Dual-Career Couples: Managing life, family, and both of your careers
Jennifer Petriglieri
PhD, Professor, Researcher & Author of Couples That Work

Dual-career couples are on the rise. In the U.S., more than 60% of married couples both work full time and have children. Navigating your relationship, career, and family is complicated. How can you be sure you’re making the best choices for everyone involved? Jennifer Petriglieri, an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD, has spent more than 5 years interviewing 100+ dual-career couples around the world. She joins the podcast to talk about her new book, Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work. Petriglieri explains the different stages working couples move through together – the stresses, the joys, the decisions we make about the family we want to be. She shares advice for how dual-career couples can decide what’s really important when it comes to prioritizing career and family, then stay true to the priorities they set despite all the pressures they encounter.

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • The three stages in a working couple’s relationship, and the big questions that couples face together as they move through them
  • The challenges and opportunities of moving from independence to interdependence – like having kids or relocating for a job
  • Different parenting models (lead parent, turn-taking lead parent, co-parenting) and how working parents can decide which model works best for them
  • Advice for how to divide and conquer household chores and family logistics...on top of raising kids and advancing in your career
  • The employer’s role in making it easier for working couples to succeed professionally (and personally)
  • Why focusing on “microclimates” at work can be a productive way to advocate for the flexibility that working parents need

Click here to read the full episode. 

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Full Transcript

Duel-Career Couples: Managing life, family and both of your careers

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast, brought to you by Care@Work. 

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, but being part of a dual-career couple, that's even harder. My guest today is Jennifer Petriglieri. She's an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD where she directs the women's leader program and the executive education management acceleration program. She's just released a new book called Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work. We have really great conversation about how couples that both work can make it work, have a listen. Jennifer, thank you so much for being here today. 

Jennifer Petriglieri: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me. 

Emily: My first real question for you is, where have you been over the past 10 years of my life? I really could have used your help up until now. Your story, your book really, really resonated with me. 

Jennifer: I think it's so timely in general. If we look at the US, more than two-thirds of couples are working couples. I said this is the majority of us are struggling with these issues and there's really very little advice out there. There's a lot of advice on work-life balance like how we can split the washing up and there's a lot of career advice. 

That really treats us as if we have, no strings attached we can build our career without someone else involved. My aim in the book is to really put all that together and look at our lives holistically and what does it take to maintain these two careers and a great relationship. 

Emily: You did such a fabulous job doing that. 

Jennifer: Thank you. 

Emily: You've spent more than five years interviewing over a 100 dual-career couples around the world and your research began with pretty simple question, how can dual-career couples thrive in their love and work? What common themes appeared as you started to dig deeper into this idea into this question and what surprised you? 

Jennifer: When I started off, I wanted to find the answer. I went in thinking if I can just find the arrangement that makes this work right there magic bullet. As you said, it's five years of research and a couple of years then I just wasn't finding it. As I was finding there were couples with all sorts of arrangements that could work and all sorts of arrangements that didn't work, 50/50 one lead parent, one lead career, couples who sometimes lived apart, couples who live together, and it was very confusing. 

Then I started to take a step back and think, "Okay, it's very clear it's not about the choice we make, it's really about the way in which we make that choice." That was when I really started to understand that the couples who made it work made it work through really deep conversations that put the principles of their relationship before the practicalities. Now, of course, all of us that I'm sure you're the same as me. 

There's practicalities of what hit us day-to-day, we need to sort out the childcare, we need to maybe there's elder care involved. There's all sorts of moving pieces, but it's not enough to focus at that level. What I found very strongly in the research was it, was the couples that really looked underneath and looked at what really matters to us and what are we aiming for in this relationship in our careers, who made it work because they could then use that as the basis to make some choices and pursue some things and let go of others. 

Emily: You've identified three stages in a working couples relationship. Can you tell me a little bit about these three stages? 

Jennifer: Yes. What became really clear in the research was that it wasn't challenging all the time. There were periods of real intense challenge, which I call in the book transitions and there's three of them. There were periods in between that we're a little bit more stable, a little bit smoother sailing. 

Never totally smooth sailing, but a little bit smoother sailing. Now the first of these transitions comes in the early days of a couple's life. If you think back to when you first got together with your partner, really those first years you're unparallel tracks, your career is still going ahead, you've got your groups of friends and you've just added this wonderful relationship on top. 

Then of course that doesn't last forever. At some point as a couple, we face a challenge that presents a hard choice. Now for some couples that might be a geographic move we know nowadays, organizations expect people to be very mobile. If I get offered a job on the other side of the country, no end of parallel living, do we move together? Do I follow your career? Do we go our separate ways? 

Emily: Big questions. 

Jennifer: Big questions. These questions. It might be the arrival of a child. I'm sure all your listeners realize end of parallel living for sure. How do we suddenly fit all these moving pieces together? That's really the first time, and I often think if this is when we first become a real couple. It's the first time we have to think about how do we really intertwine our lives together and think about the question is how can we make this work? That's the first transition. The second one, is really linked to our career life cycle. If we think of our careers in our 20s and 30s, it's a period where we're striving for a lot. We're building our careers, were building our relationship, we may be building a family. Then what tends to happen as people reach mid life is they take a step back and think, "Why am I doing all this, is this really the path I want?" 

