What does it take for working parents to sustain two meaningful careers and a happy relationship? To answer this question, I’ve spent the last five years studying more than 100 working couples from all over the world. In some relationships, partners placed equal emphasis on their careers and split parenting responsibilities 50:50. In others, one partner dedicated more time and energy to their career and the other more time and energy to their family. What I found, however, is that these practical arrangements make little difference to whether couples thrive. What mattered, and what was common amongst all the couples I studied who fared well, was that they negotiated, periodically revisited, and held each other accountable to a contract. Not a legal contract, but a psychological one.
A couples’ psychological contract details what really matters to them and the lines they are unwilling to cross. The things that matter can cover a vast range of priorities: achieving a specific professional goal, having enough time to pursue a meaningful hobby, or ensuring financial stability, living close to family and friends, having a holiday each year with extended family, or dedicating time to give back to the community. Discussing what really matters to you as an individual and agreeing what really matters to you as a couple helps because it makes clear what things you can stop doing, and what you should pursue individually and together, even at a cost.
Negotiating the lines that both you and your partner agree not to cross also helps because it takes the heat out of decision-making and gives you a way of holding each other to your commitments. These lines could be about location (where do you want to live and where would you never move?), time (how many hours working a month are too many?), travel (what level of work travel is acceptable?), or your relationship (is there a minimum acceptable amount of together time each week?). If a work opportunity arises outside of your lines, the answer is “no.” No discussion needed. If you or your partner develop troubling habits, you can use the lines to remind each other of your commitments and get back on track.
Building a psychological contract doesn’t immunize couples from challenges, but it does make them easier to navigate. Take Annabel and Jeff, working parents of a 2 and a 5-year-old. A year before I spoke to them, they faced a potentially thorny situation that their couple contract untangled for them. It occurred when Annabel’s company surprised her with a career opportunity: “I was unexpectedly offered what my boss called ‘a game changing promotion’ to head a big sales team on the West coast. It would mean a substantial pay increase, more responsibility, and the need to immediately move across country.” Annabel explained that while it sounded great, and for a moment she was tempted, it was easy to turn down. “Jeff and I have always been committed to supporting each other’s careers whatever that took as long as it didn’t take us away from our families on the East Coast,” she explained. “Being clear about that commitment made the decision easy.” Annabel was able to move on in her career with few regrets.
More recently, their contract helped Annabel confront Jeff’s overcommitment to his work. “I was very supportive of Jeff’s professional goals until he began spending more than 60 hours a week at work and I was left with the lion’s share of the parenting,” she said. “Over dinner one evening I suggested that we relook at the parenting commitments we had written down before our girls were born. There on the paper was our deal to fully co-parent, 50:50. Seeing that made Jeff realize what he was sacrificing for his overwork. It made him pull back without me having to nag.” Annabel and Jeff—and many other couples I have studied—have found that creating a couple contract is an important tool to sustain two careers and a good relationship, while overcoming the challenges that inevitably arise for working parents.
The best time to build a couple contract is now. So when the kids are tucked up in bed this evening, take two pens and some paper, snuggle up on the couch, and get started. Write down what matters most and what the lines are that you’re unwilling to cross, then read your thoughts aloud and talk about them. It’s more romantic than it sounds as it begins the habit of building and revising a contract to help you thrive in love and in work.