Working from home with your partner: for better or worse

Apr 22, 2020

5 mins

Working from home with your partner: for better or worse
Rose Costello

Editor and writer

Blame the cat! That’s the advice of Twitter regulars to couples who have suddenly found themselves working from home together.

We canvassed four couples on their experience of working from home with their partners and how they are keeping their sanity (and relationships) intact.

Last year, only 30 percent of employees in the UK had worked from home, according to the latest research by the Office of National Statistics. Just over 5 percent did so regularly. Empty streets show us how those figures have changed dramatically now that anyone who can work remotely is advised to do so.

For those of us lucky enough to be able to do it, this can seem like a chance to spend more quality time with our partner – until the novelty wears off. Or until he runs naked behind your chair while you are on a business video call, as did historian and lecturer James Heartfield.

So what does work-life look like for couples at home, during this Covid-19 lockdown?

Morning coffee

Whether it’s to stay focused or to take a break with your office buddy, coffee is synonymous with the office. Aminata, 26, who works in energy regulation, misses her colleague who enables her coffee addiction. Her partner, Yassine, 25, a tech analyst, doesn’t touch coffee. “Yassine doesn’t drink coffee, and somehow that’s slowly made me have less of it. Though maybe it’s also because we don’t have the office’s Nespresso machine,” said Aminata.

For Chris, 50, and John, 40, both journalists from the North of England, having the occasional coffee is turning into an expensive habit as they investigate the online offerings from independent coffee shops. “We have a coffee break and lunch together and then another coffee break or two,” said John. “I bought a Moka pot for us to recreate stronger ‘coffee shop’ coffee. It has gone down well, although it does feel like the start of an addiction.”

Break for love

Like Chris and John, Aminata and Yassine have now started taking breaks together, albeit without coffee. Being at home together makes the week feel a lot cozier, they say. “We try to take our lunch breaks at the same time, which is a big and nice change from usual.” Aminata is now trying her hand at video games with Yassine, which she never did before. “Mario Kart video game races during lunch breaks are fine.” In return, he has learned to braid her hair. “I have thick Afro hair that I braid before bed every night, and he now sometimes helps me with that, which is lovely,” said Aminata.

It’s not just about the lunch breaks though. Working from home together allows couples to have an insight into each other’s professional world that would have been impossible otherwise. This is true for Laura, 55, a psychotherapist, and her partner Paul, 60, an IT consultant. “This confirmed I could never do what Paul does! I would find it too frustrating and extremely dull at times—seeing Paul working in IT is a bit like being inside the coding of the Matrix (film)—but without the cool outfits or the ability to dodge bullets! Paul does speak to teammates online, but there are not a lot of face-to-face interactions. In the Matrix metaphor, Neo would wear the same comfy worn-out fleece every day and Trinity’s outfits would bear more resemblance to Nora Batty’s in Last of the Summer Wine,” said Laura.

Old habits, die hard

While Laura is getting a peek into Paul’s professional world, certain habits from his personal life are now more apparent than ever. She wishes Paul would stop leaving things open.“Toothpaste, cupboards, and the front door! The latter made me paranoid about someone entering the flat, especially after watching true crime stuff like Tiger King on Netflix. But this is not a new thing, I am just noticing it more these days!”

Both Aminata and Yassine are also noticing habits that were previously just minor inconveniences but have now turned into annoyances. Yassine is very sloooow to finish what he is saying, according to Aminata. “He can take a while to finish his sentences… and now that we’re at home together all the time, talking more throughout the day, I notice it so much more! I’m a more impatient person who, if anything, speaks too fast, so it can drive me crazy sometimes.”

Her habit of nibbling her fingers drives him a little nuts too. “She bites her fingers more than I thought, more so on working days actually, it gives me the creeps.”

Cut out the noise!

Perhaps the most recurrent complaint is noise. “I’ve been accused of ‘clattering around’ when taking a break from work to do a bit of spring cleaning. I work in the kitchen so my office is also the tea station,” said John. Now that he isn’t commuting, John has an extra hour at home, which he is spending doing odd jobs. “The noise never stops,” said Chris. “If he’s not shouting into the phone for work, typing aggressively, or listening to a podcast, he’s re-arranging everything in the attic. I can’t wait for this pandemic to end—though I’ll miss the coffee.”

For Catherine, 35, who works at the same marketing research company as her partner Martin, 40, the problem is Martin’s music during working hours. “My tendency to put a record on will more than occasionally annoy her, especially when I indulge in her twin hates of hip-hop and The Beatles,” said Martin.

It doesn’t stop there. “Martin washes his hands REALLY loudly, with lots of squelching noises as he gets a really good lather going. It’s just not a very nice sound,” she said. “And it’s now happening what feels like every five minutes!”

Unsurprisingly, the sound of washing seems to be a common point of nuisance. “She has an indelicate washing-up technique,” said Paul. Hand-washing aside, “She has the irritating tendency to shout into the phone rather than turning the microphone up. I had noticed it before, but it has become more pronounced.”

Help, I can’t breathe

While lockdowns naturally induce a feeling of claustrophobia, having to work from home with your partner can accentuate that. Yassine misses the spacious desks in his workplace. “At home, the only workspace is a two-person table. If there is a form of claustrophobia for desks, I definitely have it.”

Living in a small home has forced Paul and Laura to be creative to establish and respect each other’s spaces. Paul wishes Laura would recognize when he needs space. “It can be a bit claustrophobic because it is a small flat, but we are both quite laid back so generally, it is fine,” he said. Taking daily exercise helps. “Sometimes, it is nice to do this separately and treat it as ‘me time’, depending on our tolerance for each other on a specific day,” said Laura.

All’s well that end’s well

When the lockdown began, Aminata and Yassine wondered what being stuck in a small apartment would mean for them. “But this experience has turned out to be a confirmation that we work well together and around each other.”

For self-proclaimed introverts, Catherine and Martin, the lack of commuting and office small talk is a source of relief and enjoyment. Social distancing comes naturally to them, according to Catherine. “Despite living and working together, we operate pretty independently. In pre-Covid-19 times, it was very rare that we’d commute to or from the office together. Now we’re continuing the ‘separate commute’ by taking turns to walk Ronnie [their greyhound] in the mornings,” she said. “It does feel that a world that’s geared for extroverts has flipped on its head, and there’s a shred of grim satisfaction in that,” said Martin.

The Covid-crisis has undoubtedly impacted our work-life and intimate relationships. While divorce rates increased in China as the Covid-crisis calmed down—and we can expect the same elsewhere—some couples are now finally finding moments to rekindle their love, despite minor irritations, amidst a looming pandemic.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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