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Photo: iStock

Opinion | For working partners, success lies in a psychological contract of sorts

Conventional wisdom is that couples struggle to begin with and eventually figure things out

More couples are pursuing joint careers. Whether it is for the want of a better life or to fulfil their creative desire, people, especially millennials, want to achieve a perfect balance in work and relationships. It is, of course, no easy job. According to author Jennifer Petriglieri, an associate professor at France’s Insead Business School, where her husband is also an assistant professor, the key to relationship bliss for dual-career couples is a psychological contract of sorts. She came to this conclusion after studying 100 working couples across the world, over five years.

Simply put, the relationship or psychological contract is a description of the kind of life a couple wants to build together. It isn’t binding or prescriptive, but tends to give the relationship a solid foundation. Specifically, it helps couples understand whether they feel fulfilled in their current relationship, identify gaps that need to be bridged, and equitably divide partnership responsibilities.

There are three key choices, according to Petriglieri, that couples face as they combine their parallel lives to build a shared life together.

The first occurs early in the relationship, when both partners are also relatively new to the workforce. Several external events such as upcoming nuptials or career opportunities involving relocation present unexplored challenges. What makes it more complicated for millennials is that they don’t have many relatable examples. The previous generation chose partners differently. Today, both men and women are taking time to figure out what they want personally and professionally. They are experimenting more and marrying later. Women are also now far more financially independent. Together, these factors create an ambiguous situation with several unknowns.

The second major choice is in the middle of one’s career. That is, when it is less about external events and more about asking our inner selves if we have met our personal and professional goals. At this stage, people tend to ask themselves whether their 25-year-old selves will be happy with the way life turned out for them. This mid-life crisis can be unsettling for both partners even if they did well early in their careers. Turns out that those who followed someone else’s dream or spent their entire youth building up an insurance for future tend to have professional regrets that can wreak havoc on their personal lives.

In the third critical juncture, couples confront the question of what remains after career goals have been achieved. This is when couples either disengage with each other or renew their partnership. Those who disengage think that it is too late for change and those who renew, attempt to build a new life with different goals.

In the years to come, there might be an additional decision that couples have to grapple with—how to handle feeling like a millennial after 60. Authors of The 100-Year Life: Living And Working In An Age Of Longevity, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott argue that people have a real shot at living up to or more than 100 years. At the same time, lifespan of companies will shrink and the whole concept of retirement will cease to exist.

This means that being a millennial will be redefined. In addition to altering the nature of workplaces, the 100-year life phenomena might also change dating and marriage. We are already seeing signs of this with the emergence of hundreds of age-agnostic dating platforms and communities.

The conventional wisdom regarding dating and marriage is that couples struggle to begin with and eventually figure things out. Petriglieri’s research suggests that this approach no longer works. Relationship issues don’t figure themselves out unless there is a contract or an agreement of sorts. Couples not only need to have a shared understanding of who they are and what they want, they also need to recontract before every major transition.

Drafting a contract or having a shared understanding of the contours of relationship may not be enough to make things work but not making the effort can spell doom for dual-career couples. Millennial Matters recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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