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Work-Life Balance Is Bullshit That Destroys Marriages

Especially in couples where both partners work. Understanding this is essential to finding a way through.

Paul Comstock, Flickr

The term “work-life balance” is more than a little misleading. For one, the term suggests that the balance between work and life is simply about the amount of time spent in an out of the office; the actions one takes to silence their Slack notifications after hours, whether or not they leave their phones at the door when they come home. But it’s really not about that — and the considerations of life and career are not necessarily a balance at all, says Jennifer Petriglieri, an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Institut Européen d’Administration des Affairs (that’s French for European Institute of Business Administration, also commonly referred to as INSEAD.) 

About five years ago, Petriglieri was struck by the confounding fact that, through all of the research she had done on careers and career transitions, most published writing was about careers in isolation, not about how someone’s career might interfere with, or interact with, that of their partners — especially given that the vast majority of couples are dual-earners who have children. So Petriglieri took it upon herself to speak to them. Her book Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Worklooks at the intersection of how major career transitions are affected by relationships, by marriages, by childrearing, and more. Through interviews with 100 couples across the world in different career stages, at different ages, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, and more Petriglieri found that most couples are navigating the same issues, experiencing the same relationship challenges, and overcoming them in the same way. 

Fatherly spoke Petriglieri about the three major relationship stages dual-earning couples will go through — and how they get through it with as little struggle as possible. There will be some struggle. 

Given the breadth of your research — you interviewed 100 couples across the world from different socioeconomic backgrounds about their work, their relationships, and their child-rearing — did you see dual income couples struggling with the same questions of what we often refer to as ‘work life balance’? 

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What I found was that across the world, all couples faced three major transition points in their working lives. These were very, very predictable. The specific issues that couples would face were obviously unique to them, but we all go through the same career and life stages.

Also, they were really linked to the fundamental power dynamics and relationship dynamics that are common to everyone in a couple. What does it mean to be in a couple? Who takes the lead? Who follows? How do you deal with envy? These questions are common for every couple, regardless of your background or the way you live.

So what are those stages?

The first stage happens to all couples in the early phase of their relationship. If you think back to the early days of a relationship, it’s great, right?  The reason it’s so great is because, essentially, you’re still living parallel lives. Your careers are going in a direction. You have friends and family and you’ve just layered this wonderful new relationship on top. What’s not to like? 

That never lasts. All couples, sooner or later, face a life event that presents the first big decision that a couple needs to face. That decision points out that couples cannot live on parallel tracks anymore, they need to combine their lives. These events can be like a partner getting offered a job on the west coast. What do you do? Do you follow them? Whatever choice you make has ended those parallel tracks. You are now interdependent.

For other couples, it might be the arrival of a first child. That’s the end of parallel living. For couples who get together in later life they might ask how they blend their families from previous relationships. We have to make choices. How are we going to fit this all together? How are we going to structure our lives in a way that can sustain two careers and a decent relationship? 

Right. Couples can either choose to go their separate ways or continue to intertwine their lives. 

What happens at that transition can sound pretty practical, right? But this question is really fundamental. It’s, “What are our priorities? How do we make sure one person’s prioritizes are not more important than the other person’s?” It brings up all these questions around power, who leads, who follows. 

What happens next?

The second transition is very different. Instead of being linked to a couple’s stage, it’s linked to a career stage, and it happens in the mid-career era. The first stage of our career, in our 20s and 30s, is our stage of striving. We’re building our career, getting our feet on the professional ladder, we’re starting to climb up in our organizations. At the same time, we’re building a relationship and our families. 

The path we take in those two decades is a mix between what we really want and social expectations. 

Right.

You graduate from college, and everyone is going into this industry, so you follow. Or your parents did this and they nudged you in the same direction. What happens when we hit that mid-career point is that we start to question “is this really my path?” 

We start questioning our career: Maybe I’m in the wrong organization, maybe I should switch career paths. That blows up into these big, existential questions. What do I want from my life, really? This is very, very predictable. 

It’s a mid-life crisis. 

And it’s very destabilizing for couples. It’s no surprise that the divorce statistics peak around this mid-career stage. If I see my partner questioning what they really want out of life, and they’re not really happy, it’s very hard for me to not to interpret it being about our relationship: If he’s unhappy, is it my fault? Am I to blame?

How can couples get through these crises without making each other feel like it’s personal? How can they get through it intact?

In that second, mid-career transition, two things need to happen. The model of support in the relationship needs to change. When we think about a supportive relationship, we think about someone who plumps up our self esteem. They keep us in a comfort zone. That feels wonderful, but it’s very unhelpful when you’re dealing with these existential questions. 

Why?

Because when you’re wrestling with those questions of direction, you need to get out of your comfort zone in order to answer them. This is a stage where couples often say, “I feel stifled by the relationship. I feel like I want a break out of it,” because our partners are, in a very well-meaning way, trying to keep us in this comfort zone to reduce our own anxiety.

The couples who do really well at this transition switch from that model of support to a model that in psych we call a secure base, which is just what it sounds like: The base of the relationship is very supportive, but the idea is that its a base from which you move away. You have to give them a loving kick up the ass. It’s really saying, “Explore, so that when you come back, we can answer those questions together.” 

