Forget the fights over housework: How couples who both work make it work

Salon talks to author Jennifer Petriglieri about power in relationships and who gets to chase their dreams

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 21, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)


The seemingly impossible to attain work/life balance becomes a whole other level of challenge when you’re trying to do it for two. The vast majority of couples, regardless of their gender makeup, work. Yet many of us struggle with the demands of maintaining a relationship while pursuing our career goals — goals that may include student debt, insane hours or a cross country move or two. And most of the books on the subject treat the challenges of home and work as largely domestic, and largely motherhood based.

Author and researcher — and wife and mother — Jennifer Petriglieri wanted to take a different approach. Based on what she learned from talking to over one hundred couples in a span of six years, Petriglieri has gathered her insights together into her engaging, accessible new book “Couples That Work: How Dual Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work.” In it, she identifies the three life transition periods where working couples face the toughest choices, and the surprising strategies the most successful couples often share.

Salon spoke to Petriglieri recently about why she didn’t want to write another book about “who does the washing up” and why it’s not unromantic to treat your relationship like the investment it is.

This book comes from your own inspiration. You open it with personal experiences.

Obviously it's not a memoir. It's based on rigorous research, but yes, of course. If you look in the U.S., more than 70% are working couples. I have a rich experience — sometimes good, sometimes bad — at being in a working couple.

When the project really first came to mind, a couple of things were happening. Our children were quite small at that time. We were looking for career transitions, so we were really wrestling with these issues. As an academic, I always research careers, career transitions, leadership transitions. Increasingly, I was interviewing people and they were saying, "If you really want to understand my career, you've got to talk to my partner."

I kept hearing this, and it was my experience as well. I thought, "I wonder if anyone's written on this?" As a good academic does, I trotted off to the library and was astounded that really no one had looked at the intersection of careers. There was a lot of “work/life balance" and “Who does the washing up?” but that wasn't going to answer the questions. In all the research on careers, we looked the individual's careers as if they have no strings attached and are flying solo. So I thought, "Well, if no one is going to do that, I'm going to do that." 

Your book does not just address male/female gender dynamics. It's really about relationships, and you don't just have male/female couples as your illustrative points. It's also beyond, as you say, just who does the washing up. It's about a word that comes up a lot: the “dream." And who gets to have their dream at different points.

And, of course, the underbelly of that is the power. Where does the power lie in the couple? The way I think of power is, who has the power to chase that dream? It's really important that we understand dream holistically. It's not just a career dream, it's also a life dream. Do I have time to craft the life I want? Part of that is career and part of it is, what couple are we? Where do we live? 

A lot of the psychological dynamics in couples are really caused by who is allowed to chase their dreams. Is the couple supporting both partners equally in chasing their dreams? That doesn't mean they have the same dreams. It means: Do we both get a shot at pursuing them? Which I think is essentially in question for working couples.

Very early on out of the gate, you address the fact that the dream is not just economics. If economics is what is fully driving your idea of what the “dream” is, you're going to run into trouble. Because on a deeper, more emotional level, we know that that is not the only thing that drives us.

If we think of those working couples in the younger generations, they've come out of college, they've got debt. Money is important. The problem is, it can be over-weighted. The other thing I found is that money can be used as an excuse in a power game. "Well, I'm earning more.”

Very often couples fall afoul of this. Either they really over-value money. Or it can be a power move for one person to essentially get their career prioritized and get that dreams prioritized over the other.

I love some of the examples you use, like the husband who is just absolutely devastated because he realizes, "We're not going to get to live where I want to live. Where is my home?” The dream is not money, the dream is home. Or for another husband, the dream is scaling back, changing careers, spending more time with family. 

I always think, "What is the meaning of money in your couple? What is the currency?" Because the currency is never money. Money is a currency for something else. The answer is different for different couples. Is money power? Is money freedom? Is money a way to buy us options for later on? When we look at money as face value, as dollars in the bank account, nothing good is going to happen from that.

Talk to me a little about the transitions that we come upon in different stages of our lives, and why those are such critical points.

The key periods of challenge structured around transition points. I found that if couples could work through these transitions well, they could have a period of relative stability.

The first transition happens basically in the first, roughly, five-ish years that a couple get together. Whether they got together at 18, 38, 68, it didn't matter. It is the time when we really become a couple, because it's triggered by the first major life event or challenge we face that presents a hard choice. Maybe for younger couples, one of us gets offered a job on the other side of the country. Does one follow, do we go our separate ways? Maybe it's the arrival of the first child. Maybe it’s a couple who get together later in life. How do we blend families from previous relationships?

All of these questions essentially put an end to parallel living. Even if we think we're super committed, the reality is they tend to still be living on these parallel tracks. I have my career I'm building, I have my friends, and I can lay it on top of this wonderful relationship and it's great. But it never lasts. Something always happens that really makes couples have to figure out, "How are we going to make this work together? How are we going to figure out how to fit our two careers in our relationship together?"

