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How to Be a Happy Two-Career Couple, According to Science: Forget About Compromise

If you want two big jobs and a happy union, replace compromise with "vicarious ambition," a new study says.

Bernardbodo/Getty Images
Bernardbodo/Getty Images

It’s not just you — surveys show that people across the world are reporting it’s getting harder and harder to find work-life balance. Thanks to the rising cost of living, longer work hours, abysmal childcare options, and always-on tech, professionals around the globe are telling pollsters they feel more frantic and less happy than ever before.

So imagine how much stress power couples are under? Are these doubly ambitious pairs with two big jobs doomed to struggle with balancing the dueling demands of their two careers?

That’s what INSEAD professor Jennifer Petriglieri wanted to find out with her latest research, which involved in-depth interviews with 50 two-career couples. Happily, she came back from these conversations with optimistic news. It is possible to pursue to big jobs without resentment or marital strife, but in order to have two careers and a happy union you need to give up on something surprising: compromise.

What could possibly be wrong with compromise? We’ve all been told that meeting in the middle is generally the way to settle disputes with those we care about since at least kindergarten, but according to Petriglieri’s research, this approach breeds resentment and power imbalances among dual-career couples. Far better to stop thinking in terms of one partner sacrificing for the other, and in instead in terms of “vicarious ambition.”

“What defines success as a dual-career couple is not self-effacement for the relationship’s sake, but rather a combination of mutual support and vicarious ambition,” she writes on INSEAD Knowledge. “Instead of thinking in terms of ‘you vs. me’, thriving dual-careers tend to view both their own career fulfillment and their partner’s as contributing to the overall good of ‘we’.”

The interviews revealed that when couples used the language of compromise, one partner often secretly or not-so-secretly felt they did more of it than their partner, and feelings of unfairness built up. The partner who took a step back often had a “nagging suspicion of having settled for less – even, at times, suppressed resentment at their partner’s more exciting career path, which their support helped to make possible,” reports Petriglieri.

On the other hand, the happiest couples, Petriglieri’s team found, rejected this zero-sum ‘your success demands my sacrifice’ thinking entirely.

“They trusted that their relationship was strong enough to handle two simultaneously developing careers. Moreover, these couples noted how their individual career trajectories intertwined and reinforced one another. Seeing their partner soar inspired them to new heights,” Petriglieri reports. The success of one partner feeds and inspires the success of the other.

So how do you get to this place where the conversation is less about trade-offs and more about working together for mutual lift off? Petriglieri goes into more detail on practical suggestions in a recent HBR podcast, but her basic recommendation is to communicate earlier and more, and to junk the script that focused on trade-offs and compromise.

“Take the time every so often to have those preemptive conversations. What is it we’re aiming for individually and together? What is it that’s going to make us thrive? And what choices might we need to make to make that happen?” she suggests.

Don’t wait for conflicting job offers or some other crisis to force the discussion and some sort of resentment-inducing deal where one party feels forced into the role of the supporting player. Instead, talk from the start about how you can be each other’s mutual support system, rather than who is going take the backseat when.

Originally published at www.inc.com

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