Research on Successful Dual-Career Couples: What Works?

New research by Jennifer Petriglieri on dual-career couples, published in the Harvard Business Review, sheds light on how these couples successfully manage careers and family life. The researcher and author notes that the number of dual-career couples is growing: the Pew Research Center reports that in 63 percent of couples with children in the United States, both partners work.

Petriglieri defines dual-career couples as having partners who both:

  • Are highly educated
  • Work full-time in demanding professional or managerial jobs
  • See themselves on an upward path in their role
  • View work as a primary source of identity

The author notes that sociological research shows that “when both partners dedicate themselves to work and to home life, they reap benefits such as increased economic freedom, a more satisfying relationship, and a lower-than-average chance of divorce.” But, not surprisingly, they face unique challenges that they must learn to navigate such as how to decide whose job to relocate for or if one partner’s risky career change is worth it. The key to successfully figuring out these and other issues comes from being able to openly discuss their personal hopes and fears, assumptions about relationships and cultural expectations about roles, and shared values they want to live by.

One finding from this research is that dual-career couples go through three transitions that they must navigate successfully together:

Transition 1: Working as a couple—This typically includes dealing with the first major life event, such as the birth of a child or the merger of families from previous relationships. This transition requires that couples make choices jointly and openly about how they are going to prioritize their careers and divide family commitments. People can choose different models to follow. Petriglieri found that while they can all work, the most important factors for success are that the couples keep openly discussing how their choices align with their values and have the best chance of long-term satisfaction for both partners.

Transition 2: Reinventing themselves—Sometimes one member of the couple (at least) will discover that his or her career choice early in life was shaped by the expectations of others and no longer fit his or her own desires. During this phase, couples must be able to support each other during a period of exploration or retraining, which can unsettle the arrangements that worked previously to manage work and family life.

Transition 3: Loss and opportunity—Children leaving home, the death of parents or the need to care for aging parents, or the desire for reinvention can all trigger a new need for realignment or renegotiation of the relationship. The decision to retire can create a loss of identity and trigger depression. This phase can be most successfully navigated by going through the reinvention phase together by exploring possibilities and experimenting.

The author summarizes her findings as “dual-career couples are better off being relentlessly curious, communicative, and proactive in making choices about combining their lives.”

Dual-career couples have their own trials to overcome, but with good communication comes a more solid—and rewarding—relationship.


Photo by Haley Phelps on Unsplash

Leave a Comment