02/11/2014 02:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"A-Harmony" for Working Parents on Valentine's Day


When you direct a center on work and family, you get involved in a lot of interesting conversations. When asked what I do, I often get responses like, "Boy, I can relate to that" or "Great, I could use some advice." I'm always pleased to hear the former, but the latter causes me some trepidation. People expect that I'm an expert on issues ranging from workplace cultures to managing a difficult boss to marriage and parenting. The last two make me particularly uneasy. People often assume, "You study this stuff, you must know the answer." My wife would be the first to say, "Who? Him?"

But just this once, in honor of Valentine's Day, I'll offer a few thoughts on harmony for couples on the work and family front. The most challenging questions that couples with children often struggle with are (a) which of us is doing more and (b) who should be doing what. Data from time-use studies in the US suggest that the time each partner contributes to the well-being of the family is roughly equivalent. If you break time into three buckets - paid work, unpaid child rearing, and unpaid domestic tasks, fathers and mothers invest about the same amount of time contributing to the family. Not surprisingly, fathers work more paid hours and mothers invest more time child rearing and in domestic tasks. So my first pearl of wisdom is: Don't argue about who does more, the problem is more likely, "Who does what?"

Before proceeding to answer that, you might ask yourself: "How did we even get into this messy debate? When we were first married it was all going so smoothly." I can answer that question in one word - kids! So what exactly happens to the symbiotic relationship your spouse and you shared before Suzy and Johnny came along. Or these days it would be Emma and Noah according to Nameberry. How could those little bundles of joy be the source of our marital spats?

My colleague and collaborator, Professor Tim Hall from Boston University, in one of the earliest books on dual career couples (Hall & Hall, 1979) developed a schema more that 30 years ago that I still find useful today. He suggests that dual-career couples often fit into one of four prototypes, which all conveniently begin with the letter "A." I'm sure you think you can guess what one of the "A's" stand for, but not so fast. Couples can be "allies, acrobats, adversaries, or accommodators." This model may contain the key to achieving A-Harmony and avoid the need for signing up with E-Harmony in the near future. Here's a typical scenario of how couples might evolve.

We start off the marriage as allies. In this case, both partners have a heavy investment in one sphere of life, say work, and far less investment in the other sphere, home. "Since we're both on the fast track at work, who cares what the house looks like?" Besides, you're both at work so much, there's no need to spend time cleaning your place because nobody is ever home enough to mess it up.

Then kids enter the picture and you both (erroneously) decide you can do it all. At this point, you become acrobats, emulating those couples on TV that make gads of money doing interesting jobs while spending quality time with their children lounging in their perfect homes. For those of you who watch these fictional acrobats and wonder how they do it, they don't. That's why the media bigwigs invented reality TV ... so all of us could realize that our messy homes and dysfunctional relationships pale when compared with "real people" like those you see on Hoarders or The Real Housewives of Orange County or any of those other average people next door.

As the nervous breakdown approaches we come to an important but dangerously flawed realization: I could be an acrobat if only I had married someone who could hold up his / her end of the bargain. Thus we begin finger pointing and the blame game. We've now entered into the adversaries stage. The good news is you can only stay stuck here for so long. Eventually either the marriage gives out or one (or both) of you does.

We then move to the final stage, accommodators. Recognizing the futility of maintaining the image of acrobats while the foundation is crumbling, one or both partners accommodate the concerns of the other and decide to make the needed investment in the kids and home life (assuming they can afford to do so). The good news is we live in a time when there is more than one way to accommodate. Mothers can scale back, fathers can scale back, or both can make the adjustments needed to sustain gainful employment, a healthy home-life, and some semblance of sanity. We just need our employers to also contribute by offering a dose of flexibility.

The key to achieving harmony is that we make these decisions consciously and in concert with our partners. We also need to engage in this conversation regularly to ensure things are still working for both parties. Finally, I would suggest buying your spouse a nice bottle of champagne to share. If this regimen is completed as prescribed, all should be harmonious this Valentine's Day.

Trust me, I'm a doctor!