This is where the financial trap of looking at the practicalities comes in. We’re naturally drawn to the logistics of finance, child care, geography, these kinds of questions. The first transition is about something much deeper psychologically. It's about this question of dreams: How are we going to stretch our lives in a way that we both get a shot at our dreams? What I find is the couples who try and work at that level of questioning usually come to a rather good solution.

The couples who work at that practical level is a couple where the power gets imbalanced. For one reason or another, "He's earning more so we're going to follow his dreams," or, "It makes sense that we stay here and her career takes priority." It's not the fact per se that one person's career is taking priority, it's the process by which couples arrive at that decision. Maybe we take it in turns, or maybe we both scale back a bit. If they've really considered at that level, they tend to work through the first transition well. 

The second transition is different because it's linked to career stage. Your twenties and thirties are really the years of striving. We're striving to establish ourselves in the career ladder, we're building a relationship, building families as well. The path we take at that point is always, honestly, a bit of a mix between what we really want and social expectations. What happens at the mid-career point, which tends to be mid-forties, is almost all of us take a step back and think, "Is this really my path? Is this really the direction I want to go on?"

For most people it's a deep questioning and a real chance to re-orient our career and make some choices. Because I've got a chunk of my career left, but I've not got all the time in the world. And if I want to make a shift the time is now. This is incredibly stressful in couples. When we see our partner wrestling with what are quite existential questions like, "What do I really want from life?" it's very easy to interpret that as a problem with our relationship.

We see it in the divorce statistics. There’s a blip in the divorce rate at this mid-period of life. What I found in the research is there needs to be a shift at this time is the way we think about support in our couples. The second transition is really about, "How do we support each other differently?" And here it's all about this psychological support.

Often when we think about what a good relationship looks like it's based on the good old British tea and sympathy, where I'll prop up your self-esteem. I'm going to make you feel good about yourself. If something bad happens I'll tell you, "Don't worry about it, it'll all be OK." This is wonderful, but it's exactly what we do not need at this stage of our lives and careers. Because when we are grasping with these existential questions the worst thing we can do is stay in our comfort zone. It's absolutely vital that we can get out there and explore and experiment with different options because this is the only way.

 The couples who did well here really shifted their model to what you colloquially call, "a loving kick up the ass." What it means to have a secure base is that yes, we have that consistent support, but we essentially have someone who is giving us a loving push away from the comfort zone and out into unfamiliar territory. We’re almost pushing them away and giving them a long leash. Couples who bake the support into their relationship really went through the second transition well. The reason they did is it gave each other the permission. I think that's an important word: permission, to really question the foundation of their life, their relationship, their careers, and really rethink things in a creative way. Couples who did that actually then enjoyed quite a period of reinvention. It's a real fundamental shift in, "Where are we going? What is the purpose in what we're pursuing? And therefore, what does our careers need to look like? What does our relationship need to look like? What does that life look like?"

You also talk about the power dynamics and which ones really work out the best. 

Working couples are sick of being told, "It's only going to work if you do X like that." You can pretty much make anything work as long as it's very explicitly negotiated and agreed. I think that nuance is really important for working couples because all the things you're told, like you have to be exactly 50-50 or it's not going to work, or one person has got to choose the primary career, that’s just simply not the case.

When you go to any bookstore or you look at the covers of any magazines, the expectation is, that all couples are heterosexual and the the job of making it work falls to the woman. 

Essentially it says to women, "If you're going to do well, the thing you need to worry about is the housework and how you split it.” It drives me nuts because it's keeping us in the narrative that the important place is the home, and that's not my research showed.

My research is very much, "This is a joint negotiation about our lives." It's not about the house, it's not about the practicalities, it's about: What do we want out of life and how can we make sure we both get a shot of following those dreams? Then once we figured that out yeah, then we worry about the practicalities. If it was as simple as thinking Google Calendars and splitting housework then we would not be having this conversation.

That narrative also really holds men back as well because, as you point out, there are other priorities for men, too. 

I had a big piece in the Wall Street Journal which was more autobiographical, about how you make psychological contracts with your partner. And the comments, they were vicious.

What's interesting is what people put to task is the fact that my husband and I deliberately discussed our desire. I found this absolutely fascinating sociologically, that people have this Prince charming model, that you should fall in love and then it should just magically work. The fact as a couple, and as a woman, I'm explicit about what I desire from life [brought out] absolute nastiness in people. I thought, "How fascinating is that?"

If I asked you what is the vision of your career, you would be able to tell me in a second. If I said, "What's the vision for your relationship?" you would look at me as if I've lost my mind. We know that careers take investment, and we assume that if our relationship requires investment it's because something has gone wrong. That narrative is really problematic.

I think in the modern world we've really lost touch with the idea and also lost the language, of how to talk about relationships from the perspective of investment. I think we've got to shift our notion of what it takes to make a relationship work, and particularly when to two careers are involved. Sex is an investment, having these conversations as an investment. A lot of the investment is fun. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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