How to work at home with your partner without wanting a divorce

by Liz Marchant

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has changed our daily lives significantly. From self-isolation and social distancing to wondering if our jobs are secure, it seems like COVID-19 is all anyone can think or talk about.

While most businesses are still open, those who can work from home are being encouraged to do so to help limit the spread of the disease.

For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home, it’s a relief to know we can still do our jobs even if we can’t go into the office. And, for the introverts among us, working from home meets our preferences perfectly.

However, many of us are finding that working from home doesn’t necessarily mean working alone. If you’re working at home with your spouse for the first time you could be running into challenges you never imagined.

Presumably, you love your spouse. You may even like them. They may be your best friend. Certainly they’re your partner in life. So why is it so hard to adjust to working in the same space as them if you’re not used to it?

The short answer is that people are complex.

People often have their relaxed, at-home persona and their professional, at-work persona. When those two worlds collide, it can feel uncomfortable. However, through discomfort often comes growth. You could see this as an opportunity to get to know your spouse even better. Hopefully, by the end of this, you’ll like them even more than you already did.

In the meantime, you may have to get used to some of their habits that you never even knew about. For example, your partner may hold their breath while typing emails, they may sigh regularly as they work through their to-do list, and they may even talk to themselves throughout the day. They might talk loudly on conference calls, insist on having people on loudspeaker, or prefer to listen to music in contrast to your preference for a silent workspace. They may be easily distracted, wandering around the house doing chores and clanking dishes in the kitchen while you’re trying to get deep work done.

These habits may be charming or amusing at first but they could quickly grow to become irritating or even downright enraging once you’ve had to spend a few weeks in close quarters with them.

So how can you work at home successfully with your significant other without putting a divorce lawyer on speed dial? Here are six ways:

1. Communicate

Tell your spouse how you prefer to work. This includes telling them if you need music or silence, if you make a lot of calls during the day, if you need to take regular breaks. When you’ve outlined your needs and preferences, listen to theirs. Find common ground and agree on ways to minimise the impact on each other. For example, if one person makes a lot of calls while the other needs space to concentrate, it might be worth setting up your workspaces in different rooms or investing in a great pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

2. Compromise

Working at home with your spouse isn’t dissimilar to starting a job with new workmates. You need to get to know them and, sometimes, you’ll need to bite your tongue instead of telling them how they annoy you. Treat your spouse like a workmate and be willing to compromise slightly so you can both work productively. This can include listening to your music through headphones so your spouse can have the silence they crave.

3. Be polite

It sounds odd to have to be reminded to be polite to our spouse but the truth is that familiarity can sometimes mean we shortcut the usual social conventions. Now’s the time to be a bit more careful in how you speak to and interact with your spouse. Again, treating them like valued co-workers can help. Rather than snapping at them for leaving dirty dishes in the sink again or speaking too loudly on the phone, have a polite conversation with them about it. And, rather than aiming to tell them how they’ve annoyed you, look to find a mutually agreeable solution to the issue.

4. Relax

Easier said than done, relaxing and letting go of some things just might be the secret to preserving your relationship with your spouse during this stressful time. If it kills you that they talk loudly on the phone, put your earphones in when they’re on a call. If it drives you crazy that they type heavily on the keyboard or sigh a lot, remind yourself to take a deep breath and let it go. You’ll soon get used to their peccadillos (and they’ll get used to yours) and, before you know it, you’ll be back to work in the office. You may even miss them when things go back to normal. Just remind yourself that you love this person so the little things shouldn’t affect your overall relationship.

5. Separate

If you have separate rooms you can work in, that can help minimise the impact you each have on each other during the working day. You could decide to have lunch together or you could stay mainly separate during the day so that you can replicate that feeling of seeing each other for the first time at the end of the day.

If you stay in the same space for most of the day, remember that it’s OK to want some alone time. Whether this includes going for a quick walk by yourself at lunchtime, having a shower, or just stepping into the back yard to enjoy a cup of tea, don’t feel guilty for wanting some time to yourself. Our regular routines have been completed upended in this crisis, so it’s natural to crave some time to yourself.

6. Enjoy

One of the most wonderful things about working at home with your partner is that you can chat to them throughout the day, get their input on emails, share funny memes or videos with them, and generally enjoy their company while you work. For many couples, this can be a great way to further cement your relationship.

Once you’ve set some solid ground rules, make sure you adhere to them and, if your partner is really bugging you, address it the way you would with any other co-worker. Treat your home office the way you would treat your regular workplace and you should be able to get to the end of this period relatively unscathed.