By Jennifer Petriglieri
October 8, 2019
IDEAS
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.

Jasmine and Alejandro met in their late 20s in Toronto. For the first three years, their relationship flourished and their careers prospered in parallel. Then, just as they were planning their wedding, Jasmine was unexpectedly offered her dream promotion, which would put her at the cutting edge of her field, provide plenty of learning and likely accelerate her career. But it was based in Vancouver.

The couple knew that living more than 2,700 miles apart was not for them. But Alejandro’s company had no office in Vancouver. He considered resigning and looking for a job on the West Coast of Canada. She considered forgoing the promotion. Until this point, they had never discussed the possibility of leaving Toronto, or thought of their careers as anything but independent. Suddenly they found themselves paralyzed by the choice and unable to decide how to move forward.

A geographic relocation, an unexpected layoff, a new baby, a serious illness, a decision to join two families from previous marriages — these are all life events that can force couples to shift from having parallel career and life paths, to combining their lives into a joint one. This kind of transition raises a critical question that all working couples must face: How can we make this work?

I spoke with scores of dual-career couples over the course of five years to research how they worked together to develop two careers they were proud of and a fulfilling relationship. I found that the most successful couples figured this out deliberately and together — and I’ve consolidated what I learned from these successful couples into a tool that I call couple contracting. A couple contract is not designed to tackle specific challenges. Instead, it is designed to help couples map out and agree on what really matters to them over the long-term. Having this explicit agreement makes it easier for couples to navigate the many transitions they will face across their working lives together. If you create a roadmap for how to face unexpected challenges now, those challenges will be far less daunting when they arise.

Couple contracting involves in-depth discussions of three areas: values, boundaries and fears.

Values

What makes you happy and proud? What gives you satisfaction? What makes for a good life? These are all questions that can help you figure out what matters most to you. Values are the yardsticks we use to measure our lives. When our choices and actions align with our values, we feel content. When they don’t, we feel stressed and unhappy. What matters most to you could range from specific career goals, to having enough time to pursue an important hobby, to building financial security, to having an adventurous family life. Whatever those values are, when couples are clear about what matters most they can more easily decide what to pursue — and when they have to let go of something, it feels like a willing sacrifice rather than a regretful trade-off. For example, if you and your partner both value family time more than anything else, neither of you should take a job that requires 70-hour workweeks, even if it is an amazing career opportunity. Working less demanding jobs will allow you to serve your values.

Boundaries

What are the lines you are unwilling to cross? Are there certain geographic locations you could not stomach moving to? Or others you don’t want to leave? How many hours would your partner have to work each week for your life together to become unmanageable? How much work travel can each of you take on before your relationship starts to crumble? Negotiating and committing to lines helps couples, because it narrows their choices. This may sound counterintuitive, but scores of studies have proven that having fewer options makes it easier to choose, and makes us happier with our choices. Imagine you get offered a great promotion in a questionable location. If you and your partner have already ruled that location outside of your boundaries, then making the decision to pass on the job will be easier than if you had to open the conversation about moving while the offer on the table complicated your feelings.

Fears

Much like the canaries that miners once used to warn of gas leaks, explicitly discussing fears can help you spot when your relationship is entering dangerous territory. You may worry that your partner’s family will encroach on your relationship, that over time the two of you will grow apart, that your partner will have an affair, that you will have to sacrifice your career for your partner’s, that you may not be able to have children. The list can seem endless. Yet, as the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “We suffer more from imagination than from reality.” When couples give themselves permission to think and talk about their fears, they build greater mutual sensitivity and support, and can take take preemptive action to stop those fears being realized. If, for example, you’re interested in a risky career transition but worried that financial commitments could prevent it, you might agree to cut back on family spending in order to build a financial buffer.

Taken together, negotiating and finding common ground in the three areas of values, boundaries and fears helps couples figure out how to make their careers and lives work together. The best time for any couple to have these conversations and create their couple contract is now — the sooner the better. It might be over Skype, curled up together on the sofa or on a long walk in the neighborhood. It doesn’t matter where these conversations happen, and they can (and will) be ongoing. Having clarity on these three areas will make it easier for you to negotiate and overcome the challenges you will inevitably encounter as a couple, and build a joint life that works for both of you.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work by Jennifer Petriglieri. Copyright 2019 Jennifer Petriglieri. All rights reserved.

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