Four reasons why an equal, dual-career relationship will make you happier

“Why doesn’t your wife do it?” I had been waiting for my husband to be asked this question when he asked for flexible work hours, with morning and late afternoon slots reserved for our daily routine with the kids. But thankfully, the question has not popped up so far. Because the answer would be obvious: I work full-time, too.

What a dual-career approach means

There are many paths of following dual careers, not just one. Jennifer Petriglieri of INSEAD, whom I’ve already mentioned in my other post about what this means for childcare in home office times, has identified not one, but three approaches in her book “Couples that work”:

  • Primary-secondary: One of the two careers always comes first. This does not mean the one in the secondary role has to give up their career or work part-time. It just means that when moving up the career ladder and making decisions such as relocations, the primary career is prioritized. This is basically a ‘dual-career light’, an approach where both partners work and probably also share the workload at home, but the one in the secondary role will regularly contribute more to housework and childcare. This has never been more obvious than in the pandemic, where when difficult decisions are required, it is usually the woman who has step back or even give up her career to make it work. In times of crisis, the primary-secondary model tends to shift to the old-fashioned single-career approach.
  • Turn-taking: Both partners get to be ‘primary’ in different periods of their careers. For example, one gets a promotion and really needs to make time for the new responsibilities, so the other carries a larger burden at home. Then things settle down for the promoted partner and they switch, easing the way for the other partner to achieve their promotion and focus on the new career step. These periods can last a few years each or even longer.
  • Double primary: Both careers stay roughly equally important, though there might be small shifts at any given time. This model is different from turn-taking in the flexibility it both gives and requires. If one gets a promotion, they might need some more time, but both partners still adjust constantly so that the other can work on their own career at the same time. Think of this as a daily turn-taking.

While the third approach has been identified as most common in the happiest relationships Jennifer Petriglieri has studied, this is not attributed to the approach itself, but rather due to the amount of communication required to make that model work. Being in a primary or secondary role, either permanently or in turns, is much easier to comprehend than having the daily challenge of adjusting and shifting the priorities of both partners.

I have never consciously thought about which approach to take. My career has always been important to me, and I never wanted to work any less than full-time. I also always wanted to have children, but saw housework and childcare as something that my partner and I would have to share to enable me to still pursue career opportunities. As this has been very important to me all my life, I made my wishes clear from the very beginning. My husband and I have been doing the double primary approach by nature of our relationship. It does not guarantee happiness, but it does come with quite a few benefits.

Four ways the double primary model will push you towards happiness

I will first admit that I did not always stick to my chosen dual-career approach. Based in Germany, we have very good opportunities for paid parental leave, so I did not hesitate even for a second when it came to my decision to stay at home for 12 months both times. I was basically committing to a single-career approach in favour of my husband, but temporarily. To date, I do not regret a thing. However, the experience did show me very clearly what I love about our double primary model and how important it was that the change really was only temporary.

  1. Communication is key. No surprise! Again, the key to happiness is not the double primary model itself, but the fact that it forces you to communicate your needs and organize your daily routines so that both partners are equally considered. You learn not to take the others’ work for granted. You adjust your day according to both of your needs, making compromises every day.
  2. Unpaid work is appreciated. Staying home and taking care of the entire housework, not to mention children if you have any, can be more tiresome than your average day at the office, yet tends to go unappreciated because you do not contribute to the income. It may still work for some couples. But in dual-career relationships, appreciation comes automatically because both need to do unpaid work and both learn to be grateful when the other takes over more household duties than normally.
  3. More quality time as a family. This is not as obvious, but when you share your daily routine as a team, you tend to have the same stress levels and the same amount of free time. You are more inclined to spend that free time with each other. During my maternal leaves, I sometimes felt as if I was working from dawn to dusk; while my significant other was relaxing after work or playing with the kids for the first time in the day, I was still busy with another to-do on my list. Now, we communicate daily (see point 1) when we are ready to fetch the kids and drive home together, and when we are home, we decide what needs to be done and what can wait so we can spend more time as a family.
  4. You are happier with yourself. If you cut back your career, you earn less, you are less independent, you feel less fulfilled and you still have so much to do at home that it is seldomly outweighed by having more free time or quality time with your children. If you are the primary or sole income earner, you will feel the additional pressure and sometimes guilt towards your partner, and perhaps you will strive to be an overarchiever at the cost of family time. It is much easier to give away 20% so that your partner can also have a satisfying career.

In the end, it all comes down to balance and being able to do what is important to you: spending time with your family, having a fulfilling job and a cozy home to return to, and most certainly having an income of your own that makes you independent and self-confident. Relationships can fail, health can suddenly deteriorate, and the less worries you have at the back of your mind, the more open and honest you can be in your relationship.

Dual-career also means you will both only reach 80%

Any dual-career relationship is also a challenge, there is no denying that. Dividing tasks clearly and strictly is often easier, at least at first glance. And if you are not overly ambitious, you might have good reasons to stay at home or work part-time, either having the children around you more or simply more time for yourself. It’s all good as long as none of the above points are an issue in your relationship.

To me, the biggest downside of the double primary approach was that you could never reach 100%-until I realized that having 80% in everything was my own personal perfect world. I have made several steps in my career, certainly a little more slowly than I would have as the primary earner. I work a bit less than full-time. My kids are a little longer at kindergarten than those who have one parent working only part-time, but I still have time for dinner and some quality time with both of them every day. And when they are in bed, we have some free time reserved for us as a couple. We have very similar stress levels, which are lower for both of us than for most primary or sole earners that we are acquainted with.

Do I feel the restrictions of not being able to go 100%? Of course I do, but not as much as you would think. I’ve watched colleagues, as primary earners, climb the career ladder a little faster than I was able to. On my days off, I see parents in part-time with their children on the playground as a part of their daily afternoon routine. And it is certainly tempting to have a partner stay at home and keep your house tidy and your dinner ready when you’re returning from work. But then, life is always about prioritization and each of these scenarios requires some sort of sacrifice I am not willing to make or ask from my partner. I firmly believe that loving yourself and achieving your own balance in your professional and private life is the key to a happy and healthy relationship with both your partner and your children. My 80% in all areas of my life is my own version of perfection that I strive for every single day.

Also, remember that 80% is actually much more than it sounds: It means putting in a moderate effort to get these 80% going, while stretching it to 100% would require disproportionally more sacrifices in time and strength. I worked a lot more before I had children, but I can see now that I was only incrementally more productive at a significantly higher stress level. And I wasn’t even in a management position back then. There is a good reason four-day working weeks are on the rise!

How are you and your partner handling your careers and your daily life? Any thoughts, any tips? I’d love to hear from you.

Originally published at http://8020perfection.wordpress.com on April 4, 2021.

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Lana

Happily juggling my roles of working full-time in the media industry and resisting the urge to micromanage my two kids. Perfectionist, yet in love with 80/20.