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Work & Purpose

Ways Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work

Wise advice from Jennifer Petriglieri, author of 'Couples That Work'


In Jennifer Petriglieri’s new book, Couples That Work: How Dual Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work, the organizational behavior professor at the European graduate business school INSEAD puts things bluntly: Having two partners pursuing active careers “can create tension, conflicts, and sacrifice.” But, she adds, “it can also create mutual growth, fulfillment, and harmony.” So how can dual-career couples find the latter and not the former?

To find out, Petriglieri — half of a dual-career couple herself (her husband Gianpiero is an organizational professor, too) — interviewed 113 working couples ranging in age from 26 to 63. And I recently interviewed Petriglieri to learn more about her findings and get her advice for dual-career couples in their 50s and 60s; highlights are below.

The book and Petriglieri’s research interested me because most advice I’ve seen for dual-career couples has concentrated on their personal relationships, not the way those relationships crisscross with their professional goals.

Before I share my interview, let me say that what Petriglieri heard from the couples was, in a word, discouraging.

“The key is to support each other, to do the exploration we need to do. It takes a lot to support our partners in that exploration because it’s frightening.”

They “rarely had a conversation about deeper psychological and social forces,” Petriglieri wrote. Nor did they take the time to discuss “their struggles for power and control, the roles they expected each other to play in their shared lives, their personal hopes and fears, and the collective expectations of what defines a good relationship and career that exert a powerful influence on them.”

Couples That Work centers around three life transitions for dual-career couples.

Transition One, typically experienced by younger dual-career couples, deals with the question: How can we make it work?

Transition Two asks: What do we really want? This shift “is usually sparked by feelings of restlessness and oppression that give way to existential questions of direction and purpose,” Petriglieri wrote. “It requires couples to figure out their unique interests and desires and renegotiate the roles they play in each other’s lives.”

Transition Three drills deeper. Its overarching query: Who are we now? Couples’ work in this stage is to “reinvent themselves in a way that is grounded in their past accomplishments, while opening possibilities for the future,” Petriglieri explains.

After I finished reading the book, I began to take stock of my own dual-career marriage of 27 years and push myself (and my husband) to look under the covers, so to speak, to see where we might make some tweaks.

Here’s my conversation with Petriglieri:

Kerry Hannon: What do dual-career couples in their fifties and sixties do wrong?

Jennifer Petriglieri: It’s about developing the habit of having conversations which are the fabric of our relationship; the stuff that matters to us. But many couples

Jennifer Petriglieri, author of 'Couples That Work: How Dual Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work'
Jennifer Petriglieri, author of ‘Couples That Work: How Dual Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work’

ignore it. They fall into the trap of an imbalance of power.

The power may have become quite unbalanced, with a lot of stuff festering and building. There can be a resentment that one partner never really got their shot at something they wanted to do.

We have been running and running, building our careers and nailing down those commitments with family. And we start to question: Is this the path I really want to be on? This is very threatening in a couple.

If I see my partner starting to question their work, their direction in life, it is easy for me to think that has something to do with our relationship and ‘I am not good enough. What’s wrong with what we’ve got?’

What should dual-career midlife couples do, or do better?

The key is to support each other, to do the exploration we need to do. It takes a lot to support our partners in that exploration because it’s frightening.

What happens is two things: We try to rush our partner through it or we try to shut it down from the get-go. When we get to this stage of our lives and careers, we need a loving push to move away from the comfort zone and say: ‘We’re not going to figure this out unless we take a few risks and explore different avenues.’

You need to move away from the safety. It’s not saying everything is fine. Couples need to be pretty confident in each other to provide that support. When they do, it really unlocks big changes.

Genuinely support your partner’s efforts to explore career alternatives and experiences with different paths. Taking an interest, listening and talking through their dilemmas are all helpful. Listening to your partner’s outpourings and accepting the painful feelings without trying to fix them is the best help you can offer.

One advantage of being in a working couple is you have experience of different worlds. Our partner can put us in touch with other people, suggest other avenues and encourage us to experiment with side projects to get a taste of alternative paths.

This can be another period of career acceleration. In almost every field of work, you can freelance, be an entrepreneur, do project work, work part-time. It is giving people at this stage of their careers much wider horizons then they had in the past.

And we want someone on that developmental journey with us. The couples who get it right say: ‘How are we going to use this as a crucible moment and not get bogged down in the loss?’ These are couples who craft a path along which they can travel with renewed purpose.

What should dual-career couples do as they approach retirement?

This is a time when we really can afford to focus more broadly on community, friends, volunteering — and things that interest us. It can be a time to circle back and reconnect with a lost hobby.

A shared passion is something that you can engage in together that concerns neither your careers nor your children. It is an expression of who you are as a couple and is an important way of maintaining a shared sense of ‘we.’

It could also be starting something new together. Couples might do side projects together or join their careers together. It is through doing things together that really keep the couple alive.

Take time to appreciate being in the muddle together.

Any surprises from your research?

Yes. The most successful couples, who felt good about their careers and their relationship, were also the couples who had the most challenging lives — with travel schedules and stressful jobs. They couldn’t talk to anyone at work about fears and concerns, so they talked to their partners.

And the successful couples recognize that this is not a trade war. It’s not about doing our partner a favor. It’s a different kind of support.

By Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life. She  has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among other publications. She is the author of a dozen books including Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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