The Dual-Career Mojo that Makes Couples Thrive

Harvard Business Review

"The most important career choice you'll make is who you marry." This career advice from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg makes good sense based on research. Among couples, career outcomes are indeed linked to the dynamics of support and career priority within couples.

Yet many people end up in less egalitarian marriages than they expected to have, often facing a "choice" to either stay in jobs that threaten to overwhelm them and their families or to withdraw from the workforce entirely. Just as lack of consensus around finances can doom a marriage, lack of support from one's spouse can effectively sink a career. To make dual careers work, a couple needs to be on the same page regarding their career and life goals and how they will support each other in achieving them. Here are four strategies for developing and maintaining an effective dual-career partnership.

Shared vision and values. First of all, talk early and often about what matters most to both of you. What gives you a sense of value, meaning, identity, joy? Which of these things do you share? What would you not give up under any circumstances, even if it meant sacrificing in other important areas? Even though you may hope to "have it all," placing things that are important to both of you (such as career advancement, living in a certain geographic area, starting a business, both being actively involved in your children's lives, maintaining excellent health) in order of priority improves your ability to make optimal decisions. The purpose of regularly revisiting what you hope to create together is to ensure that — to borrow from the title of a now-classic Harvard Business Review article — your commitments match your convictions. In other words, you want to avoid realizing too late (e.g., when you've already called a divorce lawyer) that there is a big gap between what you say you care about most and how you actually invest your time and energy.

Mutual interest, appreciation and investment. Remember that you fell in love with this person because you found him or her interesting. Being interested in and learning about your partner's work life and sharing about your own are important ways of maintaining that mutual interest and of promoting the limitless possibilities of mutuality. In less successful couples, partners come to inhabit separate, non-overlapping worlds, with the result that they know each other less well and have fewer opportunities for mutual enrichment over time. A good guiding principle to follow is to look for solutions that reduce career-related conflicts and maximize opportunities for career enrichment between the members of the couple. In a recent HBR blog post, Stew Friedman described a relevant example of an executive who improved both his job performance and the quality of his relationship with his spouse by sharing upcoming work challenges and inviting her input. My husband and I routinely help each other decide how to approach issues we encounter in our careers by listening, asking questions, and offering a broader perspective.

A team orientation. If you've been working on the first two strategies, it should be fairly natural to help each other out and to work together to find solutions that help you to achieve your shared goals.This often means taking turns, as my husband and I did when we put each other through school. Many dual-career couples confer with each other before accepting travel commitments to ensure that both parents are never away at the same time. The most successful dual-career couples avoid consistently sacrificing one partner's career in favor of the other's. This might mean saying to one's boss, "I'd like to work from home until mid-morning the last week of next month because my spouse will be away at a conference." In less successful dual-career partnerships, each partner's interest in the other's career is often more self-referential — as in, "How will my partner's work demands or rewards affect me?" as opposed to "How do we meet the demands and enjoy the rewards together?"

Flexibility and adaptability. Both partners need to be open to change and adaptable. Plotting an inflexible dual-career roadmap at the outset and expecting that you will be able to stick to it forever is a recipe for disappointment and missed opportunities. Modern careers don't typically follow a predictable path; the road is ever-changing. Few people make it all the way through a career without experiencing an unexpected company event that affects their career prospects, a significant failure, an apparent success that turns out to be unsatisfactory, or a desire to make a significant change. Fortunately, having two careers takes the pressure off either person to be responsible for all of the material support of the family unit. Furthermore, shared goals, mutual understanding, and a commitment to helping each other are powerful resources that help dual-career couples work through career and life challenges and changes.

If you fundamentally respect each other, value and appreciate each others' careers, want to help each other succeed, and keep the lines of communication open, you'll be able to handle and quite possibly even embrace the twists and turns you encounter along the way.

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