3 transitions that dual-career couples must navigate to thrive at work & love
Can you really have it all when it comes to love and work?
Yes, but it’s a limited time offer available only to dual-career couples in their 20s.
So enjoy it while it lasts.
In your 20s, you can focus entirely on your career. You’re free to head into the office early, stay late, work through the weekend and hold down a side hustle. You’re what author and professor Jennifer Petriglieri calls an unbounded talent.
“They have few personal responsibilities or constraints like a mortgage, children or elderly relatives that compete for their time or bind them to a specific location,” says Petriglieri, author of Couples that Work – How Dual Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work.
Nothing changes right away when unbounded talents first become a couple. They still get to run their careers full out on parallel tracks with little friction. “Relative lack of constraints, abundance of tolerance and willingness to discount challenges, free couples up to do what they need and want, and they often do a lot.”
The world seems full of possibilities and young couples believe they can continue to have it all and burn the candle at both ends. “That is the powerful illusion that a promising career start and a blossoming love foster.”
The first of three transitions will bring that illusion to an end by your early 30s. The transition is triggered by a major life event like the birth of a child, a career that kicks into higher gear for you or your partner, an unexpected layoff or a serious illness.
Rather than have it all, couples start struggling to do it all. The solution is to replace independence with interdependence.
“When couples have interdependent careers and lives, they mutually rely on each other to be successful and fulfilled. The move to interdependence raises the defining question of the first transition: how can we make this work? How can we structure our lives to allow both of us to thrive in love and in work?”.
Petriglieri says couples that stumble through this first transition continue to treat their careers, commitments and lives as fundamentally independent. Instead of collaborating, they compromise. There’s a risk one or both partners will keep score of the trade-offs and feel increasingly resentful.
“True life partners are not independent, but rather interdependent. This mutual dependence requires couples to collaborate rather than barter. They need to dig below practical day-to-day issues that can be temporarily solved through trade-offs and address deeper questions of career prioritization and life structure.”
The second transition arrives in your middle years. One or both partners grow tired, bored, restless and get stuck in a rut at work. Having owned your choices during the first transition, you’re now questioning those choices. You may be looking at a new job or career.
“Fleeting doubts, troubling dreams and nagging questions are all hallmarks of the start of the second transition,” says Petriglieri. “Rather than wrestling with the life events that trigger their first transition, couples must now contend with existential questions and doubts about the foundation and direction of their lives.”
The third and final transition arrives as the kids leave home, careers plateau and, in the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, we start aching in the places where we used to play. It’s a time of loss and limits, says Petriglieri.
“The final transition comes at a time of dramatic shifts in roles. As we enter this stage of our careers, spanning our fifties to retirement, the stability of the path we crafted at the end of our second transition is challenged by these role shifts, the identity voids they open up and the legacy questions they raise that go to the core of our being in the world.
“If our twenties and thirties are the ‘should’ decade where we feel compelled to establish our careers and families, and our forties are the ‘want’ decade where we craft our individual life path, then our fifties and beyond are the ‘must’ decades. The sense of urgency people feel is palpable.”
Petriglieri based her research on interviews with 113 dual-career couples. Her findings and recommendations will help anyone struggling through the transitions or wanting a heads up on the challenges ahead.
Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.