Workplace Culture

Q&A With Jennifer Petriglieri: The Key to Thriving in Love and in Work

By Yasmeen Qahwash

Jan. 6, 2020

Jennifer Petriglieri
Jennifer Petriglieri, author of “Couples That Work.”

Jennifer Petriglieri, author of “Couples That Work,” talked to Workforce about the reality of making a dual-career relationship thrive in both the professional and personal aspect. In her book, she examines three transitions that couples commonly go through, the challenges they face and how to navigate each of these stages of their relationship. She recently spoke with Workforce Editorial Associate Yasmeen Qahwash.

Workforce: Struggling with work-life balance isn’t necessarily a new challenge for couples, so what motivated you to write this book now?

Jennifer Petriglieri: It’s true, couples have been struggling with work-life balance, but the way we’ve looked at work-life balance is really the interface between each individual’s career and their home life. We’ve never looked at how two careers interact together, and certainly, my research in many ways came from my personal experience. I’m in a working couple myself, and facing career transitions, and as every good academic does, when I face a problem, I go to the library. I was looking for research books, anything that could help me really understand how careers fit together, and all I found was the work-life balance literature, which is how do we divide the laundry and manage child care? All these stories of power couples, they seemed to have everything sorted, neither of which were really helpful. The more I looked, the more I realized there’s just nothing out there that looks at the interaction of two people’s careers over their lifetime. So, I thought, if that’s not there, I’m going to write that.

Workforce: What was the methodology for this research?

Petriglieri: Over the course of five years, I followed more than 100 couples across the globe and really tried to understand their lives as they unfolded. These couples were in different career and life stages, so, all the way from late 20s, 30s, 40s, right through to 60s, and even some in their 70s. They were from across the globe, gay, straight, intercultural, some had always lived in the same place, some had moved around — it’s a huge variety. When I started the research, the questions I had were, “What is the arrangement that makes this work? Is there a life structure that if people pursue, they get it right? Is it 50/50 or maybe one person with the lead career? Or maybe we should really stay in one place and not move around?”

Watch the video: Dual-Career Couples and the Balancing Act Between Work and Life

As I got into my research, initially, it was quite confusing. There were couples with all sorts of arrangements that could make it work, and there were couples with exactly the same arrangements who weren’t making it work. That’s when I started to realize, it’s not actually what a couple choose to do, it’s the way in which they go about making their choices, and that really unlocked the findings of the data.

Workforce: How are workplaces accommodating to these couples’ needs and lifestyles, and what are they neglecting?

Couples That WorkPetriglieri: The bottom line is, organizations have a D-minus right now when it comes to thinking through working couples. This really stems from the logic we currently have in our organizations around talent management. When we think and talk about talent, we treat them as people with no strings attached. Now, we may say we recognize you have a personal life outside, but that is not the way almost all our talent management structures and processes are designed in organizations. This creates two main issues for working couples, one is a mobility issue and one is a flexibility issue. The mobility issue is that most career ladders are based on the logic of geographic moves. If you want to get to the top of this organization, you need experience in different geographic markets, perhaps you need experience on different sites of the business. This logic of geographic muse is really baked into the heart of our talent management processes. Now, it’s not that working couples are not mobile, that’s not what I found at all. However, they cannot be mobile in the same way that someone with a stay-at-home spouse can be or someone who is single. This is creating big issues for working couples, but also big issues in organizations. The few organizations who are really thinking this through well now are changing the logic from location to a logic of what skills they experience in the network that people need to develop.

The second issue is flexibility. The problem is that most companies are really looking at this in the wrong way. Most people, when you say flexible working, the image that comes in their mind is of a working mother with small children, and they think part-time working or two days a week at home working. The reality is for the vast majority of working couples, that is not the flexibility they want nor is it the flexibility they need, what they need is what I call marginal flexibility. They don’t actually want to work less hours, they just want the flexibility to work those hours when and where suits them best.

Workforce: Communication seems to be a key factor in navigating couples through their transition stages. Why is this so hard for couples to maintain?

Petriglieri: I think there’s one societal reason, and then one reason within couples. I think as a society, if we think about our careers, we have a logic of investment. We wouldn’t think twice to spend a weekend on a retreat thinking about career direction and career strategizing. And we think about careers in terms of investing effort to figure out where we want to go and what’s important in pursuing it. When we think about relationships, we have the Prince Charming logic — I meet the one, I kiss the frog and we live happily ever after. We may laugh at that, and we know in our heart of hearts it’s completely unrealistic. Yet time and time again, as a society, we think about having these deep conversations as something that should be done when we have an issue in our relationship. We don’t think about relationships through the logic of investing in them. If you ask someone, “What’s your vision for your relationship?” they probably look at you with a blank face, and I’ve done it many times, I can attest to that. But if you ask someone, “What’s the vision for your career?” they could likely tell you something. I think what this does is it puts couples in the mindset of the fairy tale of their relationship, that if something becomes challenging, maybe that’s a problem with our relationship, maybe we’re not meant to be together. No, it’s just about investment — it’s exactly the same view as your careers. The more you invest, the more you get out. This is true in every domain of life, but in our relationships, we tend to, as a society, have left that behind and really forgotten about that. Then for couples, if we’ve not been doing that investment, when we hit that first roadblock, we are like rabbits in the headlights. We think, “Whoa, what’s happening? Is this a problem with our relationship? Maybe we shouldn’t have gone down this path together.” Rather than thinking, “OK, this is the time we need to double down and invest in those conversations.” To be fair, many couples get to those conversations through a crisis point, and that’s OK to get there. The question is once you get there can you then use that insight to develop a habit of keeping working on that stuff together? The reason I use the term investment is because these can be difficult conversations, but they’re also incredibly rewarding conversations. Who doesn’t want to spend time thinking about what really matters to them? Who doesn’t want to spend time with the person they love most in the world? Thinking about, “Where do we want to go in life, what are the things that are important to us?” So, it’s not that these conversations are really painful to have all the time, it’s just that we’re not used to having them. One of my real ambitions for the book, is it changes the way we talk about our relationships, it changes the way we think about working couples and it changes the conversations we have with our partners, but also we have with each other, we have in our organizations, and we have as a society about what it takes to make a relationship and two careers work.

Yasmeen Qahwash is an editorial associate for Workforce.

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