My wife and I spent most of last Saturday cleaning out and sprucing up our home office, preparing for an extended stint with both of us working from home.
My wife is Mina Bloom, a reporter at Block Club Chicago, so our jobs are fairly similar. But it took almost no time at all for her to abandon our plans of working side-by-side and move out to the dining room to work.
“The thing is, you do talk kind of loud on the phone,” she told me the other day when I asked her about it.. My loud talking and “banging” on my keyboard drove her to abandon the office for the dining room (which is way less comfortable).
It turns out, we accidentally are doing things the right way. The advice from experts is that if you have the space, you and your partner should work in different rooms.
Besides my volume issues, things have been going very well for Mina and I in our first couple weeks of social distancing.
To help keep it that way, I asked three Chicago couples counselors to provide some tips for isolating with a spouse or significant other.
1. Communicate. All. The. Time.
Licensed clinical social worker Emma Coate said couples isolating together, especially if both partners are working from home at the same time, should schedule weekly, or even daily, check-ins to give each other space to discuss what is working and not working and ways to address problems.
“Talk to each other about whether you feel your workspace is efficient enough, or if there are other things that your partner needs right now to help them feel more successful or efficient in what they’re doing and how to navigate breaks and what your work styles are,” Coate said.
Meanwhile, marriage and family therapist Giulia Casani said it’s essential for couples to raise any issues that come up as soon as possible. Casani said couples should not hesitate to talk with each other about the difficult situation they are living through
“Talk about the fact that we all are going through this, it’s normal to feel stress and feel anxious,” Casani said.
2. Understand that you and your partner probably each have a “work persona,” and try to use it to your advantage
Coate said that part of working alongside your romantic partner will be accepting that they likely have at least a slightly different personality when they’re working.
“People’s work selves are sometimes very different from their home or family self, and that’s been a challenge I think for people to realize, ‘Oh I need to now be my work self but at home,’ ” Coate said.
But clinical therapist John Hughes said that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
“We tend to engage with our coworkers very differently than we engage with our partners,” Hughes said. “We tend to offer our coworkers more grace, more forgiveness, more compassion than even we do our partners at times. So now that you’re working at home, try to extend that to your partner.”
3. Make time for yourself away from your partner
Casani said it is important to talk with your partner ahead of time about needing to carve out time for privacy and solitude.
“There are a few couples I know of that love spending all of their time together and do everything together, but for the most part we all need our individual time,” Casani said. “Don’t just disappear without talking about it with your partner. Negotiate that ahead of time so there are no surprises and no disappointments, and clarify why you need that space.”
Casani said it’s also important that each partner make sure to talk with other friends and family during isolation.
“Our partner can’t be everything, can’t do everything for us,” Casani said. “And so sometimes we have friends that … provide certain things that our partner can’t.”
4. You cannot go with “business as usual” during the coronavirus crisis
Hughes said for many couples, things like childcare and household chores are divided up in very specific ways based around work schedules.
Now that most people’s work schedules have completely changed, so too should the way tasks are divvied up.
Hughes said couples need to talk through household responsibilities, and make sure each partner believes the situation to be a fair one.
“One of the biggest threats to relational security right now is going to be people feeling like it’s not fair, it’s not equitable,” Hughes said.
5. Make an effort
Besides inequity, Hughes said another major potential peril for couples is boredom.
“This [isolation] time is such fertile ground for boredom and lack of newness to really thrive, and so it requires a concerted and intentional effort from partners to fight against that,” Hughes said.
He said that’s why it’s important to go the extra mile and make some evenings together special, a reminder that you aren’t just coworkers and roommates.
Hughes said he has one client who is making sure to make mealtime special with his partner. They plan out the menu, get dressed up and set the table.
Most important, Hughes said, is for each person in a relationship to remember “you signed up for this.”
“When we decide to get into a relationship … we said that we were going to be able to do this. We never thought we were going to have to do this but we said that we could, and we promised it and now here we are, and we have to step up,” Hughes said. “It’s tough and it’s hard and it’s work, but I promise you it’s worth it, because imagine having to navigate this alone. And people are having to [do that]. And you have the luxury and the privilege of having a partner, so now do what you said you were going to do.”