The logistics involved in expat life become even more complex when your partner is also a working expat. How do you successfully fuel each other’s professional ambitions, as well as personal? Is it inevitable that one half will need to sacrifice their career, or take a backseat in the relationship to support the other?
INSEAD Associate Professor Jennifer Petriglieri has researched hundreds of couples juggling two careers. She’s just released a book about the challenges that face working couples, and in this chat, Jennifer shares her thoughts on how you can successfully combine love and work, with life abroad.
Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with another episode of the Expat Focus podcast. The logistics involved in expat life become even more complex when your partner is also a working expat. How do you successfully fuel each other’s professional ambitions, as well as personal? Is it inevitable that one half will have to sacrifice their career or take a backseat in the relationship to support the other?
INSEAD Associate Professor Jennifer Petriglieri has researched hundreds of couples juggling two careers. She’s just released a book about the challenges that face working couples, and in this chat Jennifer shares her thoughts on how you can successfully combine love and work with life abroad.
Jennifer, what has made you take such an interest in particularly dual career couples?
Jennifer: So, my background, I was in business for a while but for the past fifteen years I’ve been in academia, and I’ve been researching careers and career transitions. And initially, for the first eight or nine years, I was doing that, like all researchers, from an individual perspective.
And what struck me what I talked to people was the number of people that would say, “Well, you know, to understand my career you really need to talk to my partner, and understand theirs, and the interactions between them.”
And being in a dual-career couple myself, and a lot of my colleagues and friends are, it’s put this phenomenon that’s really growing in the world – the number of dual-career couples is increasing every year – together with the findings from my research, and thought that would be quite a cool thing to research and look into. And at the time there was just very little research on it.
Carlie: And what did your research find?
Jennifer: So the research found that, of course dual-career couples face challenges, but these are not uniform across our time together. So these tend to be clustered in three specific periods, or three transitions, the first of which comes when a couple are just forming – at whatever age, whether they’re a young couple, in their late 20s, early 30s, or whether it’s a couple in their second partnership, or even third, into their 40s and 50s.
And this transition really comes at a time when couples are trying to combine their lives and figure out, “How do we make all this work together?” So it might be sparked by, for example, an opportunity for an expat assignment, and what do we do as a couple? Do we stick together and move, or do we go our separate ways? It might be started by a baby… all these things.
But this transition is really about the challenge of "How do we fit our careers together?"
Then the second transition point is linked to the middle of our careers, so it’s more of a life stage and career stage. And this is the time when we’ve gone through that acceleration phase and most people go into questioning mode and start asking, “Is this really the direction I want? Are there things I want to change?”
And we know that, if people want to make more radical career changes, it’s much easier to do so in your 40s than a decade later. And so this tends to be a time when the questions around, "Where do we go from here?", these direction questions, really come to the fore for dual-career couples.
And the third transition is later in life, when those commitments that sustained us earlier on, whether it’s children at home, mortgage, real career acceleration, are behind us. And people start to broaden their horizons and think, "What do I want to do with the last decade or so of my career, and how do we make that work together?"
So those challenges are really common across couples, and what makes the difference between couples who work through them well, and couples who don’t and also the couples who separate along the way, are that the couples who work through them well are very deliberate in advance of those transitions. In talking about what matters to them and really having a clear idea of what matters to them in life and what their priorities are.
And also about what are the lines that they’re not going to cross? So if we think about the expat assignment: What are those countries that are just off-limits? That if I get offered a job in, we’re not even going to consider it?
So having those boundaries in place, those lines; and having that idea of what matters to us as a couple, seems to really help couples navigate these transitions.
But within that, a lot of different solutions can work. So some couples, there’s one person whose career is placed a little bit more importance than on the other’s; in other couples they both take turns; in other couples they really try to have an equal importance on both of their careers all the way through. It doesn’t seem to matter as long as those priorities are very clearly agreed on upfront and revisited throughout.
Carlie: I was going to ask if one of those works better than the others, especially in the case of an expat couple. You said that couples who are very deliberate in advance of these transitions, and making these decisions, seem to do well. But I guess when you’re an expat couple, sometimes you’re on the move quite quickly, or you need to be making big career decisions for one person or the other quite quickly. Is there an optimal method or approach?
