Book Review ‘Couples That Work’ – How to Thrive in Love and Work

Executive Coach Melany Green shares why she resonates with this book by Jennifer Petriglieri and the key elements that she sees help working couples to thrive.  

When people hear I have been married to the same man for almost 40 years, we’ve reared two children and pursued separate successful careers, they often ask: How have you make it work? What’s the recipe?

To be honest, I struggle to answer this seriously. I genuinely believe it has had more to do with divine intervention than designed intention!

No wonder that Jennifer Petriglieri’s book, Couples that Work hooked me right from the cover with its description of “How to Thrive in Love and Work”. Marriage, like life, is a series of seasons. The three transitional periods in our life cycles as a couple, which her research yielded from 113 couple interviews, aptly describe where myself and my husband were most tested as a couple.

The book leaves the reader in no doubt that being a dual career couple takes work.  The concept of ‘work’ is unpacked with great examples, thought-provoking questions and practical tools to apply, wherever you are in your couple journey.

An overriding theme in the book is that we are ‘stronger together’. This means being willing to put work into each other, not just our careers, to make it through the struggles and transitions.

Here are some key messages from the book that most resonated with me in describing the ‘work’ required to thrive:

Get good at talking to each other. How you communicate, how often and what about, is a critical success factor. Open, honest dialogue about the deeper matters and questions pertaining to career and life, is essential. In my experience, broaching some of these topics with my husband often ended in a war – especially topics about finances! We had to take timeout, then re-group to revisit the conversation with an agreement to really listen, without judgement, to understand our different perspectives.

Make ‘couple contracting’ a regular habit. Jennifer describes contracting as having an “in depth discussion of three areas: values, boundaries and fears.” Clearly these change over a lifetime; hence the need to revisit this discussion however informally, on a regular basis especially when prompted by a transition.

She warns that we shouldn’t be tempted to get into the ‘practicalities’ in these discussions too soon before considering the underlying psychological and social issues at play. Take for example our recent experience of Covid-19 where career couples everywhere were plummeted into working-from-home with the whole family under one roof. At some point in desperation, the conversation about who does what must have broached!

She suggests the starting point should be a discussion about what’s important to each of us individually and as a couple about our concerns/fears, before launching into solutions and decisions.  This is the approach we would most naturally follow in a work strategy session, isn’t it?  It got me thinking how counter-intuitive it appears to be for us as couples to apply this logic when strategising at home!

 

  • Apply a ‘positive-sum’ versus ‘zero-sum’ approach to your relationship. Too frequently, couples’ conversations become a negotiation about compromise or sacrifice. This is the ‘zero-sum’ approach where the outcome is usually a win-lose which often results in increased tension in the relationship. She instead recommends using the language of mutual benefit as the ‘positive-sum’ approach. While there might still be some compromise, the motivation in the relationship is that both parties are fulfilled, so that one person’s gain also benefits the other.

 

  • Recognise the move from parallel independent careers and lives to interdependent ones. I find that couples miss this, especially when the first transition is triggered by the birth of a child.  Rather than mourning the loss of independence, they should develop a growth mindset in crafting a joint path; one of mutual reliance to be successful and fulfilled. It requires deliberate accommodation of this life event, to agree on how they structure their lives together, to allow them both to thrive.

 

If you are a dual-career couple, the good news is that wherever you are in your couple life cycle, anytime is a good time to focus on improving the quality of your relationship – it starts with a willingness to engage in dialogue. If you are parents, we recently designed the Change-4-Good Couples Quiz for working parents dealing with the challenges of work-from-home in lockdown. It’s a simple exercise to help you kick-start an honest conversation about your career priorities and how you co-parent.  We have had great reports about what it has revealed.

Final thoughts from a 40 – year partnership, in the ‘encore’ phase of our careers:

Never seek perfection. See your relationship as a long-term investment with opportunities for growth even and especially when things are messy. Value the process rather than the result and celebrate often along the way. It’s worth it.

 

 

 

Melany Green is an Executive Coach at the Executive Coaching Consultancy.  She is based in South Africa.

 

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