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How Two-Career Couples Stay Happy

It’s more important than ever to know how to balance a marriage and a career. Between 1996 and 2006, the percentage of two-income married couples rose 31% in the US. Now, 47.5% of all American married couples are dual-career couples. In Canada, the percentage of husband-wife families that were dual earners is roughly 70%, and approximately two thirds of two-adult families have two incomes in the UK

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It’s more important than ever to know how to balance a marriage and a career. Between 1996 and 2006, the percentage of two-income married couples rose 31% in the US. Now, 47.5% of all American married couples are dual-career couples. In Canada, the percentage of husband-wife families that were dual earners is roughly 70%, and approximately two thirds of two-adult families have two incomes in the UK.

Many marriages fail for work-related reasons. And prominent articles like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent contribution in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and rejoinders like Froma Harrop’s “News Flash: No One Can Have It All” have spurred critical conversations about what it means to practice work/life balance and how married people (or those in other long-term, committed relationships) can make their personal and professional lives work.

We’re part of that dual-career cohort, and we’ve had many discussions about what it means to manage a marriage and a career. As a former marriage counselor, Jackie has seen the problems couples face, and we’ve had challenges of our own, from living in different cities to managing trying travel schedules. But we think that with intentionality, it is possible to manage marriage and a career. While we’re still trying to figure things out, we wanted to offer a few thoughts based on research and our own experience.

Actively manage expectations. Unspoken expectations often lead to disappointment and miscommunication in a relationship. And the first step toward navigating a healthy marriage and an active two-career schedule can be managing expectations — everything from daily routines to ways of working. Do you need time to decompress after a long day at the office or do you need to debrief the day’s events with someone? Do you prefer frequent, short touch points (e.g., phone calls, emails) throughout the day, or do you prefer longer personal time together in the evenings? What are your expectations about travel, meals together, child care, and money? Clarifying these things up front can help you make conscious trade-offs and decisions, rather than running afoul of each other’s unspoken beliefs.

Schedule your spouse. The average person spends 7.6 hours per workday on the job, and for many professionals, that number can double. During your time in the office, you schedule meetings, reviews, and time to complete your own assignments. Other things make the calendar, too: workouts, breakfasts with friends, board meetings, and community service. But how much emphasis do you put on scheduling your spouse? One of the healthiest things you can do is put the same effort into scheduling time together. Many professionals live by their calendars, and if you don’t carve out time with your spouse as rigorously as you do with your business partners, your most important relationship can suffer.

Find time to cheat — on your job. What happens when a work meeting conflicts with something you’ve scheduled at home? And how many weekends and evenings are interrupted when you need “just a few hours” to finish something up for work? Many professionals fall into the habit of “cheating” time with family by slipping in extra work. But you can also find time to cheat on your job with your significant other. When was the last time you slipped away at noon for an impromptu lunch date or left early to make it to one of your spouse’s events? How often do you decline another work call or event because you have a date night planned? Be spontaneous above and beyond your scheduled time, and make sure that you’re not constantly breaking appointments with your spouse for appointments at work.

Bring your work home and your home to work. Dual careers can be more difficult when your work and your family occupy completely separate spheres. When your spouse doesn’t know the people in your office, he or she can feel alienated. But finding opportunities for your spouse to meet your colleagues can create work environments that are more sensitive to your personal priorities and an atmosphere of trust and understanding at home. Bring your spouse to company events, and if you run a company or a division, find opportunities to get people’s families together. As noted in Passion & Purpose, in a world dominated by email, smartphones, and flexible work schedules, the walls between work and a personal life are falling. Finding ways to integrate them thoughtfully can be a professional and personal boon.

Balance your compromises. In 2011, only 3.4% of stay-at-home parents were men. And while studies show the average childless woman between 22 and 30 years old out-earns her male counterparts in 147 of 150 major U.S. cities, the overall female-to-male earnings ratio in 2010 was 0.81 (PDF). There are a variety of complex biological, cultural, and personal issues at play, but it’s quite common for one partner in a relationship (often the woman) to compromise on his or her career ambitions while the other partner compromises time with family. There is no-one-size-fits-all solution here, but couples need to have open and honest discussions about their ambitions for their careers and their roles in the family, and assure that one partner isn’t making all the sacrifice.

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How Two-Career Couples Stay Happy

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