Frequent transitions have become a common feature of contemporary careers. Some are traditional career steps, such as a move up the corporate ladder or a move out to another company. Others are more radical shifts that reorient or reinvent our career paths entirely. We might be thinking about changing our line of work, moving to a new country, or starting our own business. While exciting, these transitions can be stressful. And when working couples are juggling two careers with two sets of change, the stress becomes even more acute.
Take Indira and Nick (a real couple whose names I’ve changed). After 17 years together, two successful careers, and three children, they felt that they had figured out how to make life work for them. Then, as Indira hit 40, she began to feel restless in her corporate communications job. The two had managed promotions and lateral moves before, but not the wholesale career reinvention that Indira desired. She wanted to work for herself. What began as an entrepreneurial itch quickly morphed into Indira questioning her identity and life choices. This shook the couple. “Everything was up in the air,” Nick told me, “and at first I wasn’t sure how to support Indira. Honestly, I also felt threatened. If she was questioning her career and who she was, would our relationship come next?”
Successful couples develop a “secure base” for each other
Indira and Nick are one of 113 working couples that I’ve spent the last five years studying. My question throughout the study has been “How do working couples make it work?” When it comes to transitions, I’ve found that couples who have mastered the art of thriving through career transitions together are those who develop a mutual “secure base” relationship. They are both a haven and a tinderbox for each other. Each partner supports the other in the moments of struggle while supporting the other’s ambition to take risks and explore new directions.
Being a secure base doesn’t come naturally. A tough transition tends to elicit a mix of sympathy and concern from our partners. On the one hand, they want to protect us from the uncertainty, the fear of failure, and the potential setbacks and pain. I found that this can often push one partner to care for the other in understandable yet dysfunctional ways. They often feel the urge to keep the other close, comfort them, and dampen their questioning. Unfortunately, the other partner can end up feeling suffocated because it inhibits their ability to face the range of emotions that comes with transitions.
Having a secure base is vital in times of transition because most of us can’t answer difficult questions while staying in our comfort zone. Instead, we must get out into the world and experiment with different options. First, you need to try to soothe your partner’s anxiety that they associate with the exploration that transition requires. This means acknowledging—without downplaying or exaggerating—their stress and being an open sounding board for them to share their emotions, highs and lows, fears, and doubts. Second, you must encourage them to move away from the safety of your relationship to explore new worlds and engage with new people. This encouragement can feel like a loving kick. You don’t allow your partner to wallow in doubt or self-pity or apathy, but rather urge them to go out into the world.
This is what Nick gave to Indira. As she remarked, “I am forever grateful for that period, when he was just like, ‘Take the time you need, and then you’ll see.’ He didn’t accept me just sitting around feeling sorry for myself, though; he pushed me to look into different options and really think through what I wanted.” When it was Nick’s turn to transition, Indira returned this support and helped him through his own period of questioning and uncertainty.
Not all couples whose stories I collected are like Indira and Nick. I have come across several couples who provide each other with plenty of practical support. Yet when transitions arrive, they don’t extend that practical support into the psychological domain by becoming a secure base for each other. As a result, they often grow apart. Sometimes, only one partner serves as a secure base for the other, and regrets accumulate.
It takes some work to foster a mutual secure-base relationship, but it’s worth it. According to my research, that is the kind of relationship that best supports a working couple’s development and fulfillment in the long run. Here are three actions that you can take to make it happen.
1. Encourage exploration
Support your partner’s efforts to explore career alternatives and experiment with different paths—even if it feels threatening. To minimize the threat, don’t stay silent about it. Taking an active interest in your partner’s impasses, listening to their thoughts, and talking through their dilemmas are all helpful. And it’s easier to do that if you acknowledge how you feel as they’re going through the transition. Most people face setbacks. In these times, it’s important not to smother your partner with sympathy but to provide a safe harbor and then gently push them back into exploration mode. It might feel harsh, but you don’t do your partner any favors by letting them retreat for too long.
2. Avoid interfering
There is a fine line between taking an active interest in your partner’s exploration and interfering. The best support you can give is to let them figure out their path through exploration. Resist the urge to check if they’ve been to that networking event, spoken to that key contact, or read that great book. That’s not going to be helpful. Likewise, refrain from giving advice. In times of transition, most people crave a sounding board, not someone who tells them what to do. Finally, although your partner’s explorations will make you feel anxious, putting pressure on them to figure things out as soon as possible isn’t going to help with that process (or your relationship). Transitions need time to mature.
3. Provide emotional support
Transitions are stressful. Sometimes, you’ll find the possibilities exciting. Other times, you’ll find the lack of clarity frustrating. When your partner is in this situation, the best help you can offer is by listening to your partner’s outpourings and accepting the painful feelings. A little undivided attention goes a very long way.
Having a mutual secure-base relationship doesn’t make transitions trouble-free. It does, however, give each partner the conditions to do what they must: explore, experiment, and reflect so that they can discover a new direction. Couples with a mutual secure-base relationship pass this demanding psychological role between them. Passing the role back and forth brings mutuality to a relationship, removes undue pressure from one partner’s shoulders, and gives us a fuller understanding of what our partner needs and how best to give it.
Through my research, I’ve learned that having a mutual secure-base relationship doesn’t make life more straightforward for couples. Paradoxically, it can make life more challenging. But when we have a secure base in our partner, we’re more likely to take risks, try new things, and embrace more transitions. It may not make for a quiet life, but it makes for a more interesting one.
Jennifer Petriglieri is an associate professor at INSEAD and the author of Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work.