Best of Both Worlds podcast: Couples that work

For better or worse, in many professional fields, women are more likely than men to wind up in two-career couples. Though this math won’t necessarily stay the same as women become a greater proportion of physicians, lawyers, professors, etc., I know it’s a situation a lot of Best of Both Worlds listeners are navigating.

So Sarah and I were delighted to welcome Jennifer Petriglieri to the podcast. Petriglieri is a professor at INSEAD (a French business school), and the author of the new book Couples that Work, which explores dual income life.

In case you were wondering, this is not a book about how to get men to do more housework. Instead, after studying and interviewing more than a hundred dual income couples at all stages of life (20s to retirement), Petriglieri describes life as a series of transitions that couples need to navigate. While having children certainly can be one, the first real couple-defining moment happens when they have to make a joint decision. She’s been offered a great job in San Francisco, but he likes his job in New York. Now what? These transitions can bring up all sorts of assumptions that each party might not even know that he or she believes.

Couples fall into various categories. Some choose to make one partner’s career the primary one. Others choose to alternate, either by choice or circumstance. And others go for the “dual-primary” option where both people are pretty gung-ho.

Petriglieri’s initial findings were that the dual-primary couples actually worked best (that is, they felt most fulfilled in life). She was quite excited by this — as you might imagine, this is her family’s model — but as a researcher she also knew to be suspicious any time the research confirms exactly what you are hoping to be the case. So she went back to her results. Her deeper analysis is that there were successful couples in all categories; what made these couples successful is that they chose their life courses deliberately. Because two hard-charging careers are logistically tough to navigate, these couples were most likely to have hashed these things out. But if both parties decide — mindfully, and with an eye toward their broad philosophies of the good life — that she will climb the ladder for a while to make sure the family has income and benefits while he builds a business and takes advantage of that flexibility, and then when that business reaches a tipping point she will step back and take a more supportive role, that can work great.

I think this is a really important conclusion. A lot of the angsty, negative literature out there about two career couples is focused on a situation where the parties have assumed — without adequate discussion — that his career should automatically take precedence and she should focus more on the home front. In any case, once decisions have been made, it can be challenging to re-make them. But Petriglieri has suggestions for having these discussions and navigating these conversations. I’d note that Sarah ranked Couples that Work as one of her favorite books of 2019, so definitely worth checking out!

In the question section we talk about how an introvert can handle evenings with little kids. The listener works in an office and wants to decompress after work, but she comes home to intense toddler time. We offer a few suggestions. First, make the commute home into quiet me time. No work calls, no podcasts with voices. Either silence or uplifting music! This listener could possibly add a small, 10-minute decompression stop along the way. Ten minutes reading a book in a park (or parking lot!) can help her reset. She can use my favorite toddler management technique: strap them into a stroller so you can actually zone out, and go for a walk. And she can also take herself out of the equation occasionally. We didn’t hear exactly why evenings with the toddler were her responsibility, but this may be one of those dual-career questions to navigate…

Please give the episode a listen, and let us know what you think. Also, if you enjoy Best of Both Worlds, please tell a friend about us. We’d love to grow our audience and reach more people trying to figure out work and life.

6 thoughts on “Best of Both Worlds podcast: Couples that work

  1. Great interview! I could listen to her all day as I find British accents so soothing! I will definitely be checking out this book. It definitely made me think about how your marriage is impacted by career choices, the timing of when you marry in life, etc. In my case, my husband and I were both 37 when we got married and had our son a year later. We had both kind of worked through the volatile time of what we wanted out of our careers before we married so by the time we had a child, we were both pretty established and comfortable/happy in our roles/industry. I think if we had kids in our 20s when we were still figuring all that out, it would have been harder to balance work + family. I’d be happy to stay at my job for the long haul but my husband would like a more challenging role but he put that off until after we had our son since we had enough change to deal with so her comments about not being the ‘comforter’ hit home with me as part of my role is to push him to search for a new role. Anyways, the interview definitely gave me food for thought!

    1. @Lisa – yep, the second transition can be an interesting time! I didn’t write much about that in my post, but certainly it can be a rough time for everyone as they figure out their lives. The good news, as Jennifer said, is that once you come through that you can have a real honeymoon period!

  2. Thanks for a great interview! Definitely going to be picking up her book.

    One insight I particularly enjoyed was the part about how couples who survive the first transition are really explicit about their principles, and not just the logistics. I felt that this really helped my husband and I when we navigated the transition from graduate school to finding a job in “industry”. We were both agreed that we were going to be a dual-primary couple, to use Petriglieri’s terminology, and so we decided to restrict our job search to two areas that we knew would be fertile for both our industries – around NYC and around Boston (there were other personal reasons why we ruled out the West Coast). And we just stuck to that and only applied to companies that could offer us jobs in one of those places, and it’s worked out great.

    That initial agreement actually flows into the way we manage a lot of day-to-day stuff. We each treat the other person’s career as important and think constantly about how a particular work or personal decision will impact the other person. It’s a lot of give-and-take: for example, on Thursday I have a quiet day at work, so I’m working from home, and that will allow my husband to attend an early meeting rather than having to wait for the nanny to arrive. On the other hand, next Wednesday I have a meeting I have to attend in person, so my husband is going to cover our nanny taking a day off by taking some time off himself. And actually in neither case did we resent the other person – we just accept it as a natural result of the way we’ve chosen to build our family and often proactively offer up solutions.

    1. @Anu- this sounds great that you’ve had these hard discussions about how you want life to look. A lot of us do wind up talking a lot about logistics, and not about philosophy, and that can lead to problems. Not that logistics don’t matter. They do! But they aren’t all that matter.

  3. Wow! I cannot express how much this resonated with me. My husband is in the military. We are one of those couples who never explicitly discussed how we were going to approach careers and family and life leading up to the first transition phase, it was just assumed that his would be the primary career and mine would be secondary, or non-existent! This has led to a lot of resentment and angst over the years on my part as I have struggled to build a fulfilling career and parent on my own much of the time. We are now in the throes of the second transition and I think we will be having a 15 year overdue chat about alignment of our goals and hopes and dreams over the coming weeks. Thank you for this thought provoking podcast.

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