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Summary:

First-person accounts from couples that both work from home illustrate that the experience can be fraught, with one partner sometimes imposing on the other. But the arrangement works well for some. What are the secrets of these happy home working couples?

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One advantage of working remotely, and particularly of working from home, is the ability to bring your personal and professional lives closer together, reducing conflict between different types of obligations. But what if your professional and personal life are a bit too close together – like, for example, your fellow remote worker spouse sitting a few feet away from you all day?

Potential problems are, obviously, numerous, as a first person narration of a dual remote worker marriage in Marie Claire illustrates. With sections written by both members of a telecommuting couple, the piece enumerates the many challenges of a spouse joining his or her hubby in home working. Chris Norris, the first member of the couple to go remote, describes what it was like to suddenly have his wife, Ellen Carpenter, around the house after she was laid off and started working freelance. He chooses a frankly homicidal reference:

For six months now, my wife and I, both writers, have been working at home together in our one-bedroom apartment. If the precariousness of this situation isn’t obvious, I refer you to the best film ever about shared domestic work space: The Shining. There’s Jack Nicholson’s would-be author, self-exiled in an empty hotel. Typewriter clacking, he squints into the page—limning, seeking, probing, his mind finally edging up against that drifting, vaporous thought, when … “Hi, Hon!” chirps googly-eyed Shelley Duvall. “Get a lot written today?” The ax murders that follow are excessive, I grant you, but incomprehensible? I don’t judge.

True, our two-desk living room is no Overlook Hotel — even if it is a feng-shui horror show — and Ellen respects its sanctity. But I do feel like a crucial curtain has been pulled back. In our courtship phase, when she worked at an office, she would often swing by my place after work and find me lounging on the couch in a rumpled Agnès B. shirt (just put on), an open book on the table (unread), and another finished project on the screen. “Yep,” I’d say. “This is where the magic happens.” Now she knows what the magic actually looks like.

For her part, Carpenter didn’t suffer from a loss of privacy or murderous hallucinations but from the imposition of domestic expectations on her professional time. The couple set ground rules about interrupting each other when she started working from home, she writes, agreeing that,

From 10 to 6, Monday through Friday, we’d be colleagues. But very quickly, I took on other roles as well. Because Chris was used to my only being home in the evenings (making dinner) or on the weekends (making lunch, Swiffering the floor), certain primal, gender-specific assumptions were activated. Coworker? Try personal chef, maid, cheerleader, dog walker, masseuse, and make-out partner — on call, 24/7. In my attempt to adapt to his routine, I unconsciously stepped into some kind of ’50s, June Cleaver stereotype. The first week, I offered to make lunch. The next, I volunteered to read an article he had just finished and to give him feedback prior to its submission — that is, to tell him it’s great. The week after that, I assumed laundry duties.

Slowly but surely, all this wrought a learned helplessness I still can’t quite believe. My husband was once a strong, independent man who’d return from a six-mile run with a bouquet of my beloved dahlias. Now he can’t crack open a can of Progresso.

By the end of the Marie Claire article, you’re really, really rooting for Carpenter to get another office-based job. Are things always so grim for couples that work from home together? A recent two-part interview of another remote working couple on blog How to Work From Home offers more grounds for hope. Again, the wife, coach Maria Varallo, struggles more to separate the domestic and the professional. “There are times I find it too much being mom and wife whilst being a professional all at once,” she says. But in this case, having a partner working at home seems to have affected the husband in the opposite way it did Norris. Rather than reverting to 1950s-era stereotypes, Varallo’s husband Kris, a database administrator, has actually become more aware of all the effort that goes into running a family.

“The great thing about working from home is Kris is far more sensitive to what needs doing. I especially have noticed over the years as my work has grown and become more established how the house becomes very relaxed,” Varallo says. “If I put on the washing in the morning he’ll put it out if I’m out, he is aware and I think that’s because he also works from home.”

So how do you get a situation more like Varallo’s and less like Carpenter’s? Steve Cooper, co-founder of Hitched, an online magazine for married couples, recently offered some tips to Forbes. Citing a recent letter his magazine received from a woman with a problem (e.g. husband) much like Carpenter’s as inspiration, Cooper offers these suggestions:

Define Your Workspace. Having a space of your own is extremely important, even if one of you has to work from the kitchen table. If possible, set up shop in two separate rooms on opposite sides of your home.

Create Office Hours. If you only have one room that can work comfortably as a home office, [owner of The Protocol School of Texas Diane] Gottsman says you might trade use of that room by creating work hours.

Communication. Dialogue with each other is paramount. “You have to be able to talk to each other and really be honest without becoming defensive,” says Gottsman. Have a conversation where you explain what you need, when you need it and how these ground rules need to be followed going forward.

Dealing with the Family. Your boundaries should be very, very clear. “We want to feel like what we’re doing is of value and that our spouse also values us,” says Gottsman. “It may not seem as important, but if we’re doing it, it is important.” Your family needs to know they cannot walk in to your office and interrupt.

Check out the full article for more detailed advice. Author Jenna McCarthy has also offered tips to TheMogulMom, including, “if you have the occasional need to check in with your spouse throughout the day, you can save a ton of time by setting up an IM account.” As well as, “be mysterious…. wives tend to way overshare when it comes to the minutia of their lives. Your dude doesn’t need (or want) to hear a play-by-play of your day.” Though one wonders if husbands are really immune from long-winded explanations of their professional trials and tribulations (personal experiences says no), this last tip makes sense if applied to both genders.

Has working at home with your partner changed the gender dynamics between you, i.e. is one person taking on a more or less traditional role around the house?

Image courtesy of Flickr user S. Diddy

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  1. I work from home, the shared desk in the living room actually, with my partner in our one bedroom apartment. My part of the desk is 4 foot from the wall of the living room that is the kitchen, the other side of the wall from the bedroom, and yes, I’m nearest to the front door as well.

    We run 3 businesses between us and yes, we both share domestic chores and run errands. He does the dishes, I do the cooking. He vacuums the floors, I do the cleaning and the laundry.

    It’s a constant compromise and a good way of enjoying being with him, while staying independent and committed as a couple. While I often yearn for a separate home office, I think I’d miss him if I got one.

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  2. Wow! I can really relate to this post! Actually, I work as a freelance seo specialists and my wife is a full time mom of our first baby. It is actually the same feeling even if she has no job and I working online.

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  3. I’m pretty sure I wrote this article in my head a hundred times over the past few months. I am a freelance writer working from home and my husband is finsihing up his dissertation for his graduate degree…also working from home.

    Our 1-bedroom flat in edinburgh is no larger than 300 square feet. So between one of us working on the couch and the other working at the dining table (because, lets face it, there’s no room for a desk!), our personal, business, and educational lives seem to blend together simultaneously into one.

    And, although it can be tough at times, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. We don’t really seem to get sick of each other. Whenever one of us needs it, the other jumps right in on being a cheerleader and domestic god/godess. Each day it changes…each hour it changes.

    But such is life. I appreciate that we don’t have to rush home from our day jobs to finally see each other in person instead of via text/email/phone. We can just throw spitballs at each other from across the room instead. (Hey, I said we had jobs, I didn’t say we were grown-ups!)

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