How to Balance Two Careers in a Marriage Without Losing Yourselves

It's possible. You just have to follow these rules.

Modern life often leads to less quality time between spouses. We work more. We stress more. We have less time for date nights or dinners together. It’s no wonder, then, that the idea of couples in which both partners have busy, full-time careers and also a solid relationship seems like something found only in ’90s sitcoms. As two-career households become more and more common, however, it’s more necessary than ever for spouses to learn how to balance career, family, marriage, and the thousand to-do lists all require. It’s a spinning plates act, sure. And it undoubtedly comes with a lot of stress. But there is a way to make it far more manageable.

“It’s all about the process,” says Jennifer Petriglieri, an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the graduate business school INSEAD. Petriglieri’s research revolves specifically around dual-career couples — that is, couples in which both partners have large jobs — and the author of the upcoming book Couples That Work. Petriglieri says couples can often become obsessed with the output, asking A or B questions such as: what should I chose, my family life, or my career? But, she says, that’s not the way to approach it. In fact, it’s a waste of time.

In actuality, it requires adherence to a strict process. Part of that process involves setting some boundaries at the outset. And while the term boundaries may sound restrictive in a marriage, Petriglieri says that limiting choices is actually a good thing.

“We think that more choice is better,” she says. “But actually, all the research shows the opposite. The more choice we have, the harder it is to make decisions and the more we regret those decisions and wish we’d chosen something different.”

As such, the boundaries that can be set up at the start of a marriage, especially one in which both couples will be working, can help each other understand what the limits are. For example: How far would one person be willing to move for the other’s career? Would they be willing to live apart if a job demanded it? Where are the “no-go” zones when it comes to relocating?

Similarly, couples need to establish boundaries around time, figuring out how much is too much at work and also how much is too little. This last point, while tricky, is an important one, as often the societal impulse is to demonize work, especially when it comes to marriage.

“Most people in dual-career couples are into their work,” Petriglieri says. “They love their careers, and so, when people think about this balance, it’s not just about too much work, it’s also about getting enough of the stuff that they love.”

In addition to having an open conversation about boundaries, Petriglieri says, such couples should also talk about compromise. However, she stresses that “compromise” should not be confused with “sacrifice.” There are ways that couples can reach a mutual understanding about each other’s careers without having to give up their own pursuits.

“In most of the press that you see about dual-career couples, it’s presented as a zero-sum game,” she says. “This means that one person gets more and the other person gets less. And while some couples do have this ‘tit for tat’ mindset, successful couples have a mindset that is, rather than thinking about it as ‘me vs. you,’ it’s about a conceptualization of ‘we’ as the most important piece of the puzzle.”

The way it works, says Petriglieri, is that couples who invest themselves in each other then become invested in each other’s successes and failures. If the relationship is strong, then the desire to want to see each other succeed will happen naturally and the compromises that may come out of that desire will not carry with them a sense of resentment.

With that sense of compromise comes flexibility and understanding. Work can change and responsibilities can fluctuate on either side and the couples that are prepared for those fluctuations can ride them out much more easily. Petriglieri drew from her own life as an example, noting that, when her brother received a large promotion at his job, his wife was willing to do what needed to be done to support him. “She said, ‘I know that, for the next six months, I’m pretty much not going to see him and everything is going to be on my shoulders,’” Petriglieri recalls. “She knew she was in for a pretty awful six months, but she was stoic about it. There will be times when expectations go out the window and you both have to be a bit mindful about that.”

Couples in which both members have careers do need to be aware of the “gender trap,” says Petriglieri. Meaning that couples allow each other to fall into traditional and stereotypical gender roles in the marriage that can, if left unchecked, create a problem. For example, if the wife stays home for the first few months after having a baby, it might be natural that she is the one picking up around the house by virtue of the fact that she is the one who’s home more often. However, once she returns to work, if the expectation continues that she is still the one who should be handling all the housecleaning, then problems can arise. Similarly, all the pressure shouldn’t necessarily be placed on the man to be the breadwinner of the household.

“Without realizing it, couples can fall into these gender roles,” says Petriglieri. “Even in the cases of more egalitarian couples, the man is still acting as though he has to win bread for the family or otherwise they’ll starve, which is crazy. And, at the same time the woman is kind of desperately trying to keep the house going and be the perfect housewife.”

In the ongoing hustle of a dual-career marriage, it can sometimes feel as though both of you are racing to keep up, even when you have the best intentions. Petriglieri says that’s when it’s important to keep some sense of perspective and to realize that, for those who can find a way to balance career and family life, the rewards can be great.

“On one hand, it’s stressful being in a dual-career couple, you’re juggling a lot of balls,” she says. “And I think it’s very easy to get hooked into the grind of it rather than seeing the other side. That’s actually a pretty good position to be in. If you can support each other a little bit more and leverage that a little bit more, there are some pretty wild things you can do with your lives.”