Then the final transition, the third transition comes later on when the commitments that have sustained us in our daily lives, bit mortgage, raising small children, in that real growth phase of our career behind us and our social roles are also changing. We no longer the up-and-coming bright young thing in the organization. 

Emily: When you talk about these three phases, there are three questions that you call out in your book. If you could just share those with us and how can partners communicate with one another to determine and ensure that they're on the same page when answering these three questions. 

Jennifer: It's such a great question because it's all about how we talk about them. The first transition, the question is, how do we make this work? How do we combine our lives? The second transition is, what do we really want together and separately? The third transition is more of an identity question, who are we now our roles are changing. What I find at each of those questions, although there's different issues to be tackled at each of those points, it's really important for couples to get away from the day-to-day and start thinking about the fundamentals of that relationship. 

Emily: A lot of our listeners are living through that first phase right now, the early days. They have babies, they have infants, they have toddlers, their careers are starting to take off and you described this phase as moving from independence to interdependence. What are the big challenges and opportunities there for couples? 

Jennifer: The challenges at this stage are really hooked around two things, money and our focus on the short-term practicalities. Let's take the example of childcare. Very often when a new baby comes along, of course it's a very joyous moment. It's really exciting but there's all these questions we've never faced or around. How do we take care of this thing? Whose turn is it? How do we get child care around the margins? There's two big mistakes couples make here. 

One, is they consider the financial implications in the here and now in the short term. We can think of childcare as an investment rather than an expense. If we think about it like that, it really changes the equation of what we might choose. The other thing is really focusing on the day-to-day practicalities and looking at what is happening right now today this week and making choices based on that. 

We know nowadays that careers are very uncertain and who's to say that today you're earning more than me, but I might leap frog you in a couple of years time or you may be laid off or there's all sorts of things that it's very hard to account for if we really looking right at what's happening today. Of course, it's understandable, you have a small infant, you're very focused on the day-to-day. 

I think what couples need to do is really take themselves out of that and look a little bit more long-term around, "Okay, what do we really want and how are we going to support each other to get there?" When couples do that, I'm always surprised by what they can make work because when we're really clear about the logic behind our choices, it's easier to walk away from for example a mother's guilt. I know why I'm doing this and I know it's the best thing in the long term. I don't need to carry around that bag of feelings of worry with me. 

Emily: There are a lot of logistics when it comes to having children. I know my husband and I decided really early on that, I was going to leave very early in the morning to go to work while he was going to be with the kids. On the afternoon, I was going to leave early so that he can work later. 

I think that those were really clearly defined boundaries that helped both of us advance in our careers and also be super clear with the people we work with that those were the boundaries that we were setting. Then there's the day-to-day stuff that you've also mentioned like cooking and doing the laundry, deciding who is traveling for work. How can couples navigate those sorts of things together? 

Jennifer: What I find is he's really helpful when we have extreme clarity in terms of who's in charge of what. Remember one woman described this to me as like who's the central computer, who has the whole lot running in their minds. Now, I think in days gone by that's usually being the woman and that's really changing now with the younger generation and obviously with same-sex couples as well. It's a really different model and the couples that seem to be cracking this are really going for divide and conquer model. Let's take children for a moment. Okay, I'm in charge of, maybe health care and friends and schooling and you're in charge of holiday care mishaps, whatever pops up. The reason this is helpful is when it's so clear that one thing is your job, the other person doesn't need to think about it. It's as important to understand what I'm responsible for, as it is to understand what I don't need to think about. 

Emily: Guilt and regret. What advice do you have for working parents to try and let go of a little bit of that guilt and regret? 

Jennifer: There is a wealth of data out there. We know that there's no difference in the emotional, social, intellectual development of children who have two working parents versus children who have any other arrangement. I think it's really important to take that data seriously because it is an overwhelming body of research that says that, "There's no need to be guilty. The kids are fine." [laughs] 

I think what that guilt is, is actually two things. One is, actually regret, which is what you started the question with. A feeling that I don't want to miss out on a piece of my child's childhood. The way we tend to express it and some of our culture's, it is guilt as opposed to a desire. I think a lot of it is actually just the way we talk about a desire. What I found is that, contrary to maybe previous generations, if we look at the men in the younger generations, they are as keen to invest in their children, as the women are. This has really been a big social shift. This desire is very, very real. 

I think it would help us all to express it that way. As opposed to, I feel guilty. I'm doing this to my kids when actually I'm feeling really sad that I'm doing this to myself. I think what a lot of parents, particularly new parents, which is very understandable have is you get carried along on a wave of social expectations. You read the parenting magazines, you read the parenting books never do that. [laughs] 

Emily: Who has time for that? 

Jennifer: You have time for that. They tell you all these things that your child should be doing at this stage. I've never met anyone whose child was doing those things at that stage. I've no idea where they get this from. I think it's really important that we're clear in our couples, what kind of parents who we want to be and once we have that clarity, just go for it. 

