We humans have a habit of getting attached to each other. People often connect as couples, who may then form families, and their lives outside work become closely connected. But the lives of members of a dual-earner couple, especially professionals each developing their own careers, also become connected in the work world, for better or for worse. We often hear that couples with dual careers must make sacrifices and tradeoffs, such as when deciding where to live and how much to work, which could negatively affect one or even both partners. Yet some couples seem to have very different experiences: both members reap benefits in the workplace that emerge from their personal connection.
A new paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Jennifer Louise Petriglieri and Otilia Obodaru investigates how members of some dual-career couples – but not others – grow their professional identities and careers thanks to each other. They look at how each partner in a relationship can promote the other’s professional development by encouraging exploration and being supportive when the exploration has disappointing results. This type of support ranges from the breakfast conversation about important decisions to the evening consolation following problems at work.
Petriglieri and Obodaru home in on a feature of supportive partnerships that we often overlook: who supports, and who receives support? There is a radical difference between dual-career couples in which one partner supports the other and couples in which both partners support each other. A couple with a single supporter is essentially a relation in which support is traded for dependence. Inevitably the two partners will develop differently, and they will understand the tradeoffs involved in how much support to give and how much to receive. The result is likely a relationship with built-in conflict and weaker professional growth for at least one of the partners.
A couple with two supporters does not have this problem of unequal trade and dependence because each supports the other, usually in ways that are different enough to be hard to compare. This not only reduces conflict but also has another key benefit: because one’s own experience is an important source of support, mutual support means learning from each other and using the other’s professional identity to develop one’s own. Often this works well because partners have complementary skills, so through mutual support and learning they can grow their professional identities and improve their professional skills.
This research really is a combination of old and new knowledge. The old knowledge is that we learn by teaching and that dependence produces weakness. The new knowledge is that this explains how dual-career couples can benefit from each other’s professional identity. It should come as good news to any couple wondering if it’s truly possible to support each other’s careers.