A few years into married life, my husband and I decided we should make a five-year plan. Armed with a soon- to-expire voucher for afternoon tea, we left work early, optimistically cracked the spine on a fresh notebook, and exchanged our daydreams through mouthfuls of dainty cakes. But pitching (moving out of London for him; a travel sabbatical for me) soon turned into picking apart. “But my career is here!” we both muttered defensively. Stumped by the practicalities, we conceded defeat before the conversation turned too toxic. A plan? You’d be generous to call it a tense brainstorm.
Nearly a decade on, over two-thirds of UK couples now fall into the two-career category. Many, like us, are still struggling to negotiate the power dynamic. Does your salary trump his start-up? Should you lean in at home because of her promotion? And who on earth buys the loo roll when you’re both away on business?
Podcasts and preachy Insta posts would have you believe that harmony lies somewhere between a shared Google calendar and a six-figure salary. But having faced my own “negotiation” last year, when my husband was offered a great job in the Netherlands – which meant giving up my own in London – I can tell you that none of that stuff makes navigating it any easier.
According to Jennifer Petriglieri, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD – who’s spent five years studying successful relationships – we’re approaching this all wrong. Having interviewed more than 100 couples in 32 countries, she’s made two game-changing discoveries: that dual-career relationships go through three transitions; and that it’s how you prepare for and navigate these – not whether you have kids or how many date nights you go on – that ultimately determines whether you succeed.
“The first transition usually occurs in your late twenties or early thirties,” she explains, “and is triggered by a big event, such as starting a family, a relocation or perhaps redundancy. You’re acknowledging your interdependence and asking yourselves, ‘How are we going to deal with this?"
I can pinpoint this exact moment for us – when at 27, I was offered the editorship of a magazine in Dubai just as Nick and I realised we were ‘serious’. Despite being mid-career-switch himself, Nick recognised that this was a huge opportunity for me. We went for almost three years; I worked crazy hours while he took the lead at home, keeping the fridge filled with food alongside his own job.
“The second transition is most common in your early forties and is more existential,” continues Jennifer. Many of us find at this stage that what we’ve been striving to achieve no longer gives us the same satisfaction it once did. “You’re asking, ‘Is this what we really want?" Turning 40 was certainly a wake-up call for me. Nick and I loved where we’d got to – we’d just bought a lovely new house, had great careers and two kids. But we hadn’t forgotten the dreams of our younger selves, to travel and maybe live abroad again. I was 41 when we made the jump to live in Amsterdam.
The third transition – spoiler alert – comes around retirement age. That’s when we’re all forced to recognise personal and professional limitations and ask, “Who are we now?” If your careers advisor didn’t cover any of this stuff, you’re not the only one. It seems kind of crazy, but amid all our career planning and #relationshipgoals talk, the intersection of the two is rarely discussed. My friend who complains she’s “CEO at work and skivvy at home”? That’s the intersection, right there. You can ignore it but you can’t escape it.
Instead, Jennifer believes we should underpin it with a “couple’s contract”. No eye-rolling – this isn’t an Excel spreadsheet about when to have a baby or who does the laundry. “Couples often jump to practicalities,” warns Jennifer, “skipping the psychological element." The contract is a mindful conversation to agree what’s meaningful to us.
You literally each write down your values, fears and boundaries, and discuss. Perhaps reaching a certain point in your career is important to you, but boundaries might include no business travel on the weekend, while a fear could be infidelity.” The idea is to find common ground and commit to it. “It won’t immunise you from life, but it gives you a framework to navigate the three transitions,” she advises.
I think back to my conversation with Nick over afternoon tea. Actually, it highlighted some important values, namely travel and adventure, that ultimately played a large part in our Amsterdam decision (or as I know it now – ahem – our second transition). Could converting it into a full-on contract help with that other discussion we’re currently avoiding – if and when to leave Amsterdam?
“Imagine one of you is offered a job in Australia next,” Jennifer offers as an example. “If you’d already agreed a value of spending more time with family, you wouldn’t have even applied for the job in the first place.” If this sounds limiting, then good. “We think more choice is better. Actually, less makes us far happier,” Jennifer argues.
“A couple’s contract gives us permission to not pursue it all, plus a really clear idea of where we should put our energy.” This also means expending less effort on our bosses. "We’ll have multiple bosses but we invest a lot in them. Meanwhile, our partner will support us throughout. Get that relationship right, and you can cope with anything.” This is the crucial learning from making a couple’s contract – to think as a team. “Many couples stay in an independent mindset,” Jennifer cautions. “It’s far better to look from a collective perspective.”
And it’s true. Recalling the big decisions I’ve – sorry, we’ve – faced, the really sticky moments have come when we’ve each thought only from our own points of view. But when we made a pros and cons list from a family perspective about moving to Amsterdam, it started to look more like opportunity than sacrifice. “A lot of it is about how you frame it,” agrees Jennifer.
Of course, the dimensions can change, so you should revisit your contract at least every year to see what’s shifted. “It can actually be quite romantic. You often discover there’s a lot to celebrate,” Jennifer points out. “Almost any setup can work if it’s based on these conversations. To me, it’s the secret sauce of success. One couple I met lived apart for 12 years during a 30- year relationship. As long as it’s inside your boundaries and not pushing on your fears, couples really can make very different choices and lifestyles work.”
• Couples That Work: How to Thrive in Love and at Work by Jennifer Petriglieri (Penguin Life) is out now.
Photos: Jason Lloyd-Evans, Unsplash and Instagram