Jennifer: There’s an optimal approach, but there’s not an optimal choice, if I can put it like that. So yes, the optimal approach is to be very, very clear before the opportunities arise:
• What are your goals together, not necessarily just independently, but together?
• And what is outside of the boundaries?
• What are those regions we’re not going to consider?
• Is there a job – for example, if a job has more than 30% travel (I’m just inventing a number) – is that off the table?
So having a very clear idea of those things is really important, because what that does is reduce our choice set.
Now it sounds really counterintuitive, because I think a lot of us have been brought up to believe “more choices = better” but that’s not actually the case.
Carlie: Yeah, “keep all your doors open” and that sort of thing.
Jennifer: Yeah. And the research shows – very, very strongly – that the more choice we have, the harder it is to choose, and the more likely we are to regret our choices.
And what I found in my research is that couples who restricted their choices by having these really deliberate conversations, it comes a lot easier to them to choose, and not to regret their choices.
Now of course it doesn’t immunise them against challenges and difficulties, but it certainly makes those transition points easier to manage.
I think the other point is really thinking from the corporate side. The trap that many expat-type couples fall into is feeling that most of the power is in their corporate hands. But in my experience working with couples in my research, and also talking talking to a lot of companies, there’s a lot more power in the hands of the couples than they often recognise.
There can be a sense for expat couples that “If the company clicks their fingers, I need to jump next month.”
Carlie: Like, the decision isn’t yours, and if they say “Go to this country in two months’ time”, that’s where your family is headed.
Jennifer: It’s very, very rarely the case. Particularly if you as an individual, and as a couple, have shared with your company upfront your personal boundaries. And this is where the couples who do well in the expat world are really thriving, is when they as a couple agree those boundaries, and then they very clearly communicate them to their organisation.
You know, “I am career-motivated, this is where I want to go, but just so you know in advance, these are the places that are simply off the table for me.” And I think increasingly, corporates are recognising two things:
1. It’s very expensive to lose talented people. It’s much better to accommodate than to let them go.
2. Companies are becoming – they’re not perfect, but they’re becoming – more aware of the needs of our partners, and to balance that.
And really that’s because society is changing. If we think thirty years ago, the reality is [that for] most people, it would have been men moving around, and most of those men would have a stay-at-home wife, or a wife who’s going to do maybe small, part-time jobs along the way. That was true thirty years ago, and that was the time when the talent processes were designed in many companies.
But that reality has shifted, and the problem in most companies is their processes haven’t shifted. But companies are really starting to realise this: that if you take the average 30/40-year-old now, the reality is their partner is very unlikely to be a stay-at-home partner; they’re likely to be a partner who also has career goals and is talented themselves, and want to move forward in their career. And so the balance of power has shifted as the social situation has shifted in couples.
Carlie: Jennifer, I’m curious about how couples – especially expat couples – navigate that shift when it comes time to have children, or you have other family commitments crop up, that traditionally put more of a burden on the woman and affect her career more. How are we seeing expat couples, and couples in general, navigate this now, and ensuring that they can still strike the right balance in their relationship, that they’re both happy with?
Jennifer: Yeah. Of course it is a difficult time as we, as a couple, take on more responsibilities, whether that’s our own children; whether that’s elder care as our parents get older and need our support. This is when the expat life becomes tricky.
And there’s also stages of children’s life. Oftentimes those early years actually are not so bad, but once children get into high school then it becomes a lot more tricky to move them. So it’s not uniform across the life of an expat couple.
I think there’s a couple of things that are happening. One is, I’ve seen there are periods where couples are expat couples, and then stabilise, and then expat again. So there’s a sort of movement in and out of the expat world. And it was interesting, I was just talking to a couple yesterday who were recounting that before they had their kids, and when their kids were less than five, so before school age, they were expat couples. And now they’re in a period where they’ve moved back to the UK, they’ve got stable roles; however, they really have it in mind that, a little later on when their children are a bit older, they will go back to being expat couples.
So I think this is one way couples solve it, is taking periods in and periods out of the expat world. So that’s one thing that’s definitely happening.
I think another thing is, there’s a range of expat lives. There’s what we think of as the classic expat life, which I think is the most difficult, which is really: “Every two or three years, we’re moving to a new assignment in a very different country.” That tends to be really the most difficult to manage with children.
