Saying “I Do” to Equal Partnerships

Marianne Cooper, author and lead researcher for Lean In, shares strategies for creating more equal partnerships.

This post was originally published on Marianne’s LinkedIn Pulse page.

A majority of young adults say that their ideal relationship would be an egalitarian one. Yet achieving equal dynamics within a relationship can be difficult.

On this Valentine’s Day, it’s important to ask, what do couples really want in their relationships?

Recent research suggests that the answer is equality. A new study asked young adults between the ages of 18-32 about how they would ideally like to structure their future work and family lives. The result? The majority of both young women and men said that their ideal future relationship would be an egalitarian one, in which breadwinning and family responsibilities are shared equally between committed partners.

While lots of people may want an equal partnership, getting there is difficult. Even the best of intentions can get derailed along the way by long work hours, a lack of flexibility in most jobs and deep cultural beliefs which hold that men should provide for their families and women should be the primary parent. In the face of such headwinds, perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that a survey of those in dual-earner marriages found that only 9 percent actually reported splitting housework, childcare and earning responsibilities evenly. Sadly, many fathers end up wishing they could spend more time with their kids, and many mothers end up feeling like they need to downshift their ambitions or put their careers on hold altogether.

Turning dreams into realities

But it’s possible to turn dreams into realities. With the right ideas and strategies, couples can be true partners. To that end, the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University has released a new video, “Work & Family: Getting to 50/50,” aimed at helping couples achieve equal, balanced partnerships to better navigate the dynamics of work and family together. The video brings together Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober, co-authors of Getting To 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All, and features key insights about the economics of well-being from Myra Strober, Stanford University economics professor emerita.

Strategies for creating more equal partnerships

For their book, Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober talked with lots of working parents in 50/50 partnerships. They also looked at the social science data. Here’s what they learned about what is necessary to get to 50/50.

Communication is key

To get to 50/50, couples need to avoid falling into conventional patterns. So instead of being on autopilot, they need to chart a shared path forward. Couples must work together to actively do things differently, which requires communicating a lot and honestly. But communication works differently at different stages of a relationship. What’s more is that in addition to talking with our partners, we need to better communicate with our managers and even ourselves.

Be an anthropologist

In the beginning stages of a relationship, Meers and Strober suggest using conversations to look for markers of a good partner, like is he open to new ideas or is he rigid? Does she ask questions? Is he a good listener? They suggest approaching a date like an anthropologist and asking probing questions to better understand a date’s family background, what kind of parent do they want to be, what kind of career do they want to have, and would they be happy sharing childrearing 50/50. The answers to these questions will provide the information to determine if that person has the potential to support your vision of becoming equal partners.

Have a weekly meeting

Later on in a relationship, Meers and Strober recommend that couples have a weekly one-on-one meeting to maintain high levels of communication. During the one-on-one, couples can talk about the calendar and review the to-do list for the week. But more importantly, this time can also be used to talk about things that our partners did that made us happy as well as the things that annoyed or frustrated us. This kind of approach ensures that there is a dedicated time to express appreciation for our partners and to flag problems so that solutions can be created together. While a weekly one-on-one may not sound romantic, it actually enables couples to connect emotionally, and therefore it’s critical to keeping the romance going.

Get clear feedback on priorities at work

In addition to laying the groundwork for a 50/50 partnership in your relationship, there are also things you can be doing to make room for family at work. If your to-do list is always growing, demands at work can become overwhelming. So reign in your workload by talking with your boss. Get clarity about priorities and how those priorities will be measured. Identify the two or three things that should take precedence and focus on getting those things done.

Check in with yourself

Often women start planning for children years and even decades before they actually have them. But just because you want a family one day doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your career seriously now. It’s actually the opposite. Meers and Strober encourage young women to pursue their careers full force, get as far as they can and build up as much professional credibility as possible. The more credibility you have at the point you have children, then the more power you have and the more confidence you have to negotiate and ask for what you want.

Give up on perfection

Women often hold themselves to very high standards. But perfectionism is stressful. We will be happier if we turn off the voice in our heads that says we have to be perfect and just focus on doing really well on the things that have to get done.

If we want true partnerships then we need to innovate how we think and talk about work and family. So let’s reimagine relationships and create a more equal world.

If you have any tips on how you have navigated splitting responsibilities with your partner, please share!