For many couples, a good portion of the week used to be spent apart at their jobs.
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But with so many people now working from home, partners are getting an inside look at each other’s work lives.
And while you might be comfortable working side-by-side with your co-workers, you may find yourself clamming up when having to make a call with your partner next to you.
“This is the person you are most intimate with in the whole world and you realize there is a domain of their life that you know very little about,” said Jennifer Petriglieri, author of “Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work” and a Professor at INSEAD business school.
Here are a few ways to break the tension.
1. Address the elephant in the room
Knowing what your partner does is one thing, but seeing them in action is another.
“We are forced into the intimacy, not just with spouses, but also with kids or whoever else is in the home,” said Karen Bridbord, a psychologist and organizational workplace consultant in New York City.
The first step in making this situation work is to talk about it. Talk about any insecurities you may have whether it’s participating in a video meeting or being eavesdropped on and what you need in terms of a work environment. Then create a schedule and set boundaries when it comes to separating work life and personal life.
“Have a more general conversation about concerns: what are you worried about vis-à-vis work – your partner seeing you work being one of those – and why you worry about them,” said Petriglieri.
By keeping your concerns as part of a bigger conversation, you’re more likely to evoke empathy from the partner which will help negotiate boundaries, she added.
If a relationship had issues before, working in such close quarters under stressful conditions will likely magnify them.
“Issues will come bubbling up in different ways,” said Bridbord. “When everything is irritating you about the other person, that is when you have to look at yourself and why you are so triggered.”
2. Provide an inside look
Sometimes, our partners only hear the bad stuff about work: the micromanaging boss, that loud co-worker and the impossible deadlines.
But being forced to work out of the same office now can help change perceptions and even help partners and kids better understand what we do all day. And that’s not a bad thing.
Make your work part of the daily conversation by talking about what you’re working on and why it’s important to you, suggested Petriglieri. And if applicable, how your work relates to or has changed due to the pandemic.
“When everyone understands the priorities… and why they are important and what they contribute too, we’re more likely to be respectful of boundaries and appreciate each other’s work space and then make the most of when we’re together without work.”
Getting an inside look can help make late nights or missed life moments more justifiable once there is a return to office life and separate careers.
3. Use project management tactics
Tackle this situation like you would a challenge at the office: get organized, communicate and delegate.
“Take those business principles and apply them to your life at home right now,” suggested Bridbord. “Our lives together are, in essence, a business with lots happening at once,” she added.
That means defining everything that needs to be done, including child care, cleaning and cooking, and then delegating.
Having daily meetings to plan or assess the day or documenting all the responsibilities can help keep everyone on track.
“These systems allow us to focus and plan – and helps share the cognitive load,” she said.
4. Avoid treating each other like colleagues
You might be learning that your spouse is a fan of all the office clichés or holds too many meetings – but it’s best to keep that to yourself.
Even if you think your intentions are good, don’t offer any unsolicited feedback when it comes to your partner’s work style.
And don’t mistake complaining as an opportunity to critique.
“Even if a partner is complaining about work, you shouldn’t see that as an invitation or opportunity to provide critical feedback,” said Anthony Chambers, couple and family psychologist and chief academic officer at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. “Allow them to vent and be heard.”
5. Don’t go tit for tat
These working conditions aren’t ideal for many people right now – especially if you are juggling kids and other care giving responsibilities. It can feel overwhelming and exhausting, but try not to keep score of who is doing what around the house, or who’s work is more pressing.
Being competitive can be a sign of a deeper issue. “Feelings of competition can arise when people feel that they are not on the same team and there is a zero/sum experience in the relationship,” said Bridbord. “And they are not supporting one another emotionally and pragmatically on a day-to-day basis.”