It shouldn’t need saying that becoming part of a couple—even one that has kids—doesn’t have to mean the end of one partner’s career. And yet, even as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, many couples in which both people have high work-based ambitions will run into a common question: When things get tough—whether due to babies or geography, illness or existential crisis—whose career takes precedence?
In her new book Couples that Work, Jennifer Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Paris-based business school INSEAD, has a useful take on what couples can do to head off the possibility of conflict between the things each partner truly wants, and how to work through difficulties when they arise. Perhaps surprisingly, the key skills she sets out aren’t about learning to compromise or becoming better organized. Focusing too much on that side of the equation, she argues, risks leading us to make poor decisions in terms of their effect on long-term happiness.
What Petriglieri advises instead is for couples to have deep and honest conversations about their philosophical approaches to life, and base their decisions on the kind of people they want to be, and the kind of world they want to live in. And periodically revisiting those hard-to-crack topics is key, says Petriglieri, who interviewed more than 100 couples at different life stages as part of her research for the book.
“Is it possible to have two big careers? … The short answer is yes,” she says. In fact, in her research, couples where both partners had “big” careers often fared particularly well. Why?
“Of course, on the one hand, having two big careers is a nightmare. You’ve got a lot to juggle,” Petriglieri says. But the imperative “forces couples to have these conversations about what it is that really matters…Having these big roles forced [these couples] to have these conversations.”
There are lots of powerful ideas in Petriglieri’s book, but three stand out.
The first is the idea of couple contracting, which the author says she and her husband came up with organically while on an early holiday to Sicily. Gianpiero Petriglieri, who is also a professor at INSEAD, suggested they write down the things each wanted from work, the relationship, and life in general. They discussed the responses, and return to them periodically, keeping all the pieces of paper they’ve used to jot down their ideas in what, Jennifer Petriglieri says, is a surprisingly romantic record.
“Couple contracting involves in-depth discussions of three areas—values, boundaries, and fears,” she writes in her book. It’s not necessary to reach consensus on every single point, she says, but the process can help to identify deal-breakers, like one person never wanting children while the other is certain that they do. What is important is developing an understanding of the other person’s position on the things which really matter to them.
A second useful concept explored in the book is that of the “mutual secure base,” where one person anchors and cares for the other in times of anxiety. This role can—indeed, must—be swapped between the two members of a partnership, since it’s not possible to provide much safety and support for someone when you yourself are experiencing a crisis. One negative pattern Petriglieri observed in some of the relationships she studied was one partner always providing security and stability to the other—whether that was emotional, material, or both—while the supported partner never offered it in return.
Petriglieri cites the late British psychologist John Bowlby, a pioneer in the field of child development and one of the founders of attachment theory, who wrote that “all of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.” If this is true of children and their parents, Petriglieri suggests, it is also true of the person we choose as a life partner. The tricky thing here is that, unlike with parents and children, with our life partner we need to play both roles: sometimes allowing the other person to turn into emotional Jell-o while we contain their angst and fear, but at other times expecting—in fact, knowing—that they will be there to hold us together when we crumble.
Perhaps the biggest insight from Couples That Work is Petriglieri’s observation that crises between couples tend to center around one of three life “transitions.”
Many of us will blithely sail along in a dual-career relationship that appears absolutely equal—until suddenly it doesn’t. A common first moment for power imbalances to appear is with the arrival of a child. Suddenly, decisions that had been made, and deep desires, may have to be set aside for the sake of an infant’s needs—and imbalance between the partners can quickly creep in. An illness, or the offer of a promotion based on another continent, could equally bring about a couple’s first real struggle.
One of the pitfalls (and there are a few) is making decisions based on purely economic grounds, like choosing to prioritize the career of the person who makes most money. Rather, Petriglieri says, couples need to be honest about what it is they really want—both now, and in the future—and make a plan that has the best chance of success for both.
The second transition tends to happen around mid-life. It’s a time when one or both members of a couple might be extremely successful by outward measures, but start to have doubts about whether the life they have is truly the one they want. This transition (which Petriglieri notes, has its own social trope in the idea of the “mid-life crisis”), can be particularly worrisome for a partner because their loved one can seem to question everything, the relationship included.
Transition three takes place later in life, often when grown-up kids leave home, and it sounds tough: Associated with a realization that we no longer have most of our lives ahead of us, we need to start thinking about what our legacy will be. Finding a way through this transition is becoming ever more key, Petriglieri notes, now that life is longer. Parents in the West can reasonably expect to have three decades of work left even after their kids are self-sufficient. The upside is that there’s actually plenty of time for meaningful endeavor—whether that’s work or something else—after the third transition phase is reached.
The aim of a book born of conversations about relationships is, ultimately, to spark more of these kinds of conversations.
“We dedicate so much time to our careers, thinking about our ambitions and our career trajectory, and we spend almost no time thinking about, well what are my ambitions in our relationship…and how do I want us to be?” Petriglieri tells Quartz. In part that’s because we still believe, on some level, in a Hollywood narrative whereby we find the “right” person to couple with and never have to question the relationship again. The reality, though, is that we ought to be talking a lot more with our partners.
“The time is now, today, this evening,” Petriglieri says. ”Go home, sit down with your partner, and literally take a pencil and piece of paper each and think about these measures: What matters most to us, what are the yardsticks by which we’re going to measure our lives, what are the priorities, what are the lines we’re not willing to cross, what are the boundaries, and what are the things we’re afraid of.”
Remember, the point of this initial conversation is not to reach consensus, but to simply create the habit of dialogue and establish a vocabulary that can make these kinds of conversations easier in the future.