New book by INSEAD Professor Jennifer Petriglieri explores the triumphs and tensions of dual-career coupledom
In most developed countries, the dual-earner couple is rapidly becoming the new normal. Forty-six percent of American two-parent households are also dual-income, compared to 31 percent in 1970. In the UK, there are 1.4 million more mothers in the workforce than in 1996. Even in Japan, despite traditional gender roles, married women accounted for about half of total workforce expansion between 2012 and 2017.
However, most career advice is still targeted at sole breadwinners that doesn’t take into account the increasingly complex lives of dual career couples and their relationships. Jennifer Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD – and a member of a dual-career couple –launched herself into the research that eventually became the recently released book Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work (Penguin and Harvard Business Review Press, 2019).
The book innovatively adapts theories of individual psychological development to intra-couple dynamics, drawing upon extensive ethnographic research involving more than 100 couples. Petriglieri identifies three key life/career transitions common to all couples, which must be successfully negotiated if their partnership is to remain greater than the sum of its parts.
The first transition – from independence to interdependence — occurs when couples encounter their first life-changing event, which could be the arrival of their first child or a big career opportunity. The precipitating event forces them to grapple with the question, “How can we make this work?”
Handling the second transition – mid-life reinvention – requires reexamining past career and personal choices and being ready to take the brave and often painful step of adjusting their relationship to suit newly acquired self-knowledge. The pivotal question of this stage is, “What do we really want?”
The third transition, often brought on by upsetting events in the mature stages of life (such as the death of a parent or kids leaving home), demands that couples reframe perceived losses as opportunities to forge a new path forward together. They must tackle the question, “Who are we now?”
Couples That Work is divided into three parts – one for each transition. Each part covers the events that commonly trigger the pertinent transition, its particular pitfalls, and how couples can not only weather the storm but also emerge from the upheaval even stronger in their connection and careers. Included throughout are highly practical exercises and tools based on Petriglieri’s rigorous research and analysis.
For the book, she conducted exhaustive, semi-structured interviews with a strikingly diverse set of 113 couples. They range in age from 26 to 63, hail from 32 countries on four continents, and encompass both gay and straight identities. In 45 of the couples, neither partner had children. What links them all is both partners’ fierce devotion both to their career (as opposed to a job done mainly for money) and to each other.
Of her interview subjects, Petriglieri says: “Their psychological investment in, and commitment to their work sits alongside their commitment to their relationship. It is this combination of commitments that is the source of the dynamics this book focuses on. It can create tension, conflict and sacrifice, it can also create mutual growth, fulfilment and harmony.”