How 2-Career Couples Can Succeed in Marriage

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How 2-Career Couples Can Succeed in Marriage

Lessons from a lawyer's long stint in divorce court and from the author of the new book "Couples That Work."

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As a lawyer, for many years I practically lived in divorce court, held in the appropriately numbered Department 13 of California’s Kern County Superior Court.

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Many of my clients were highly educated professionals and business people, and their spouses also had their own careers. Financially successful, these folks seemingly had it all — position, money, respect — and then as if struck by lightning, it all fell apart. Or it seemed to have cratered overnight.

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And I wondered, “What went wrong?” Given a seat on H. G. Wells’ Time Machine, if they could go back in time, could they have averted the sadness lurking in their future?

The answer to that question is yes. Figuring out how couples can have a career and successful marriage is the message in an engaging and tremendously insightful new book that should be handed out to working couples applying for a marriage license.

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Couples That Work, by Professor Jennifer Petriglieri of the Paris, France-based international business school INSEAD, has a subtitle, “How to Thrive in Love and at Work.” After reading it, I can tell you that Jennifer is right on the money, revealing how couples get themselves into trouble and offering practical — almost paint-by-the-numbers ways of keeping out of quicksand.

Assumptions Made - Questions Not Asked

In the courtroom it is common to hear, “Objection, assumes facts not in evidence!

Jennifer finds the same thing occurs, “Many couples have the Disney princess view of marriage, where it will always be happy ever after, and if it isn’t, then you’ve picked the wrong person to marry! It’s the idea that, ‘If I have to work on the relationship, then there is something wrong with it.’ But it is the exact opposite. Relationships that work very well do so because couples invest a lot in them,” she strongly maintains.

This isn’t the typical “Here’s how to fix your marriage” handbook filled with psycho-babble terminology, which make little practical sense.

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Instead, Couples That Work turns the reader into a fly on the wall, observing and listening to the many fascinating interviews Jennifer conducted over the five years this research-based book was developed. You actually meet the people she interviewed and hear directly from them how their dual careers became a threat to all they held dear.

From these interviews, she develops an approach to heading off major problems before they develop, and shows us that when couples ask, “What are we doing wrong?” the answer often lies in their focusing on the wrong things.

What Matters to You Most?

“The first things couples get wrong get is to purely focus on the practicalities. They will look at finances, child care, logistics, location, work travel, and, yes, these are important. However, if that’s all they are examining, trouble is around the corner. It is because these are not the primary things that drive conflict or tension in the relationship. They are a red herring.

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“What is usually happening occurs at a deeper psychological level, a question of the power dynamics. Who has the power to decide in what direction they will go? Most couples are aware that there is something deeper. But they haven’t got the language or the framework to talk about it,” she observes.

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I asked her, “How can two career people develop that framework?” She set out three steps to follow at the earliest stages of your relationship:

1. Determine what matters most to you both.

What do you want most out of life? What are your career goals? Where do you want to live? What kind of family do you want to be? By knowing this, the couple then has a set of principles — a yardstick to go by. Then, the decisions each person will inevitably be required to make down the road should be in alignment with those principles you both established together.

2. Draw the boundaries of your playing field.

Agree on the lines you are not willing to cross, such as living location. “We will stick to the West Coast, and it is ‘no’ to an East Coast job, even if the move would be for a better job.” Or, as another example, “If you have a job with more than 30% travel, it will not work.”

3. Discuss the things that you are afraid of happening in your relationship.

What are your concerns might happen over time? Examples of voicing those fears could include, "I can see you overworking, which will mean I won't be able to dedicate the time I want to my career." Or, "What will our friends think if we split child-care duties 50-50?" Or, "I'm worried that you'll be envious of my success." If we discuss our fears, we will be better able to mitigate them should they become a reality.

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Acknowledge the Things You Appreciate About Each Other

Jennifer concluded our interview with precisely what I learned from my own divorce clients — what they had failed to do. “To not acknowledge their beauty, intelligence and wisdom leads to our partner not feeling appreciated, and ultimately not loved.”

See Also: On Marriage and Money: A CFP's Perspective

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge.

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This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.