Completing an MBA program can be a time of personal growth and exploration, of making new connections and learning skills to achieve long-term goals. But during his second master’s degree, Rafael Altavini realized that business schools don’t talk enough about the friction transformational programs can cause in relationships.
“My wife and I realized that many others must also struggle to bring their partners along in their learning journey,” he said. “For the non-studying partner, it can be unsettling, and even scary – especially if they feel left out during the transformation.”
The five acts of a non-studying partner
As part of his Executive Master’s in Consulting and Coaching for Change at INSEAD, Altavini, who now works as a consultant, executive coach and leadership advisor at Egon Zehnder, interviewed 10 life partners of program participants and analyzed their perceptions, emotions and fantasies relating to their partner’s learning journey.
The result was a five-act framework ranging from “the leap of faith” when the partner first gets accepted to the program, through to the studying partner’s “magic powers” at the end where participants share and experiment with their new-found knowledge – to the annoyance, or even amusement, of some partners. “The hardest part was often in the middle of the program when the jealousy often kicks in,” said Altavini. “That’s when emotions run high and anxiety mounts.”
During his research, Altavini also surveyed hundreds of alumni to evaluate the long-term impact of the program on their relationships. While the divorce rate was actually very low (8%) – more than one-third of the respondents said the experience had created additional stress in the relationship.
A lack of quality time together and worries that the studying partner’s new skills and awareness will alter the relationship are often at the root of this tension, Altavini found. “This person is transforming, and they may ask themselves: ‘At the end of this transformation, will this person still be the one that I love, and will they still love me?’”
Attachment styles and family systems
In 2017, Rafael and his wife Carolina Balbão Roncaglia Altavini, who at the time had been together for almost 24 years, launched a half-day workshop for IMD MBA students and their partners, based on Rafael’s research. The aim was to break the taboo by first acknowledging that an MBA program can create friction, and then to provide participants with a framework for discussion to help smoothen the ride.
During these workshops, the couple shares their experience and explores how attachment styles and family dynamics influence whether the non-studying partner feels excluded, neutral, or engaged.
“Once you’ve examined yourself and your family dynamics, you will start to understand what makes your particular journey easier or more difficult,” he explained.
Not all couples will experience tension, however. One of the main factors influencing the non-studying partner’s response to their spouse’s transformation is how settled they are within themselves, said Altavini. “If they are also in the search for their own identity and progression career-wise, their family system might be more unbalanced and they might feel excluded.”
The rise of the dual career
Altavini acknowledges his global career, which now spans six countries and three continents, was made easier by their family’s traditional set-up. Following his MBA at IMD, he worked in various strategic and human resources roles at engineering group Schindler, before becoming Head of Talent Management and Organizational Development. After taking an eight-month career break, he joined Egon Zehnder in 2020 to lead its Leadership Advisory and Human Resources Practices in Switzerland.
With the number of dual-career couples on the rise, he says, those who communicate their personal fears and desires at each stage are likely to emerge stronger. “It becomes more important for partners to learn to take turns, to step back when the other might have a better chance of promotion, or to take a risk when their partner has a steady job. If you’re unaware of how you function as a couple, and as a family unit, you won’t have the resources to deal with whatever comes your way.”