Is a “power couple” possible? Maybe – if both partners feel supported

Beyoncé and Jay-Z, the ultimate power couple (Photo: Instagram)

For too long, there has been a suspicion that only one person in a relationship can achieve their career ambitions at any one time. New research shows us that it’s time to rethink that, says Hattie Garlick

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By Hattie Garlick on

“Behind every great man is a great woman,” as the old, and infinitely irritating, saying goes. This month, science has proven it right. But not, perhaps, in the way you imagine.

Jennifer Petriglieri and Otilia Obodaru (both professors of organisational behaviour) have just published their study of 50 couples and how their relationships have shaped their careers. “One of the ground-breaking things about the results,” says Petriglieri, “is that they challenge a narrative that’s held sway in our culture for a very, very long time.”

Back in the 1950s, and assuming you were straight, things were a lot clearer when it came to a couple’s respective responsibilities. He went out to work and you… Well, in the words of a 1955 issue of Housekeeping Monthly: “Your goal [is to] try to make sure your home is a place of peace, order and tranquility, where your husband can renew himself in body and in spirit.”

Clearer, perhaps, but by no means easier. Ensuring that your husband flourished at work meant giving up your entire day (and any of your own ambitions) entirely, to such supportive tasks as: “Preparing yourself… Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.”

Remember, girls! It is not just your hair, but the small matter of your personality, too, that must change in order to properly assist this working man: “Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift, and one of your duties is to provide it.”

As recently as 1960, 70% of married women with children younger than 18 in the US stayed at home to attend to such duties, while their husbands worked. By 2012, however, all that had changed. In 60% of those homes, both partners now held down jobs. You would think the old rhetoric would wear thin as it became evident that both Mr and Mrs Jones could step away from the oven without the household, its income and anybody’s fragile ego spontaneously combusting.

But no. Instead, a surprising number of the women who have risen to the top of their professions over the last decade have played into this narrative, in which there is only room for one super-successful career within a relationship. Take Dinah Rose QC, one of the most successful British women in law. In 2012, her advice to young female barristers was: “Marry a house-husband! A 1950’s-style wife – someone to have dinner on the table.”

A good partner provides ‘an emotionally secure base to which you can reliably retreat, but also pushes you to fly away from that safe nest and test yourself’

Only last year, Gwen Byrom, president of the Girls’ Schools Association, was quoted as attributing her professional success to the fact that: “I have three boys and two girls… My husband stays at home and looks after them, I go to work.”

Which is why Petriglieri and Obodaru’s new research is so brilliantly refreshing.

The pair conducted what psychologists term “life-story interviews” with each of the 100 participants in their study, asking them about the memorable events in their lives – good and bad – and analysing the degree to which they had been not only supported but, crucially, enabled by their partner along the way.

“Say someone’s having the classic mid-40s crisis,” says Petriglieri. “You know – I’m really miserable at work but I’ve no idea what else I’d do… Some people’s spouses didn’t get involved. Others gave the classic ‘tea and sympathy’ support. But what’s interesting is that this isn’t what we actually need from a good partner in times of crisis.”

A good partner, she says (pointing out that this needn’t be within a marriage, but any sort of committed, long-term relationship) provides “an emotionally secure base to which you can reliably retreat, but also pushes you to fly away from that safe nest and test yourself.” Petriglieri and Obodaru call this ideal a “secure-base relationship”.

When the pair of researchers also asked each participant how successful they felt their careers had been, an interesting pattern emerged. A little less than half were in a relationship where one partner provided this positive form of emotional support, but not the other. In these cases, the partner on the receiving end, “pursued ongoing professional identity development” – carried on developing their career in a way that was true to their personal ambitions, in other words. The partner providing that good support but not receiving it curtailed their ambition.

So far, so depressingly predictable. But here’s the good news. When both partners provided that healthy form of emotional support, “both parties were much more likely to become the professional they wanted to be,” says Petriglieri.

In other words, “that narrative our culture has bought into for so long – that for one partner to pursue their dream career, the other must hold everything together either by playing it safe at work or by staying at home – just isn’t true.”

Did these couples sometimes struggle? Of course. But it was worth it. Because in “bi-directional secure-base relationships” not only do both partners have a fair chance of flourishingly professionally, each might actually blossom faster and more brilliantly because, the study found, “both partners… expanded their professional identity by incorporating attributes of their partner’s.”

Happily, an increasing number of high-profile women are going on the record with the same advice. Dinah Rose, for example, has revised her prescription for professional success, focusing instead on the problem of “unequal sharing of caring responsibilities”.

The former head of the Girls’ Day School Trust, Helen Fraser, perhaps put it best when she advised young girls to be ambitious in their choice of husbands.

“It’s not just about finding a husband who does the Hoovering and makes the dinner,” she said. “It’s about finding one who really understands it is important for you to thrive and do well in whatever you choose to do. They should be cheerleaders and take pride in their wife’s career as they do in their own.”

So, go out and find your own cheerleader. Whether in a woman or a man, a husband or a life-partner, it’s an infinitely more useful trait that the “low, soft and pleasant voice” Housekeeping Monthly once advocated.


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Beyoncé and Jay-Z, the ultimate power couple (Photo: Instagram)
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