The best way to advance your career while supporting your partner's ambitions comes from a popular parenting theory

Andriy Blokhin/ShutterstockEncourage your partner to explore and grow.
  • A marriage between two people with meaningful careers can be a struggle.
  • The most successful dual-career couples act as each other’s “secure base.” That means they push each other to explore and grow professionally.
  • It’s important to talk at least twice a year about what you’re aiming for individually and together.

The traditional narrative around couples with two equally meaningful careers is that life is hard. There will, necessarily, be unfortunate tradeoffs, sacrifices, and regrets for one or both partners.

Yet on an episode of the Harvard Business Review’s podcast “Women at Work,” Jennifer Petriglieri, a professor at INSEAD, challenged this idea and proposed an alternative.

According to Petriglieri’s own research findings, there’s one type of dual-career couple that’s most successful: partners who see each other as their “secure base.”

The term is borrowed from research on attachment theory. Studies suggest that babies who see their primary caregiver as a secure base – someone who acts as their safe haven when the baby goes out to explore the world – have the healthiest relationships later on.

Petriglieri and her co-author, Otilia Obodaru, propose that romantic partners can also act as each other’s secure bases.

A secure base, they write in a 2016 working paper, serves three functions:

  1. encouraging and accepting a partner’s exploratory behaviour
  2. not unnecessarily interfering with a partner’s exploration
  3. being available when a partner faces a setback and needs to take a break from exploration

For the paper, the researchers interviewed 50 couples in which one partner was an alumnus of a global business school. (Most couples were married; all were heterosexual; the couples lived all over the world.) The researchers heard plenty of examples of partners serving as each other’s secure base.

One man, who had been the director of a charitable foundation and was considering transitioning careers, said of his partner: “[My partner] encourages me to think outside the organizational box, and that’s what I’m really trying to do this year.”

Another woman, a partner in a strategy consulting firm, said that her husband had been “very supportive of [my first employer], but he was also very supportive of my decision to leave [my first employer].”

Being a source of comfort isn’t always enough

On the podcast, Petriglieri explained how the behaviour of a secure base differs from simply being supportive. Instead of someone who simply “cocoons” you, you want “that plus this push out. So this push away from that security blanket, that safety blanket, and just telling, well, what you are going to do about that? How are you going to change this? How are you going to make it the world you want to make it?”

The greatest challenge for dual-career couples, then, isn’t who’s doing the laundry tonight and who’s making dinner tomorrow. It’s more: How can I give you the space to develop your professional identity, while allowing you to help me develop mine?

As the researchers write in the paper, “dual-career couples should concern themselves as much with their psychological arrangements as they do with their practical ones.”

If that sounds frustratingly vague, Petriglieri shares a more concrete strategy on the podcast: About twice a year, have a conversation about what you’re “aiming for individually and together” in the next year or two. Ask questions like: “What is it that’s going to make us thrive? And what choices might we need to make to make that happen?”

Petriglieri added, “All too often, a decision sort of comes upon us, and we’re trying to make the decision at the same time as figuring out what we want, and at the same time as figuring out how that’s going to fit in with each other. And that’s when the conflicts really rise.”

Listen to the full interview on Women at Work ยป

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