Now, this isn’t about giving it all up and starting a cupcake shop. For many people, it’s a small reorientation. But it’s a reorientation that gets them on a track that just feels more “them.” At the same time, if couples do this well, they can experience this huge regeneration in their relationship. I spoke to couples in this stage and they were like teenagers in love, because they’ve gone through a crucible moment and got through the other side. It’s a high risk, high reward transition.

Okay. So, the first transition is when I decide to combine my life with a partner. The second is when I have my mid-life crisis and figure out if I really like my job. I’m guessing my third is retirement?

It comes a bit later. If we’ve had kids, they’ve flown the nest. We’re petering out on our career. We might have 10, 15, maybe even 20 years of our career left. This is a really strange time, an identity loss. Who am I now that I’m not the active parent, I’m no longer the bright young star? Everything seems to be falling away from me. And at the same time, wow. I’m free for the first time in decades!

So it’s just another extremely tumultuous period.

This transition is really about reconciling that sense of loss, and I think particularly in couples who have had children, that can be the sense that once the children leave, people wonder what’s left of us as a couple? It’s really an identity transition. Who are we now? 

More or less, what I get from you is that there are no blanket solutions you can give to couples to manage their so-called work-life balance, or the way that their relationships are affected by their careers.

There certainly are no one-size-fits-all solutions. There’s no one decision that if you take it, it’s going to work. But there is a one-size-fits-all process. 

The trick here really is in the ‘how’ as opposed to the ‘what’. Couples who go through all of these transitions well are the ones who have developed the habit of having deep conversations. What do I mean by deep conversations? I mean conversations that are not about logistics, not about child care, but the conversations that talk about three things: 1) What really matters to us? What are the yardsticks by which we’re going to measure our lives? These may be professional or personal. It is surprising how many couples, when you speak to the partners, are not crystal clear on what it is that that really matters to their partners, and what it is that matters to them as a couple.

Why does it matter if couples have the same types of ‘goals’ or things that are important to them?

When couples understand this and keep it alive as a conversation is that it suddenly makes priority setting very easy. We have a decision to make: is it going to further one of our goals, one of our things that matters, or not? If the answer is no, we don’t do it. Even if all our neighbors are doing it, or all the other parents are doing it. It’s not important to us. 

And what it means is that all those decisions, there’s a logic to the practicality. When I say ‘what matters to us,’ I don’t mean an excel spreadsheet where you know what year you’re going to have first baby and then your second.

So what’s an example of how this organizes decision making?

If being a couple who is embedded in your community really matters to you, there will be a set of decisions that become obvious. You probably won’t relocate, even if an amazing job came up. Even if a couple needs to make some sacrifices, there’s a strong logic behind those sacrifices, and it’s less likely for there to be regrets. 

So that’s the first thing. The second thing couples who do well during these life transitions is that they talk about, and agree on, the boundaries they aren’t going to cross. One boundary might be a geographic line: It’s east coast or die. Another might be about time: If you get a job that’s more than X hours a week, that’s just too much for me. What having these boundaries does is it restricts our choices.

But shouldn’t we be free to do whatever we want to do? And have our partners support us? 

It sounds counterintuitive — we’re brought up to think more choice is better — but that’s incorrect. Research shows that the more choices we have, the harder it is to choose. And the more likely we are to regret our choices. When couples are really clear around their boundaries, it makes decision making tons easier.

Right. The job offer in San Francisco, or whatever, isn’t even a conversation if a couple has already decided to put their roots down forever in Massachusetts. 

The couples that make this work are very open about the things that are worrying them. The things they worry about, the things they’re afraid of happening. That might be something really specific, like, ‘I’m worried your parents are going to encroach on our nuclear family.’ When that’s out in the open, you can discuss it rationally and try to manage it, rather than it being a big blow up on Christmas day. 

Now, of course, life happens. Kids get sick. People die. Nothing can immunize you against life. But the couples that did this — talked, set boundaries, decided what they wanted from life — did well. 

Is it always a “trade-off”? Is this consideration always going to be that one partner will have to have a flexible job and the other goes on the high earning path? Or that one partner has to give up on their dreams of going West? 

I think the problem is that that’s how it’s presented. Let’s talk about work. Let’s say, you earn more, and therefore, I should spend a bit more time on child care. We hear this a lot. It’s an absolutely crazy decision making criteria.

Why? I feel like I hear it happen all the time.

Because careers are very unstable. The fact that you earn more today says nothing about who is going to earn more in five years time, because you may get laid off tomorrow. So first of all, it’s an irrational decision to make. Secondly, we work for many more reasons than just money. You could do other jobs that pay you the same as your job, so why do you choose yours? And when we base our decision criteria solely on money, we make decisions we regret, because they rob us of other really important things in our lives.

The reason I say this is because when we think in terms of trade offs, we think in these really rational terms: you earn more; my job is more flexible; and your coming up for a big promotion. Of course those things need to be in the mix, but they’re not the only thing in the mix. So we really need these conversations about what really matters to us. What’s really important? They stop us from falling in the trap of this binary thinking of, you do this, which means I do that. It doesn’t always have to be the case.