There’s also expats who maybe move for ten, fifteen, five years to the same country. That’s really a lot easier, because we can really form that community. And what happens when we – particularly, I’m talking about if we become parents, now – what tends to make the difference for working couples, whether they’re expat or not, is if they have a support network around them. And you don’t need to live in your hometown to have this, but you need to live in a town where you have roots. And what happens if you’re just somewhere for two to three years is that it’s hard to establish those roots. But you can be an expat couple who live somewhere for five, six years, and can have really just as strong a support network as perhaps back home. So there’s lots of variants within expat couples.
Carlie: And you mentioned that companies now are recognising the shift that needs to be made, because losing good talent is just not worth it, and so they’re becoming a bit more accommodating. How are we seeing them do that? You said that employees should be more upfront about telling their employers, you know, “These countries are no-go areas,” or “This is how long I want or expect to stay in a certain location, or can stay in a certain location.” Are we seeing businesses flex to adapt to the needs of an expat workforce today?
Jennifer: Obviously it varies by company; there are some companies that are much better than others. But certainly, from my research, I see the trend is consistently getting better across the board. Now we can always find companies that are slightly better or slightly worse.
And there’s two things going on here. One is that the cost of replacing talent, particularly as we start talking about those more senior roles, is extremely high. Companies can do that cost/benefit analysis, and it’s much more beneficial for them to flex than not.
The other thing we’re seeing happening is there are certain communities that become clusters of expats. I’m thinking places like along Lake Geneva in Switzerland; Dubai is a classic place; Singapore is a classic place; some of the American cities are classic places. And what happens in these cities is it’s a lot easier for expat couples where both partners have a career, because there’s a huge variety of career options for both of them.
And so what’s happening is, there’s more flexibility within companies, but they’re also recognising that if they have someone who’s an expat who’s in a dual-career couple, the location they send them to is very important. And thinking about these, if you like, ‘dual-career couple hubs’, where there’s lots of companies from a variety of industries… companies are starting to wise up to this in terms of where to send people.
Now of course, that’s not always possible. But I can definitely see a shift in the interest and the understanding of companies to do this. But of course, not everyone is perfect.
Carlie: And what about yourself? As a British citizen, I believe, living in France? How are you striking that balance in your own relationship? I think you said you have a good balance with your partner when it comes to your careers?
Jennifer: Yeah, so in a funny way I don’t think of us as an expat couple. We’ve lived here since 2005, so fourteen years; we’re very embedded in the local community; and my husband is Italian, so we’ve sort of met in the middle in France. So I do think our situation is very different from those expats who are moving very frequently. And I think the way we’ve found balance is building that strong local community. So we may not have our parents down the road, but we have people we’re very close to who we can rely on, which gives you that sense of security when you have a busy role, to know that there’s someone who’s a backstop in case something happens with the kids, with the family. It’s really important.
We also have been very clear around our desire to stay in one location and not move. And also, we’re very strict around how much we both travel, which I think helps a lot. I think one of the things which is a real pain point for couples, whether they’re expat or not, but I think it’s worse for expat couples, is when one or both partners have a heavy travel schedule on top of living in another country.
Carlie: I think it’s Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban who say that they’ve made a pact to never be apart for more than two weeks, or something like that.
Jennifer: Yeah. And I think what’s important is, it’s got to be what works for your couple. That seems a long time for me! [laughs] But it’s whatever works for your couple, so whether that’s two weeks, whether it’s a week; whether it’s also how many weeks over the course of a year is too much, right? Or how many trips in a month is too much. I think having these really strong boundaries is really important, because it’s so easy for things to slip. And if we have a strong boundary, we can see immediately when we’re going over it and we can pull back. Otherwise we have the classic boiling frog syndrome: we take on another thing, and another thing, and another thing, and suddenly we’ve boiled and it’s become too much.
What having those boundaries in place does is really give you an early warning flag as to whether you’re taking on too much.
Carlie: And what about expat couples who may be in that stage one, two or three, and might be struggling to form those boundaries and navigate how they strike that balance? What would you say is a good thing to start with?
Jennifer: Yeah, so the good thing is to start today. Don’t put it off.
And the best thing to do is take some time, just the two of you. So if you have kids, put the kids to bed – you don’t need a special dinner, you don’t need anything – just take some time together, some quiet time, with pen and paper; and individually take some time to jot some notes down in three areas.
