Although the number of dual-career couples is rising, equal partnerships have not necessarily become the norm. Despite much talk about splitting housework, there is a surprising lack of guidance on how exactly to address the deeper challenges that these couples face, such as when and where to relocate, how to split parenting responsibilities, or how to honor both partners’ ambitions. I have spent the past five years studying more than 100 working couples around the world to learn how they combine two careers and a relationship. Most of the couples I interviewed aspired to split their responsibilities at home and at work equally, but few managed to really do so. For many, resentment and guilt festered, and equality became a mirage.
Through my conversations, I found that the couples who were able to thrive in love and at work had three characteristics in common. They acknowledged that they were not fulfilled in their current working and love lives. They formulated specific, detailed action plans and solutions together that allowed them to equitably divide responsibilities. And they were relentless in keeping each other accountable for living up to that view.
Take Aanya and David (whose names I’ve changed to protect their privacy). A couple in their mid-30s, they were both committed to their fast-track careers, to each other, and to a 50/50 marriage. When their first child was born, both were excited to invest in their new family and had no doubt that they would share parenting duties equally. A few months in, however, they were a long way from their ideal.
“Aanya was overburdened and worn out, and I felt redundant,” David told me. “Our relationship was very tense, and neither of us could figure out what went wrong.” One night, the lingering tension turned into a heated argument about how much time Aanya had spent that day on child care and housework. She was fed up, he felt guilty, and both were shocked by the bitterness of their exchange. It was a needed wake-up call. The next morning, for the first time, they acknowledged to each other that they were neither happy nor fulfilled in their relationship. If they could not find some solutions to get back on the 50/50 track, they realized, it would eventually break them up.
Both data scientists by training, Aanya and David wanted to take a data-driven approach to their problems. Their first step was to list all their duties and track who did what. Research shows that while men think they split housework equally with women, women ultimately do more. The average man does 16 hours a week of housework, while the average woman does 26 a week, according to the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics. A large piece of the discrepancy in estimates stems from partners simply not knowing what the other one does. Aanya and David’s first step was an important starting point.
In reviewing their logs, Aanya and David discovered that she was doing nearly 80 percent of the housework and child care, including all the shopping, most of the cooking and cleaning, and managing almost all the day-to-day care for their son. David took care of some cooking, and organized most of their leisure activities. Aanya was no control freak and David no slacker. So how had they managed to create such unequal division of labor? Two forces were at play—one societal and one self-made. Like many heterosexual couples, once they became parents, Aanya and David found themselves on the receiving end of a strong social norm that mothers should be in charge of the child care.
When it comes to this norm, heterosexual couples fare worse than their same-sex counterparts. Although some of the gay couples I studied also struggled to reach a 50/50 partnership, many were already well accustomed to challenging gendered social norms. They just had to mindfully divide the load and stick to their plan. Without a plan, Aanya and David succumbed to social pressures. I found that couples who reach 50/50—that is, couples in which both partners feel that the other is contributing equally and fairly to the family life—have good intentions and a concrete plan. When it is clear who is responsible for what, couples have a better chance of maintaining an equal partnership.
After listing their responsibilities, Aanya and David decided to renegotiate their tasks. David, for example, took charge of their son’s health—arranging and taking him to regular checkups, keeping on top of his vaccination schedule, and dealing with any illnesses he suffered. He also explicitly asked their health-care providers to call him, not Aanya, if there was an appointment to be booked or an administrative matter to be taken care of. By claiming health as his domain, David decreased Aanya’s to-do list, and did what Aanya described as even more important—he relieved her of the need to keep these tasks in mind.
I found that the strategy of dividing tasks, rather than taking turns to do them, was most effective among couples striving for equality. Couples were able to hold each other to account and reduced the need to constantly discuss practicalities.
Another couple I spoke with, whom I call Noah and Rachel, faced a somewhat different challenge. The source of their discontent was an approach to their careers that no longer fit them, held in place by social expectations channeled by friends and family.
In their mid-40s with children in middle school, Noah and Rachel had two full-time careers and were active parents. Since their children were born, Noah had invested more at work and Rachel more at home. While initially that arrangement suited them, more recently both had become dissatisfied. During one of their date nights, over drinks, Noah blurted out that he was tired of being the main breadwinner. He longed to transition from his corporate role to being an executive coach with a more balanced life. He had not expected Rachel’s reaction. Tearing up, she confessed that she had been wanting to take on a management position and let Noah take the lead at home. They decided that they would try to make their new ambitions into real goals.
Rachel applied for, and quickly accepted, a promotion that came with a significant salary raise. The money allowed Noah to resign, retrain, and begin to build up a coaching practice. Making it work, however, required wrenching changes—they had to rein in their spending, including canceling family holidays and nights out, and both needed to loosen their grip on identities that they had long cultivated. Noah was the dependable financial provider and Rachel the chief family organizer. They saw themselves as such, they saw each other as such, and the world around them saw them that way too.
Unsurprisingly, Noah and Rachel struggled, and their family and friends didn’t help. Noah’s friends ribbed him for “not wearing the trousers anymore” while Rachel’s friends and parents constantly asked her whether Noah was coping at home. Rachel told me that she and Noah made sure to communicate their struggles to each other. “Every time my friends or my mum questioned our choice, I’d talk it through with Noah,” Rachel said. “Part of it was blowing off steam, part of it was reassurance that we were doing the right thing, and part of it was making sure we were holding each other to the deal.”
Rachel also told everyone how suffocated she had come to feel in the family-organizer role, and praised Noah’s eagerness and ability to take over that role. Noting that her conversations with her loved ones were often about family, she began speaking of her work more often. By talking openly, helping each other let go of old identities and arrangements, and challenging the expectations of those around them, Noah and Rachel were able to make a major change that benefited them both.
A real 50/50 marriage is not just one where the partners split the housework equally, important as that is. It is one where both partners have equal opportunities to pursue their ambitions for their work and love lives. It is a social revolution that starts at home, with both partners making commitments—and a plan—to challenge society’s endless pulls. To do that, couples need to develop the habit of having conversations about what really matters to them and how they are going to support each other’s ambitions. It’s a hard battle, requiring honesty and stamina to triumph, but it is a worthy one to fight for a happy work and family life.