Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work

By Jennifer Petriglieri

Published by Harvard Business Review Press, 2019, 251 pages

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a nutshell: The changing dynamic of a dual career couple is explored by examining the underlying forces that create imbalances with home and work.

Who’s it for? As the title suggests, Couples That Work is geared toward ambitious professional couples trying to have fulfilling careers while maintain nurturing relationships with their spouses.

Author quote: “It’s about developing the habit of having conversations which are the fabric of our relationship; the stuff that matters to us. But many couples ignore it.”

Today more than 60% of American couples are dual-income couples. That means that the majority of us experience the challenges of career advancement while also being needed by one’s spouse or partner. Add children, caring for elders, or social and community commitments to the mix and life becomes even more complex. We’ve been told that time-tested remedies for managing dual income/family complications are the easiest fixes: Equally divide household tasks, take time for one another, and have a well-detailed calendar. But is this effective over the long term?

Organizational behavior professor Jennifer Petriglieri believes that there is a need to go beyond these practical aspects of the working couple relationship to find a deeper explanation of the “psychological and social forces underlying the challenges that dual-career couples face.” This is the inspiration for the book. Petriglieri’s accumulated research was gathered from interviews from 100 professional couples. These couples come from a wide range of age groups, world geographic locations and circumstances.

Petriglieri’s research provides a rich array of situations that couples struggle with as their careers change. She skillfully presents three transitions couples go through during their professional lives. The first phase occurs as the couple moves from individual career paths to combining their lives. (How can we make this work?) The second phase happens when both explore what they want next in their careers. (What do we really want?) The third phase relates to later work/life years. (Who are we now?) Each phase has triggers and traps that have to be navigated through. For example, the first transition typically takes place with a career opportunity, a relocation, or the arrival of a baby. For many couples, this is the first time they have had to work through prioritizing careers and dividing family commitments.

To move past these challenges, Couples That Work presents a combination of real-life scenarios with Petriglieri’s vetted strategies for couples to work through. These strategies allow couples to explore “interdependently” maximizing their work and home lives. Part of this is building what is called a mutual secure base relationship. This is a thought out, grounded home life that both couple members maintain and can rely on. With this in place, the careers of each can grow – not as a zero-net game of finite pie pieces – but a bigger pie where both are able to grow satisfying careers and families.

Couples That Work is a timely read for those presently taking a COVID-19 mandated reset from their traditional work schedules. As readers go through the book’s stories of work/life relationships, they will likely relate to several they have experienced. The couples profiled that successfully navigate Petriglieri’s three transition phases had to realize a combination of communication and awareness skills. Getting both partners to read the book and identify that there is room for improvement may be challenging, but the stories and resources presented in Couples That Work provide an invaluable guide to recalibrating priorities during these stressful times.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution (CDFI) based in Marquette, Michigan. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at