Love conquers all? Actually, it often needs help — and for MBAs and MBA students, that’s where Actually comes in.
There are bumps in the road in any relationship. But adding the intensity of an MBA program to the dynamic between two people can turn those bumps into craters. Seeing how the rigors of an elite program can negatively impact the bonds of intimacy, two MBAs and a therapist have co-founded Actually, a service “inspired by premarital counseling and couples therapy” that helps MBA couples “create time, space, and balance for their relationship.”
With a range of offerings that includes private therapy sessions and personalized guidance and insights, Actually has already made a difference for couples at Stanford GSB, Northwestern Kellogg, Dartmouth Tuck, Chicago Booth, Harvard Business School, and the Wharton School since its founders first began working in the therapy space a couple years ago. “Sometimes,” one client says, “it feels like a zero-sum game where I’m trading off between maximizing my time at school versus being with my significant other. I loved that this program helped me find a balance between the two that felt right.”
HUGE PERCENTAGE OF MBA COUPLES ARE IN THERAPY
“I think it’s a unique idea that is very commonly experienced, but very rarely talked about,” says Adam Putterman, a 2019 graduate of the dual-degree MMM program at Northwestern University, who along with co-founders Jess Holton, a 2018 Stanford GSB graduate, and Elizabeth Arneshaw, a Philadelphia-based couples therapist, will formally launch Actually this fall.
The idea: A full-time MBA program is a challenging two years in which time is at a premium — often to the detriment of personal needs, particularly spousal, premarital, or other intimate relationships. When both people in a relationship are MBA students, the intensity doubles — and the chasm of unmet needs can widen even more.
Named for the idea that couples counseling should be something that you actually want to do, Actually offers up to 50 couples per month a 60-minute private session with a therapist, four weeks of “engaging exercises and dynamic content,” insights, and expert recommendations and techniques for the future. With a 100% virtual approach that has a clear start and finish, Actually focuses on strengths and skills, with topics based on customer goals: communication, prioritizing time together, joint spending and budgeting, and more. Out of initial meetings comes a personalized roadmap with guided exercises, dates, and more.
In short, if you’re in an MBA program with your significant other and experiencing trouble signs, Actually can help save your relationship. And its founders’ research shows that there are many relationships in B-school that need to be saved.
When we started doing research for Actually, we interviewed a couple hundred MBA students that were in relationships, just to hear about the relationship — what was working, what was challenging,” Putterman tells Poets&Quants. “The most surprising thing we found by far is that around maybe 40% of them were either in couples therapy or looking for couples therapy.
“That blew us away. One, it’s just a lot of people. Two, it was something that we totally did not expect, because it’s so untalked about. That was kind of like the core first thing that led to this. The second was that at Actually, we’re actually not focused on MBA students. We do just premarital counseling and couples counseling in general. We just found that a really large percentage of the couples that were coming to us were in business school, and that there were shared challenges, topics, and opportunities amongst them. We just kept seeing the same reasons over and over again.”
AVOIDING THE TURKEY DROP
A lot of those reasons weren’t even negative, Putterman adds. “A lot of it is, this is a very intense and special time, and couples want to be intentional with their relationships.” But there are looming concerns for every MBA couple — among them, the dreaded “Turkey drop” of divorce or breakup coinciding with the early days of the first year of business school, around Thanksgiving time.
“I think business school has this reputation for being very challenging on your relationship for a bunch of reasons, whether it be the time, the different contexts, all the change that’s happening,” Putterman says. “I know we personally, my co-founder and other people, we of course had our ups and downs during the experience. So there definitely was a little bit of a building what we wish we had had while we were in school.
“There’s also the element of people that meet or start dating during school, which is a totally different set of challenges.”
‘THERE’S ALWAYS A REASON TO NOT DO THIS STUFF’
Actually’s founders see their primary role as premarital counselors and couples counselors. “But the way we’ve always thought of what we do is helping couples during big life moments,” Putterman says, “whether that’s getting engaged or having a kid or going to grad school. The origins of this program for MBAs has probably been developed for the last eight to 10 months, in one way or another. I think it started with a bunch of content we were putting together. Then, we did some partnerships with one school in particular that was very interested in bringing it along.
“There’s the element of working with our team of therapists to really weave in the research and the expertise throughout. It’s really marrying the experience of actual students and the challenges and opportunities that come with that, with what therapists know works. There’s a lot of elements going on in it. There’s also the aspect of people being so busy and finding a way to take what works and craft it in a way that people actually want to do it. There’s always a reason to not do this stuff.”
Putterman and co-founder Holton have no background in therapy. But they do bring a deep knowledge of the realities and demands of business school.
“Everything is developed by therapists, not me or Jess,” Putterman says. “Honestly, it’s very fun for us because our job is in some ways just to share. We get to hear all of these beautiful stories from couples and help make these little magical moments between them. It’s been really fun because we get all these notes from the couples that are in it about the conversations they’re having or how it really changed a recurring situation, or helped them overcome a recurring challenge or argument, and just the kind of normalization of hearing ‘Wow, we’re not the only couple that is dealing with scheduling issues or not feeling prioritized and stuff like that.'”
As one customer says: “This was the perfect way to hold space for the big conversations and adjustments we needed to make. Highly recommend to all students! It’s also just a ton of fun and we learned a lot of tactical tips and tools.”
TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
On a recent Thursday night, Actually conducted a group workshop via Zoom. To Putterman, it was a sign of a huge need for the services offered by the new company.
“We did a two-hour virtual retreat on a Thursday night and I think we had about a hundred people, or 50 or so couples in it,” he says. “By the end of the two hours, we still had 49 couples on the Zoom, having their conversations, doing it. When I was at school, you never stayed the whole time on a Thursday night! That was really, really fun to see.”
The workshops “are about 10% percent content and research and ideas and techniques,” he continues, “20% Q&A, and the remaining 70% are guided conversations and journaling between you and your partner. For example, we may spend a few minutes talking about the challenge of being on such a different schedule and a specific therapeutic-esque technique that you may use to deal with that. Then, we’ll give dynamic prompts for the couples to have conversations on mute, live right there, and kind of go through it. That’s why people stay, because it’s basically just a really nice date or conversation between the two of them.
“I can’t share names yet because we haven’t announced it, but we’re seeing some schools that are sponsoring this in some way or another for their students.”
Though he can’t divulge details, Putterman says the reaction from schools has been very positive.
“I’m hoping that it becomes something that we can partner with them to make a part of the experience, the same way that they have a lot of relationship clubs and stuff like that,” he says. “Peer support is really valuable and helpful, but we think that having a little bit more of a programmatic, expert-delivered thing can take it to the next level.
“I can’t tell you how much we run into stigma or issues like that. But people are starting to acknowledge this is just life. This is real, and this is how you have a great relationship. This is something to celebrate.”
Learn more about Actually by clicking here.
1. Bring your work structure home.
This might feel cringey, but bring some professionalism and order into your relationship: feedback meetings every week, weekend vacations to design a family culture, Excel for trip planning, etc. Anything to create predictability and control in an out-of-control environment.
2. Two words: couples therapy.
We’re obviously biased, but a surprisingly high number of people we surveyed did proactive couples therapy during school to get ahead of any potential issues.
3. Go all in.
Don’t treat this time as something temporary that you “just get through.” Invest in your MBA community together and really work on things as they come up. It’s too easy to write off these two years of your life as just a stop on the way to someplace else.
On the other hand, the quickest way to ensure you do *not* maximize your time at school is to de-prioritize the person most important to you. With a little planning and honest communication, this can be an amazing time for you both.