The first is: What really matters to us, individually and as a couple? So it might be a specific career goal; it might be about having enough time to spend on a hobby; it might be around the amount of time we spend together; it might be some personal ambitions. Get those down.
Second are these lines we’re not willing to cross. What are the lines we're not willing to cross? We’ve talked a lot about time: how much time is too much away? Also things around location: we’ve touched on where are the locations that are out of bounds? There’s also some lines around our relationship. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife are very famous for having this agreement around the minimum amount of time they’ll spend, just the two of them, every week. Things like this are really important.
And the third is – which is a bit more difficult to talk about – is: "What are we afraid of happening?" What are we worried will unravel in our lives? The reason this third area is very important is, if we understand our partner’s fears, we’re much more sensitive to them. But if we don’t understand them, we can quite easily sort of trample on them really unwittingly.
Let me give you an example. And this is interesting because it’s an expat couple example. So this is an expat couple at the beginning of their lives together, they’ve been on assignment for three years, so they were fairly settled. And they were recently married, and they were thinking about “When should we have children?”
Now he travelled a lot with his work. And when I spoke to her – and I always interviewed couples separately – she said to me, “I’m really trying to put off having children. I desperately want children, but I’m putting it off because I know that I will be the one looking after the baby the whole time.”
And I spoke to him: totally different story. He was really excited about having children, and he’d had it all worked out that as soon as they were pregnant he was going to stop all this travelling and transition to a role which was stable in the country.
Now, on the surface you’re like, “How could this happen? They’ve got such different perspectives!” And it’s because they hadn’t discussed what they were afraid of. She was so afraid of becoming this almost full-time mum on top of the career that she didn’t want to bring it up, because she was convinced it would be confirmed. And he was so convinced it was a non-issue that he never addressed it. And so unwittingly, their fears were getting in the way of them moving forward in their family.
And that’s why it’s really important to discuss our fears, because very often they’re not founded in reality; they’re founded in our worst-case scenarios.
Carlie: “Now I’m catastophising…”
Carlie: I’m classic for this!
Jennifer: [laughs] What I always advise couples is to sit down, take some notes on your own, and then really take a good hour to just share the points you have in each of those brackets. And where it’s necessary – for example, on the lines question – obviously you need to find some common ground.
For the question of priorities and what matters, it’s really important to understand each other’s personal priorities, and then have some things that matter for the two of you, be it having an adventurous life; or having children; or whatever those are.
And then for the fears, it’s really important to take time to understand each other. And that process, it’s going to take an hour, an hour and a half. It doesn’t take long. You can do it one night after work.
And what that’s going to do is start to develop the habit of talking about these things. So it’s not that you do it once, write it down, sign in blood and then move on. It really becomes a living process for the couple to revisit what matters, the lines, and the fears. And this is why I say it’s a great thing to write it down. My husband and I write ours down just to come back to those pieces of paper every so often, and to just check in, “How are we doing?”
And what happens is, when you come to a major transition, it just becomes that bit easier to make those decisions, and make sure you’re making decisions aligned with what’s really important for you, rather than, as you said, either catastrophising, or kind of knee-jerking into a decision which two years down the line… you know, you’re waking up one morning and thinking “Mmm, I’m not sure we did the right thing here.”
Carlie: Jennifer, you have a book, I believe coming out, or that has reccently been released, that goes into this in more detail.
Jennifer: Yeah, so the book is out in October , and it’s the result of a study of more than a hundred couples across the globe – working couples across the globe – from all sorts of different life stages, very diverse couples, different career stages. And it really goes into these three transitions and looks at the challenges couples face, the traps they can fall into, and the processes they can go through to help them through them.
My ambition with the book is really to change the conversations we’re having with each other from thinking about “What should we do?” to “What’s really underneath this? What are we doing this for?” And once we have that in mind, how do we make our choices more mindfully? With the recognition that there will always be challenges we face, but there is a process we can use to make those challenges a lot smoother.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you’re interested in Jennifer’s book, you can find the link to her website in our show notes. Be sure to check out our other podcast episodes at expatfocus.com – we cover all aspects of expat life, including having a baby abroad; looking after your mental health; raising third-culture kids; and even the challenges that come with repatriating.
If you like what we do, please leave us a review, and I’ll catch you next time!