When Jennifer Petriglieri began studying relationship dynamics six years ago, she had a certain idea of what being a “power couple” meant. And it wasn't a particularly flattering one.
“When I went into it, I thought that couples who had two really significant careers must be a disaster, because they’re so focused on their careers,” Petriglieri, an associate professor, said. “We tend to think of two big careers as being a relationship killer, and yet, they really weren’t. These were actually some of the most functioning couples I spoke to.”
Petriglieri surveyed over 100 couples as part of her research for “Couples That Work,” her book published this fall outlining the habits of successful dual-career couples. And what she learned from these powerhouse couples, many of which involved partners each sitting at the top of their respective fields, surprised her the most.
“I was like, ‘How does this work? You have so much going on and you still have this great relationship.’ And what I found was that if you’re trying to juggle two big careers, you’ve got to talk about your priorities and boundaries, because you’re never going to manage it all otherwise,” she said. “And so I found that these couples thrived so well not because of their careers, but because these careers forced them into having these conversations."
"It’s really the conversations that matter.”
Not only did these conversations involve explicit “contracts” set between couples — in which boundaries, goals and fears were discussed — but they also included support that was communicated in a very specific way. It’s a “tough love” approach that Petriglieri likened to her own 16-year relationship.
“It’s like having a safety net and a kick up the ass at the same time,” she said. “I know he’s going to catch me, and he’s also like, ‘Get out there and do it.’ So on the one hand, I feel really secure, and at the same time I feel challenged and pushed to do things that I probably honestly wouldn’t do on my own.”
The end result? A dynamic that empowers each partner to go after their individual career and life dreams, together.
Petriglieri found this to be true despite — or, perhaps more accurately, because of — the higher number of obstacles these couples often faced in pursuit of high-impact paths.
“What happened with these couples was the way they thought and talked about their challenges was, ‘We chose this, this is our struggle and our grand adventure,’ rather than ‘this is just hard work,’” she said. “So it’s like the lens through which they saw their challenges was completely different because they had this real strong support from their relationship. It’s all about how we look at a situation, and the structure of a relationship can really make you look at things in a different way.”