Are there any red lines that, once crossed, there’s no coming back from for a relationship?
Not all relationships are destined for the long term, right. But this isn’t necessarily an issue of chemistry or fit. We know this from arranged marriages. The premise of an arranged marriage is that you work at it. There are plenty of people in the UK today in arranged marriages and they work very well. Guess what? The premise of a non-arranged marriage is exactly the same. You need to work at it. There’s no kissing of frogs that turn into princes and everyone lives happily ever after.
When partners have systematically neglected a relationship over time, it’s difficult to come back from. Each one will have built up their piggy bank of resentment and it’s hard then to even lift the lid on that. That’s when you have to ask: are you willing to do that? Or do you want to just move on? Obviously the conversation changes if there are children involved. Nevertheless, I think it’s unrealistic to believe every relationship is salvageable. If you didn’t invest in it properly, you’re unlikely to reap rewards. The ‘disneyfication’ of relationships has perhaps blinded us to this. If we don’t meet ‘the one’ and live happily ever after, we think we made a mistake and wonder what’s wrong with us. It’s just human nature. Everyone is fallible.
You mentioned children there. How do they tend to change the dynamics and the decision-making processes for a nicely balanced dual-career couple?
First of all, it’s very hard to anticipate what children will do to your lives. You can read all the books in the world, but eventually you have to work it out as you go. When children actually arrive and the reality hits, it’s about having a much more flexible mindset, and looking at how you can increase the flexibility and dynamism in the coupling.
I also think it’s very easy to think about kids as constraints. When they get a bit older – mine are early teenagers now – they can be real relationship enhancers. Having a little person who wants to make sense of your work and often talk about it in a very funny way can be really helpful. It helps detach you a bit and give you the perspective you need to see that, actually, that big business meeting is not going to mark the end of the world if it doesn’t go quite right.
Bezos, Gates… There have been a couple of high-profile divorces announced recently. Are there any lessons we can take from them?
You have to be very careful drawing conclusions from such small sample sizes, but you could say they follow a pattern. Relationship breakups are not linear across time. There are certain periods when there’s a much higher risk of breakup. With those two couples, the split has happened at a time that is classically higher for breakups – when the children have left home. I have no idea what happened in these particular cases, but you do see it a lot: the children leave, you turn to each other and suddenly think, who are you? Because the practicalities of family life have got in the way of those conversations about goals and ambitions again.
The couples who tend to get past these transition points are the ones who managed to keep those conversations going – not every night, but they made time to make sure they had them even once or twice a year.
We’ve touched on it briefly, but have you got any early thoughts on how the pandemic has changed things for dual-career couples?
In the immediate term I think it’s had a massive impact on desire in relationships. What attracts us to our partner is not sitting next to them in their pyjamas with a computer on their lap. Desire is a counterintuitive thing: we want what we can’t quite have. Very often we’re most attracted to our partner when, for example, we’re at a party and we see them talking to other people across the room, or perhaps we see them performing well in a professional setting. When we’re both at home all the time, we never get the opportunity to experience that distance. By distance, I don’t mean absence!
So there’s going to be a question about how we get back that distance, but at the same time blended working could be a huge benefit for working couples. So many of their pain points are around simple things like who can be around to let the boiler repairman in – and that’s before I mention the logistics of kids. I don’t believe full-time home working is healthy for most people and there’s no evidence to say it is, but I do think blended working could be helpful.
Any final words of advice for us, Jennifer?
This stuff about talking is not quite common sense, but it’s not rocket science either. If you’ve reached a crisis point in a relationship, counsellors and therapists can be helpful, but I think there are pointers you can follow to avoid all of that. Conversations about goals and ambitions go beyond practicalities, but they’re not existential crisis conversations we need to get worked up about. They’re just the conversations you would have had very freely when you first got together. It’s just about rekindling that habit. It really shouldn’t be scary. And if you’re worred about looking under that particular rock because of what you might find, my research says those fears are almost always completely exaggerated.
Jennifer Petriglieri is associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD business school. Find out more about her book, Couples That Work, here.