There’s no question that George Clooney is one of the most successful actors in Hollywood. But it wasn’t until he teamed up with Amal Alamuddin, a barrister specialising in public international law and human rights who has represented high-profile clients like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that he suddenly made up one half of another status all together – that of the power couple.
Today about 48% of married couples in the US are dual income, compared with 25% in 1960
Power couples – those in a relationship who strive for success in their field while supporting each other’s ambitions – come in many different forms. It’s obviously not necessary that both have careers, but research shows that if you are coupled up these days, there’s a good chance both you and your partner are in paid work.
Today about 48% of married couples in the US, for example, are dual income, compared with 25% in 1960. That percentage increases to 61% if the couple has children. In the UK, two thirds of two-adult households are dual income. In Denmark and Sweden, nearly 70% of couples with children are dual earners. In Chile, that figure is 40% and in Mexico, it’s 20%.
While there are advantages to being in a couple where each has an independently ambitious career, including the obvious increase in income, there are also significant challenges to juggling a relationship and two successful careers, especially with children in the mix. In a 2015 Pew study, for example, 42% of parents that were married or living together said they spent too little time with their partners.
So how do successful dual income couples balance the demands of their careers and relationship?
Phyllis Moen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who has interviewed hundreds of dual-working couples in her research, says that it begins with understanding that when you commit to an ambitious person with a demanding career, you are committing to their career as well as your own.
I’ve found that the dual-working couples with the highest quality of life overall were those that didn’t have children – Phyllis Moen
“I’ve found that the [dual-working couples] with the highest quality of life overall were those that didn’t have children. If they had children, either one or both partners were stressed,” she says. “The things that ameliorate stress from dual-working couples is having a job with considerable flexibility, and not working long hours if possible. Today that is not always possible. So it’s important to make a commitment to both careers, which can be very hard to do.”
Are there practical steps you can take to emulate the power couple success?
They use the ‘leapfrog’ technique
Moen says that committing to both careers often means that one person will have to sacrifice for the other – for example, if one person can advance his or her career with a stint abroad or in another city. But these sacrifices should be taken in turns with long-term goals in mind.
“People found that one career might have to come first. And it wasn’t and shouldn’t necessarily be the same career over time. You can leapfrog over time so it will be a different person whose career takes priority.” She adds that it’s easier to prioritise your partner’s career over your own when you know it’s temporary and will even out over time.
The goal was to get to the point where I was successful enough to flip the equation a bit – Andrew Alford
Andrew Alford is an interior designer and the chief creative officer for real estate company AJ Capital Partners, where he is designing a line of new hotels nationally. He is married to Jeffrey Norberg, a senior counsel at law firm Neal & McDevitt who specialises in intellectual property litigation. Alford says that in the early days of their relationship in San Francisco, the relationship sometimes had to take a back seat to Norberg’s demanding career.
“In the beginning I had to accept that if we had dinner plans or concert tickets or even travel plans, they would all be considered tentative because in a law firm career, things can change quickly or Jeff would have to stay at the office until 10 o’clock.”
Rather than feeling resentful, Alford says the financial security provided by Norberg’s career allowed him to pursue his own. “I left my job to start my own practice and had the freedom to pursue and grow my career in a way that I probably wouldn’t have had the luxury of doing if we weren’t together,” he says. “The goal was to get to the point where I was successful enough to flip the equation a bit.”
Several years later, when Alford was offered a position at AJ Capital Partners, Norberg says he didn’t hesitate to leave his job and relocate to Chicago.
They carve out time for each other
“Carving out time and holding it sacred for families is critical,” says Roberta Neault, president of Life Strategies Ltd, which provides coaching for organisations and career couples.
“And if it falls through because of work, it’s essential to rebook that time somewhere else,” she says.
Some couples, like Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, acknowledge the time commitment officially. They reportedly have a “relationship contract” that requires 100 minutes of dedicated time together a week.
Other power couples emphasise quality time over quantity. This is important since research has shown that while the positive benefits of being engaged in your work, like vigour and dedication, can cross over to partners, negative feelings, like exhaustion and cynicism, can be transferred too.
Yunuen Lizcano and Patrick Rea are both second-year MBA students at Harvard Business School. They both previously worked in consulting.
Lizcano says with so much socialising involved with their studies it can be hard to find alone time. “But we try to have small dates and put rules [in place] like let’s not talk about whatever stressful thing is happening, for a while.”
Rea says they have also made a conscious effort to separate the stresses of his work as a consultant from their relationship. “If I had a bad project at work or something, we would try not to bring it into the relationship,” he says. “Yunuen would say, ‘I understand that you’re mad, but can we not talk about it for a while.’ That can be hard but was ultimately very helpful.”
They share or outsource chores
One piece of good news. Though in general, surveys indicate mothers still do more managing of the household than fathers, couples in which both are parents and work full-time tend to share housework more equally.
Alford says it’ critical to outsource household work when possible so it doesn’t fall on one person over the other. He and Norberg, who are also fathers to five-year-old Kate, employ housekeepers and a dog-walker. “We’re both maxed out in terms of bandwidth. And I think it’s important to recognise that when that happens and rather than heap more on each other, look at bringing in extra hands,” he says.
They make an effort to be flexible
But the number one piece of advice everyone had? Be flexible, which can be particularly difficult for ambitious career-oriented types.
“It’s important to have open and regular communication about your plans for juggling your various responsibilities,” says Neault. “But the reality is that it doesn’t always matter what you decide or plan for, it doesn’t always work the way you think it will.”
Power couples often look at options other couples wouldn’t consider, like living apart and commuting back and forth
She says that power couples often look at options other couples wouldn’t consider, like living apart and commuting back and forth.
Rea says he and Lizcano have had to be more flexible in their planning than if they were single. “We also have to think [further] ahead of what will happen. What will be the second or third step after this decision and what we will do if something goes a different way than expected.”
“These things are a partnership,” says Norberg. “You don’t have assigned roles necessarily; you jump into whatever’s necessary to move things forward. And if you love each other and are willing to do these things for each other, success flows from that.”
They say the payoff is worth the sacrifice.
“Both of our careers are interesting, different and constantly changing,” says Alford. “We always have something to talk about.”
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