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These are the conversations every dual career couple needs to have

Couples need to be comfortable with having uncomfortable discussions, including giving each other “performance reviews.”

These are the conversations every dual career couple needs to have
[Photo: Rawpixel]

It’s no surprise that the relationship between life partners has a significant impact on both of their professional lives. After all, sharing a life with someone means being each other’s support system. It also means taking into account each other’s needs, wants, and realities when it comes to career decisions.

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Dual career couples are becoming the norm in the United States. According to findings by the Bureau Of Labor Statistics, 62% of married couple with children had both partners work outside the home in 2017. In 1967, that number was just 44%. But despite the significant increase and emphasis on gender equality, many couples continue to struggle with balancing their relationships and career. Add children into the mix, and between lack of family-friendly policies, gender stereotypes, and uneven distribution of domestic duties (particularly among heterosexual couples), it can feel like an impossible juggling act.

But according to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, the CEO of gender consultancy firm 20-first and honorary professor at HEC Paris, many couples can minimize their struggles by making one simple shift: planning for their partnership the way they’d plan for a long-term career. Rather than letting circumstances and assumptions dictate the couple’s career decisions, Wittenberg-Cox believes that a couple needs to be comfortable with having uncomfortable discussions–which includes giving each other “performance reviews.” Fast Company recently spoke to Wittenberg-Cox, and she shared her tips for the conversations that every couple needs to have to thrive in their relationship and marriage.

Conversation No. 1: What do you both want to get out of life and the relationship?

According to Wittenberg-Cox, one of the biggest mistakes that dual career couples make is assuming that things are going to work out without them giving it a lot of thought. When dual career couples choose to default into something, “[They] tend to default into competition unless they really work at cooperation and mutual alignment,” Wittenberg-Cox explains. But of course, before one can even think about this, they need to get the basic questions out of the way. She says, “It helps to understand early on what the other person has in mind for their own values out of work, family, and life.” How do you decide who will have the “lead” career at different stages of your life? How do you envision your couple as a unit over your lifetime? What role do you want your spouse to have? Do you want children? What role do you want in parenting your children?

Wittenberg-Cox also notes that since humans are living longer and longer, they need to understand that the answers to these questions are likely to evolve as they move into different life stages. In a 2018 article for Harvard Business Review, she lists the different career models that couples adopt:

  • Single career. When one partner’s career determines the relationship and the decisions that they make. The other partner plays whatever supporting role they need to support the partner’s career.
  • Lead career. Similar to the single career, but with some compromise. While one person’s career might determine big decisions like geography, the other person might build a secondary career (such as freelancing or working part-time) while still primarily supporting their partner’s career.
  • Alternators. Couples take turn in the “lead career” position, whether they do it by year, life stages, or even weeks. At any one time, one partner focuses on his or her career, and the other person plays a supporting role.
  • Parallelograms. The couple work to advance their careers together, and help each other strategize for success. They may use their professional networks to reinforce each other’s careers.
  • Complements. This arrangement often applies to couples with two very different careers where “peak periods” occur at different times. Examples include an entrepreneur and writer, or a corporate worker and an academic. One “complements” the other, but the role of each partner may be always changing.

Since these models may change over the couple’s lifetime, Wittenberg-Cox believes that couples need to institute regular “performance reviews” and strategic sessions. We’re used to having “planning cycles” at work, Wittenberg-Cox says. But not as many people adopt the same approach in a marriage, and because careers are always changing, without regular check-ins with your partner, it becomes difficult to keep a relationship aligned.

The more often you have the conversation, the better, but at the minimum, Wittenberg-Cox advocates for having an “environmental check-up” once a year. It’s just like a car inspection, she explains. You’re monitoring for toxic fumes that might have built up, and updating whatever it is you might need to update in your relationship.

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Conversation No. 2: What is your approach to working and domestic duties?

Younger couples might have more of an egalitarian view toward romantic relationships than their older counterparts, but according to Wittenberg-Cox, many continue to harbor subconscious beliefs based on how their parents viewed careers and marriage. “A lot of people are young and innocent, and think they can free themselves from whatever model. You don’t realize how deep and psychologically indoctrinated you are, particularly among gender roles, she says.” A 2014 survey of Harvard Business School graduates found that 60% of men between the ages of 32 to 67 expected their careers to take precedence over their spouse’s (the survey did not distinguish opposite-sex partners from same sex-partners).

Someone who grew up with a stay-at-home mother, for example, probably has a different set of beliefs and expectations than someone raised in dual-income households. And even if both partners believe that they are prioritizing each other’s careers equally, they might have different assumptions about things that could impact one’s career. For example, women are expected (and tend to) take on more emotional labor than men at work and at home. Writer Gemma Hartley, author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forwardhas written extensively about the disproportionate amount of domestic responsibilities and emotional burdens that she took on compared to her husband. Hartley told Fast Company that to have a productive conversation, they needed to get beyond who was doing what wrong, and focus on “how our culture has shaped these gender roles that [they] were falling into.”

Conversation No. 3: What are the structural, societal, and cultural barriers you face?

In addition to examining their upbringing, Wittenberg-Cox also recommends that couples should examine any cultural and societal pressures that might influence their view toward relationship and careers. For example, the role that a spouse is assumed to play in a family can affect the couple’s relationship and career decisions. “People underestimate the family thing except in certain cultures and I think it’s interesting. I always say these kind of conversations are like scenario planning. It helps to understand the value system and the priorities of [your partner]. A lot of that might change while you have kids.”

Wittenberg-Cox gives the example of certain cultures where the relationship between a wife and a mother-in-law can be particularly tense. If your partner doesn’t understand have a “full understanding of the onslaught that you’re going to get,” or doesn’t realize that it’s something that troubles you, then it becomes a matter of constant negotiation that can lead to resentment. Some cultures look down on men who choose to stay at home with their children, and the couple needs to talk about whether a husband is willing to endure that sort of stigma, and how to counter it.

Wittenberg-Cox says that she knows of couples who have moved countries “in order to keep it somewhat neutral.” Others have also moved abroad to take advantage of family policies and benefits that they might not otherwise have in their home countries.

How to make decisions for the long term

Wittenberg-Cox also notes that as more people live longer, the time they spend in the workforce will lengthen. As a result, it’s important for dual-career couples to take a long-term view when they make decisions. She gives the example of women who choose to leave the workforce, “because they’re not making enough money to cover the cost of childcare.” But by doing this, Wittenberg-Cox argues, women are putting themselves in positions where they decrease their net earning power over the course of their lifetime. On the other hand, taking a short-term financial hit to pay for childcare may actually be a better long-term decision, because it increases their earning power potential later on.

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Wittenberg-Cox points out that while dual-career couples might seem like the norm, “It’s still kind of new. Really truly balanced couples with two significant careers are not that old. We still have to learn to make it work well.” 

She believes that the best thing a couple can do is have these conversations early. It’s just like starting a company, she says. What do you want and hope to create together? She tells Fast Company that the younger generations who have reached adulthood might feel like they should be past the gender debate, but they need to continue to have these conversations if they want to thrive. People want to be “past all that complicated stuff, but I think it’s increasingly complicated,” Wittenberg-Cox says. “It’s just begun.”

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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