Emily: You talk about a few different types of parenting models in your book. Can you talk a little bit about these different parental models and as I was reading it, I was, "I think I might fit into that one." [laughs] 

Jennifer: The classic model is the lead parent model where one parent takes the lion's share of responsibility for the children. This isn't just about what they do to doing my child care, it's also about keeping it in mind, as we were talking about earlier. Classically, it would have been the woman who takes that role. It's not necessarily that way at the moment, there may be fathers who take that role as well in younger couples. 

Then there's the model of turn-taking, which I think is really interesting for the couples of these days that they take turns to be the lead parents and have the lead career and then they swap. The great thing about this model is we both get a shot at investing in both. As we were saying earlier, man, as much as women want to be active parents. 

I think a lot of people have the desire to spend some periods where they're still going forward in their career, but perhaps at a slightly slower pace and investing a little bit more at home. Then there's the model of true co-parenting, where we really try and divide things. I mean, it's impossible to get to exactly 50/50 but somewhere in that range. 

I find that is more of an ideal than a reality very often to those sticky gender roles come in. The woman tends to still take a little bit more of the role than the man. The way to stop that in to really get to 50/50 is to divide that central computer role. To really divide and conquer the child care tasks. We are living in an age where technology can help us in a way that it could never help our parents. 

Whether it's having a shopping list automatically rebuy, big task on, whether it's some of these more high tech solutions, where we keep those to-do lists on some app that pings each other. These are all really great solutions that preserve the time and are coupled to quality time, we don't spend all the time we have together negotiating who's going to do what, when, where and for whom. 

Emily: Let's talk a little bit about an employer's role in this. How can employers make it easier for people to succeed both professionally and personally? 

Jennifer: The first problem is when it comes to mobility. If we look increasingly in our organizations, employers are expecting a level of mobility if you're somebody who wants to rise up the career ladder. Now, what I found is that working couples are not necessarily averse to mobility but they need to do it in a very planned full way. 

Many companies when they look at mobility are still acting as if all their talent has a stay at home spouse who is happy to up and pack their bags and move at the drop of a hat. That's one thing that companies really need to rethink. The other area is on flexible working. Now, what's happening is when we talk about flexible working the image that pops into our mind and into the mind of companies is usually a mother of small children who needs to work two or three days a week. 

The problem with getting ourselves fixed on that mindset is we offer solutions to cater for that and it comes with a negative stigmatization. We know that people who take those benefits, their careers tend to slow down very dramatically. The reality for most working couples is, that's not the flexibility they want, all the flexibility they need. They need some flexibility I think of it as around the margins. 

Can I come in early and leave early? It makes a huge difference in my world. If there is a few days where I need to take some time off in the middle of the day, can I make it up in the evening working? Is there a culture of this time where I have to be in the office all the time? It's a total killer for working parents. 

There are actually a lot less working parents than employees think who really need real flexibility in terms of less working hours. What they need is a very different type of flexibilities that I can work those hours when it suits me, obviously, up to a point. That's what employers are really not clued up to. 

Emily: Right. If our listeners our employees where they would like to have a little more flexibility and mobility how can they advocate for that to their employers? 

Jennifer: That’s a great question, right? And it can be difficult. At the same time there are a number of case studies that show that people who have this marginal flexibility are much more productive workers so there’s a really strong argument for doing it. And I think we have got to get away from thinking of corporate culture holistically and start thinking about micro climates of culture. What I find very strongly in my research is that employees actually have more power than they think to change their micro climate. It’s very hard, you know, from a middle manager sat in a big organization. You know, it’s almost impossible for me to change the culture of the organization, but I might be able to change the culture of my team, my group, my small area and quite frankly that’s all you need to do. So I think its about, rather than thinking of tackling the whole big scary thing think about what can we do in our small team, our micro climate, that can shift the needle.  

Emily: So one last question. Out of the over 100 couples that you talked to, is there one couple that sticks out in your mind? 

Jennifer: So many, but some of the couples I really enjoyed talking to were some of the couples at the tail end of their career who could really reflect back. And I remember one couple in particular and they’re actually a couple who was in the last chapter of the book. The reason their story struck me so much was because they made a series of choices that are commonly thought of as “bad choices”. So let me give you an example, in their 30 year careers they spent 12 years living apart. Two of those years they were both apart from their children and their parents were looking after their children.  

Emily: Wow.  

Jennifer: Amazing okay, they really rejected the notion of this helicopter parenting. They were quite hands off parents and they raised independent children and yet when I spoke to them in their early 60’s they were in a great space. They had a wonderful relationship, they had thee children who were now sort of in college and a bit beyond who were amazing, independent, well-rounded children. They were coming together at the end of their careers and had actually started a business together and it was so heart warming to hear their story because it taught me that they had made choices which I would not make and yet they were in a great space. So it really taught me that you know, if you are dedicated and really have these conversations then you can practically make any arrangement work and its so heart warming to me to realize that.  

Emily: Well that’s a great note to end on. Jennifer thank you so much for joining us today, I really appreciated it and I certainly learned a lot.  

Jennifer: Thank you.  

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of equal parts. See you next time. 

Emily: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care at Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.