Last month, Patrick Pichette, Google’s 52-year-old chief financial officer, announced that he was retiring to spend more time with his family. In his retirement announcement, Pichette gave voice to the sentiments of countless mid-career professionals when he asserted that “Life is wonderful” but it also involves a series of tradeoffs between professional endeavors and commitments to family and community.
Dual-career couples especially struggle with tradeoffs, not only between work and personal life, but between each of their careers (and most don’t have the option of chucking it all to travel the world together). Their lives are filled with negotiation. Whose career will take priority? If one partner accepts a job opportunity that requires the other partner to leave a good job and move elsewhere, for example, will the sacrifice be compensated in some way? How will domestic work (which may detract from career building) be divided up? And what
one or both partners become unhappy with the deal they’ve created? Can they renegotiate?
You and Your Team
When you’re feeling stuck.
These challenges are made even more complex by the expectations society sets for working professionals and gender roles. We are all vulnerable to the cultural ideal of what a good employee looks like, or a high performer. Same goes for gender roles. There are cultural perceptions of what it means to be a good man or woman, husband or wife, father or mother. Combine the pressure from these norms with the reality of day-to-day life and it can be tough for even the healthiest couple to design and enact the lives they want to lead.
Research shows how these struggles play out. First of all, work is more likely to intrude into family life than the other way around. It may seem impossible to say no to an awkwardly scheduled meeting or business trip, a high-profile project, or an urgent weekend email. On the other hand, cutting back on sleep, missing a family event, or working during vacation feels doable, even if it’s stressful.
Consciously or unconsciously, couples adopt strategies for managing the demands of each career plus a shared domestic life. There’s the “one career/one job” pattern, in which the primary breadwinner’s career is consistently prioritized, while the other partner’s employment is made up of jobs that take lower priority. Most couples that start off with plans for an egalitarian partnership find that by mid-career, the reality of their situation no longer matches their early-career intentions. A recent study of Harvard Business School graduates found that women ended up with lower career priority and a higher load of domestic responsibilities than they intended, while the opposite pattern held for men.
How couples negotiate dual careers doesn’t only affect success at work and the division of labor at home, but also how the partners feel about each other. Respondents in a recent study who took a competitive approach to dual-career negotiations (for instance, by viewing one partner’s gain as the other’s loss) reported receiving less emotional support from their partner than those who took a cooperative approach (for instance, by being willing to compromise). Gender comes into play here as well: women lost more emotional support than men when they negotiated competitively, and gained less than men when they negotiated cooperatively. And both men and women who received less emotional support from their partner were more likely to feel frustrated, drained, and burned out in their relationship (though women were more resilient to lack of emotional support than men).
So, is it possible for couples to overcome these trends, to have two successful careers and to not sacrifice your relationship or your values in the process? The experience of ThirdPath Institute, a Philadelphia think tank that works with dual-career couples, shows that it is. Over the past fourteen years, founder and president Jessica DeGroot has learned a great deal about how these couples can create and sustain two careers and a shared life that aligns with what matters most to the couple. She shared with me three lessons that stand out in particular.
Be intentional. The path of least resistance is simply to let work and traditional gender roles take over—whoever has the better (i.e. higher paying) job has first dibs on a career, for example, or the woman’s career takes a back seat after they’ve had kids. Indeed, this is what happens when couples don’t actively work to build and maintain consensus on what they want. ThirdPath creates communities of support for what it calls “Pioneering Leaders” in order to help people bravely and creatively craft successful careers and rich personal lives, even when it feels like they’re paddling against a strong tide of professional and societal norms. They convene to share ideas and experiences on how to pursue a work life that allows time for family and community. For instance, these leaders are very intentional about when they take on big assignments at work, carefully thinking through the potential implications on family life and only taking on extra commitments in ways and at times that are healthy for family as well as work.
Develop a common vision, then keep each other on track. You and your partner need to see eye-to-eye on the kind of life you want to lead and stick to it when circumstances change. For example, when couples have children, their intention of sharing responsibilities is often undermined by the demands of parenting and traditional gender roles. A common pattern is that mothers resist relinquishing control and fathers feel inadequate about their parenting abilities. Nate Lewis, a senior director at Eli Lilly and Company and his wife Robin, a sales vice president at Glaxo SmithKline, had always wanted to share family responsibilities and agreed that they should both be active, involved parents. During Robin’s first business trip after the birth of their first baby, however, she called home with extensive instructions for Nate. Mindful of their agreement, Nate recalls saying “Hey honey, if this is going to work, I need to learn how to parent while you’re traveling.” Honest conversations like this help couples renew their commitment to their shared vision. Just like practicing any other skill, keeping each other on track becomes easier over time.
Be willing to experiment. Michelle Hickox, the chief financial officer of Independent Bank in Texas, and her husband Rob both worked as accountants for many years, a field that can require long hours at tax time. Unlike most accountants, however, they found a way to achieve their desired vision of shared parenting by looking for ways to spread out workload and parent availability over the course of each year. Michelle negotiated a flex-year schedule that was intense at tax time but light during the summer. Rob, meanwhile, negotiated a position that kept his schedule calm during tax season.
It is entirely possible for couples to have two successful careers and a fulfilling life, though it is unlikely to happen on its own. You’ll make compromises—everyone does— but the key is to have open, honest, and regular conversations about what you both value most and to not let professional and societal constraints determine the tradeoffs you’re willing to make.