do this better? After decades studying gender balance in the workplace, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of the London-based consulting firm 20-first, came to the conclusion that many couples are as unwittingly hamstrung by outdated gender expectations as companies are. The problem, she has argued in articles, talks, and her book Late Love: Mating in Maturity, is one of design. Rather than couples automatically defaulting to tired gender norms or setting unrealistic expectations for themselves to do it all, she advocates for an entirely new approach to marriage—one that values long-term goals over short-term ones, that encourages creativity, and that prioritizes the couples’ relationship over life’s other demands.
Quartz At Work sat down with Wittenberg-Cox at her home in London for a conversation on gender, relationships, equality, and why your marriage probably needs an off-site more than your work team does. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
QAW: How do we create relationships that successfully accommodate family and two careers—and why is it still so hard to do this in 2018?
AWC: We don’t actually see where we are in the arc of history. Women are at a very different point than men are. Most women have spent most of their adult life thinking about these issues, and most of the men I meet have not. The difference between men and women is less than it used to be, but still we’re in really different intellectual spaces around the question of relationships, balance, work, roles. All this dual career, negotiating-at-home balance is still something that we’re not totally practiced in.
It becomes “about women,” when really it’s the couple dynamic that’s changing. And dual-career relationships are complex. Really complex.
I wrote that article [in Harvard Business Review] about different career-couple models to get people thinking about what model they have, what model they’d like to have, and how you can design it intentionally. People sort of fall into roles at home unconsciously, and then we make all these stupid decisions. How many times have you heard women say, “Well, I make less, so I’ll stop for the children.” No!
QAW: Or, “We’ll break even after childcare costs, so there’s no point in me working.”
AWC: Childcare is an investment in the future. That’s not quite understood yet. The husband will say, “We’re spending her whole net take-home pay on childcare, that doesn’t make sense.” It does make sense! You have to look at the net present value of her future salary.
I don’t have any issues with women slowing down or working flexibly. It just has to be negotiated as a couple. What does it mean if I step back from my career now? Do I get a catch-up time? Are you going to take the lead career? For how long? Do we take turns? What are the expectations?
QAW: How do you start that conversation as a couple?
AWC: The first step is actually building a vision. What’s amazing to me is that most people still think of it as merging two careers rather than designing a life together. What’s the life that we want to build? What are our goals, our mission? What are we going to prioritize? Is it family, is it children, is it work? What is it that we are trying to design? And then people can become a little more creative, and a bit more understanding of one another’s priorities. It’s a very different life plan.
QAW: What does it mean to be truly supportive of a partner’s career?
AWC: To be curious, interested, and celebratory of the other person’s successes. If there’s any hint of minimizing or avoiding, any hint of competitive positioning or self-esteem issues in the other person, then that’s a real red flag.
QAW: It seems we’re at a point where we all want to challenge all the old models—with women wanting more at work and men wanting to be more involved at home—but the models don’t easily accommodate these things.
AWC: Companies are still designed for men to be breadwinners and for women to become as much like men as possible if they want to succeed. So you have to understand that you’re not going to be assisted or applauded by the systems currently in place. Companies are 24/7 all the time, and so are families. Parenting expectations have gone through the roof. We spend more time on parenting now than we did 30 years ago when there was one parent at home. So we’re a little out of control on the parent perfectionism, too.
Men are really getting the fatherhood thing. They love it. Fatherhood is one of the great accomplishments of this generation. But I think our focus on children is at the cost of couplehood. Demoting your couple to the bottom of the pile in order to do this family stuff is dangerous. I would put couples as the founding bedrock of both career and family. The expectations we put on a couple—love, sex, best friend, everything forever, blah blah blah—and the time, attention and effort we put into that unit isn’t aligned. If you had the same kind of expectations of a team, you’d be investing hugely in that team.
QAW: I’ve just realized that I have a more structured check-in schedule with my manager than with my spouse. And if you were to ask me who plays a bigger role in my life, I’d certainly say the reverse.
AWC: Isn’t that amazing? And why don’t we think of that? This idea we all have that there’s something natural about relationships, you’re supposed to do it “naturally”—well, there’s nothing natural about any of this stuff.
QAW: And then life throws so many unexpected things at you: promotions, moves, job losses, children, children’s special needs. So how much can you and your partner really plan in advance?
AWC: People always say, “Oh, you can’t plan.” But every company plans. They have an annual plan, a three-year plan, a long-term plan. Plans change. They get thrown up in the air. Then you plan again and you adjust.
The purpose of planning isn’t that you have something to rigidly adhere to. It’s to have a conversation about your values, mission, and general goals. Because that is where couples fall into trouble. They make assumptions about all of these things when what you need is courageous conversations every month, every year. And it has to be reviewed. I was just talking to a couple that takes off one day every six months to work on their relationship.
QAW: They do an off-site!
AWC: An away day! They have an intentional away day, as a couple. I’m a believer in monthly structured listening exercises: Each person has a time to talk, the other person has to repeat back what they heard and isn’t allowed to interrupt. Schedule a time every single month for short-term management of emotions, questions, and disagreements about the day-to-day stuff, and biannual deeper reviews.
You’re trying to run a pretty complex system with lots of changes and unpredictability, and you think you’re going to just figure it out as you go along? Its naïve to think we can survive that. It’s pretty surprising that we do as well as we do.