Secrets of the successful dual-career couples

A constant challenge, is how Chris Bryant describes managing working and family life. Mr Bryant, an antitrust and competition lawyer, works three days a week at law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, and has two children with his partner, Catriona Stirling, a barrister on maternity leave.

The combination of career and home, he says, “requires a hell of a lot of co-ordination, early mornings and late nights catching up on things. It’s not always easy”. The fact that they are both lawyers helps them understand each other’s pressures and career trajectories. “We do talk about what is happening for both of us,” says Mr Bryant.

Their joint ambition to work part-time (Catriona works four days a week) was something the pair discussed when they talked about having children.

Open conversations are fundamental to sustaining dual career couples (DCCs), according to Jennifer Petriglieri, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead business school, in her new book, Couples That Work. Partners (with or without children) need to lift their heads above the day-to-day practicalities and engage in what she calls “couple contracting”: in-depth discussions covering values (what makes you happy, satisfied) boundaries (around location, or workloads) and fears (that you may not be able to have children, for example, or that you will not be able to afford a career change).

Both sides are not expected to agree on everything but at least understand that relocating far away from grandparents, say, might be non-negotiable.

Mr Bryant and his partner are part of a rising trend of dual career couples. According to a recent study by McKinsey of more than 35,000 US professionals with spouses or live-in partners, 89 per cent of women and 70 per cent of men are part of a dual-career couple. In the UK, the Working Families report finds that in 75 per cent of couples with two children, both parents work.

Prof Petriglieri discovered that there is much advice on managing your career, and on work-life balance, but nothing on the “intersection of career and relationships”. And that means going beyond a focus on the practicalities (although on that, she suggests making a list of tasks and agreeing to drop some, such as a perfectly tidy house; outsourcing others and dividing the rest).

She says that professionals need to continually reappraise their long-term goals. Or else they might get sucked into the “panic zone”, and make short-term decisions — for example, a mother falling out of her career because the salary barely covers the cost of childcare.

Interviewing more than 100 couples, Prof Petriglieri expected to find a winning dual career couple model. “Successful couples, with two careers they are proud of, came in all shapes and sizes. Everything can work and not work,” she says. “The couples that thrived are the ones that stepped back [and asked], ‘what are we trying to achieve and how can we do it?’”

These different models are broadly characterised: the ‘primary-secondary’ traditionally has been a man working full-time with a wife whose hours might be reduced to work around children, and taking the lead role in the home.

Then there is the ‘turn-taking’ model, in which partners participate in a kind of career relay race, passing the baton between them as to who has the bigger job and who takes more responsibility at home. And the ‘double-primary’ is an equal partnership of two careers and sharing of home life.

The real killer, Prof Petriglieri found, was a “real imbalance in power”. In other words, do both partners get an “equal shot in pursuing [their] ambitions”? And this is different to being equally successful. It is hard for couples mired in day-to-day practicalities to think longer-term about career goals.

Louisa Symington-Mills, founder of Cityparents, a network for professionals, agrees: “For a dual career couple, their very basic ability to support each other in their respective career ambitions can be easily derailed due to external factors such as long working hours, tiredness and stress.”

Conversations about the future can be difficult. The couples that Shani Orgad interviewed for her book, Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality, often avoided talking about long-term plans and careers. It could be “an enormously sensitive,” she says, “and sometimes explosive issue to talk about, especially given that, as we know, gender roles and inequality in couples’ lives are still stubbornly persistent”.

David, one half of a lawyer couple with two children under seven, says that “when you’re in your 20s you don’t think that far ahead. You don’t really think what type of life [you want] and where you want to live in 10 or 20 years time.”

Jill Zucker, senior partner at McKinsey, says their “research shows that employees in DCCs are less likely to report being ‘happy with their job’ than their peers in single-career couples, so clearly, there is room for companies to focus more on supporting employees whose spouses also work”. She helped start the Dual Career Network, to support McKinsey colleagues and partners as they balance two careers.

Mr Bryant says that he has tried to be visible about his part-time role, including winning a Timewise award, which highlights flexible role models.

Corporate policies, if they cater to family responsibilities, often focus on the years when the children are young, says Ms Petriglieri. “At the expense of thinking about the whole career lifecycle. It’s true that the young kid years are a particular crunch point, however, I found that working couples faced tough choices at other points in their careers as well.” Presenteeism might be difficult for employees with older children and not just infants.

“This is often a time where some flexibility around the margins [for example leaving early, or being able to attend school appointments] is very important to couples and their relationship and careers can start to come off at the hinges when they don’t have this.”

Ms Symington-Mills agrees: “We know from our research that dual career couples are now the norm not the exception, but in spite of this, old-fashioned attitudes in the workplace contribute to these pressures, often leading to an unconscious assumption that ‘someone else’ can be on call first for home [and] family responsibilities.” There needs to be greater understanding at work, she says, so employees can be open about their responsibilities and times they are unable to work or need more flexibility.

Working couples typically experience three transitions, says Prof Petriglieri, in “their route from becoming a couple to retirement”. The first is the switch from having two distinct lives to becoming interdependent and making everything work (for example, with young children and jobs). The second transition is sparked by a feeling of restlessness — the switch from striving for success to discovering purpose. This, she characterises as: “what do we really want?” The third might be triggered by children leaving home, or retirement.

Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, says that if both partners are going through a mid-life re-evaluation at the same time there might be “turbulence”. On the other hand, it could create opportunities for “teamwork and mutual support”.

One common phenomenon he has encountered is people hiding their mid-life turbulence from their spouse, for fear of setting off alarms. “Staying closeted creates a sense of isolation that makes the situation worse. [It’s] way better if partners can lean on each other through the transition and help keep each other on the rails.”

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