When Jennifer Petriglieri was writing a book on working couples, the most common question people wanted to her answer was, “How can we make this work?” Translation: How can we combine two busy lives, two meaningful careers and not hold lifelong regrets?
Making career decisions as a couple is a common challenge. In a recent McKinsey survey of 35,000 workers with spouses or live-in partners, 89% of women and 70% of men were in a partnership where both had jobs. After spending six years interviewing 100 dual-career couples for “Couples That Work: How To Thrive in Love and at Work,” Petriglieri, a professor of organizational behavior, has answers and warnings that the rest of us should take into account when making major career decisions as a couple. She interviewed executives, midlevel managers, freelancers and entrepreneurs from 32 countries in different fields who were committed to their partners and their careers, and found that the same mistakes kept popping up.
If you’re worried that the best time to have this conversation has passed, the good news is that “it’s never too late to start,” Petriglieri said.
1. Don’t make it a purely financial decision.
The first major life transition together is often a big career opportunity that can involve a geographic relocation. Up until that point, the couples may be able to act independently of one another without major tension. But then a job offer far away comes calling. Money is a sensible factor to consider in a life-changing decision, but using it as your only rationale to take a job and uproot your partner’s life can backfire if you don’t talk about your underlying psychological fears and social concerns.
For one Canadian couple who moved to Vancouver for a wife’s job promotion, the surface-level practical solution masked a deeper hang-up about who should be the career leader. After nine months, the husband’s resentment of the decision became “I moved for you,” Petriglieri said. When there is a perceived imbalance and one partner feels like they are sacrificing more, Petriglieri said, “then the danger becomes a tit-for-tat, ‘What I do for you, and that means that I should get…’ And this is the beginning of the end.”
John Gottman, a clinician who has researched predictors of divorce and marital stability for 40 years, has observed that this kind of dealmaking and quid pro quo can create an unhappy environment of trying to one-up the other person and “win.”
If you’re at a crossroads with your partner, Petriglieri advises communicating your values, boundaries and fears. That can sound like, “I’m so excited for the opportunity, and to make sure we make the right decision for us, it would be really helpful if we could talk about what this means holistically,” Petriglieri said.
Petriglieri said the questions to ask before a geographic relocation include: What does this mean for our social network and relationships with our families? Are we now a plane ride away and does that wipe out any salary increase? What amount of work travel is OK?
“I’ve never had anyone come back saying, ‘I regret having this conversation,’” Petriglieri said. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be together at the end of it, though. Petriglieri recounted the story of an early reader of the book who had a conversation with her boyfriend about their values and realized that he really wanted to live abroad and she didn’t. That conversation was the trigger for a breakup that she was grateful happened then and not five years down the line.
“One of the problems is that we can rush into relationships and marriages without thinking, ‘What are our absolute limits?’” Petriglieri said.
Take the success story of one East Coast couple: The husband was offered a job on the West Coast that “was a really great opportunity for him, but her company didn’t have an office there, so it meant she’d have to leave,” Petriglieri recounted. Money mattered, but it didn’t drive their discussion: They talked openly about whether the wife would have good career prospects, if they could build a network of friends, if they could do outdoor activities that they both valued. “It was no longer ‘She was following him,’ it was that ‘This was an opportunity for both of them,’” Petriglieri said.
2. Don’t think short term.
The East Coast couple who thoughtfully considered their move is a counter example of the second mistake couples make: giving in to short-term bias that means decisions make you, and not the other way around.
Take the cautionary tale of long-distance partners Hannah and Santiago in Petriglieri’s book. They moved to Hannah’s homeland of Belgium because she was earning more there. Years later, Santiago’s career stagnated, their relationship suffered, and he became increasingly homesick for his native Portugal. Hannah felt guilty she had “cornered him.” They had failed to realize that choosing a home is really an emotional decision.
“Especially if you are in a cross-cultural relationship, it’s vital that you tackle the question of home early on,” Petriglieri writes.
3. Don’t stay quiet when you’re stuck playing cheerleader to your partner’s career.
Career success naturally fluctuates, but partners can fall into static roles of supporter and supported. Petriglieri found that the couples she spoke with who modeled asymmetric support tended to experience more conflict than couples who mutually supported each other. “Either the person who is not doing so well feels they should be a cheerleader for the other, and not share their angst,” Petriglieri said. Or it’s “the other way around, and the person who is being successful feels they need to put a lid on it and cap it. … Neither of those is particularly helpful.”
As one unhappy supporter in the book told Petriglieri, “I felt I was constantly supporting and got nothing in return.”
To bring this up in a way that does not exacerbate conflict, Petriglieri suggests moving away from accusatory language such as “you did this” into language about your joint dynamic. “Framing it in the language of ‘we’ and what are we doing for each other — ‘I just feel that we are not being as supportive to each other as we could’ — is really helpful because it [turns] ‘it’s your fault’ into ‘this is a joint problem to solve,’” Petriglieri said.