Valerie L. Sizelove
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Freelance writer, mom of four.

Have you ever heard that you have to choose between a family life and a long-term career? 

Families today are breaking the mold when it comes to work life/home life balance, as about half of today’s married couples have both people working outside the home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

But how can you build a family while still building your career? Is it possible for the individuals in couples to focus on their careers while still maintaining a happy relationship? Welcome to the lives of dual-career couples.

What does it mean to be in a dual-career couple?

Dual-career couples are those in which both people in the relationship are focused on advancing their careers. Instead of there being just one breadwinner, both people are invested in their own professional endeavors. This lifestyle can create both challenges and opportunities, depending on the field of work and compatibility of career types.

Within the category of dual-career couples, there are also couples who share the same career field. This situation can simplify life. For instance, there are many dual-career couples in the academia field because schools and universities are likely to hire couples at the same time. However, dual-career couples can instead be composed of people with completely opposite specialties. Regardless of details, the defining factor of a dual-career relationship is that each person is invested in a long-term career.

Challenges and opportunities

Unique challenges are bound to arise for each couple that lives a dual-career lifestyle. However, problems can be solved when a close-knit couple works together for equal success. Being in a dual-career relationship can also offer opportunities that wouldn’t be available otherwise, which makes this life situation desirable to many.

Communication about goals

It’s important for participants in dual-career couples to check in with each other periodically to make sure they’re still on the same team with the same goals. People can get so caught up in their careers that they don’t realize how it affects their family and home life. Once a year, it’s a good idea for those in dual-career relationships to discuss goals and individual concerns.

Relocation

Relocation can be tricky for couples with two career workers. Often, long-term careers, in general, require relocation. If moving for a job is on the table, timing is important. Both halves of the couple need to be at points in their careers where moving is a viable option. Or, couples may need to endure temporary separation when work requires travel. Either way, relocation can present some unique challenges to dual-career couples.

Finding compatible jobs

Not only does the dual-career couple need to navigate interests together, but their careers need to be coordinated. This is where it helps for people to be in the same field, such as education, where there are often ways for the couple to find places to continue their careers together. It might seem like a game of chance for to find jobs that are compatible, but with research and persistence, it’s completely possible.

Children and family life

With both people in the relationship putting their all into work, it can be challenging for dual-career couples to manage their home and family life. It takes a joint effort between both working parents to raise children and maintain the home. Life may feel a bit hectic for these families. It’s recommended to plan out family life the same way as you plan your career goals — together, with planning and focus on the future.

Meeting each other’s expectations

If couples aren’t regularly checking in with each other about goals and satisfaction levels, it will be difficult for them to meet each other’s expectations. Conversation needs to be clear about what partners expect from each other, both financially and in the home. Plan your family life together the same way as you would a long-term career.

Identity crisis

In dual-career couples, feeling like you fit into a specific identity can be hard, especially because you fit into two identities (or more). You might be a part-time parent, part-time professional and part-time partner. It can feel stressful to keep switching back and forth between roles or trying to fill all of them at the same time. Understand that life isn’t going to be perfect — you’ll need to prioritize and compartmentalize certain aspects of life at different times.

Compromise

Being single with one career and being part of a couple with two careers are very different situations. As a couple, you’ll have to compromise. At times, you may have to let go opportunities for the sake of your partner, or vice versa. People in dual-career families must be careful to ensure they’re watching out for their own careers while still being fair to the other person’s opportunities.

Competition

When two people manage careers side-by-side, it can be devastating for one partner if both careers don’t seem equally successful. Inequality between partners’ career success can cause ill feelings, grudges and resentment that cross over into the relationship. One person might feel that the other person or the relationship is holding back their career. Again, communication is key in these situations. Being open about your feelings with your partner is the best way to start a discussion. You could also see a therapist to vent about your worries and concerns while gaining valuable advice.

Resources for dual-career couples

Here are some resources to help you understand and navigate dual-career couple life:

  • Book: A Guide for Dual-Career Couples: Rewriting the Rules by Eve Sprunt, Ph.D.

This book dives deep into the lives of dual-career couples and some of the problems they face. It includes advice for couples to help them navigate career-planning and family-planning with different standards than those that are traditional to society.

  • Book: Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work by Jennifer Petriglieri

Petriglieri advises dual-career couples to work together toward big-picture goals that make both parties truly happy. She advises against too much compromise, because that means one partner infallibly has to make sacrifices in their career for the other. Petriglieri claims that it’s often women who make the career sacrifices. The growth process for dual-career couples is framed in three phases, which each address different stages and aspects of the relationship.

  • Article: How to Not Fight With Your Spouse When You Get Home From Work by Ed Batista, Harvard Business Review

This is a short article discussing the way that working spouses are often stretched thin by demanding careers, so when they get home, intimate interaction with each other needs to be pleasant. Batista offers advice on avoiding fights from stress and maintaining a peaceful household when in a dual-earner relationship.

  • TED Talk: Conscious Coupling: Managing Dual Careers by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

The CEO of 20-first, a leading global gender-balance consultancy, gives advice on choosing a partner and using professional skills to balance home life in a dual-career relationship.

  • eBook: When Both Parents Work: A Parenting Style for Dual Career Couples by Barbara and Jonathan Young

Balancing work and home life can be daunting, especially when it comes to parenting your children. Here is a short, 68-page eBook that offers simple advice for dual-career couples raising kids. Notably, it contains the input of the authors’ teenage daughters who grew up in a dual career household.

In this video, Susan Cantrell, Lucinda Maine and Sharon Murphy Enright offer advice on making life work for dual-career couples.

FAQs

With so many terms floating around to describe families’ career profiles, let’s take a look at some common questions.

What is the difference between a dual-career and a dual-earner couple?

The category of dual-earner couples is much broader than that of dual-career couples. It simply means that both people contribute financially to the success of the family. However, one (or both) individuals may simply work a job without long-term career goals. One person may work from home and assume more household tasks. The only defining feature is that both parents earn income. Dual-career couples, on the other hand, are defined by each person having long-term career goals in action.

What is a dual career home?

A dual-career home describes the entire family of a dual-career couple. It involves the complications that come with both parents being immersed in careers while maintaining a home and possibly raising children. Children growing up in a dual career home may have a much different experience than those who don’t live in a dual career home.

What does "dual-earner family" mean?

A dual-earner family describes the family of a dual-earner couple, where both parents make income that contributes to the household income. However, both parents aren’t necessarily invested in individual careers. One (or both) incomes could come from at-home work, part-time work or a non-committed job.  

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