You eat together, you socialize together, and now, thanks to a global epidemic, you work from home together.
If you value your domestic partnership, you will set some boundaries right now so as to prevent the tree of resentment from taking root under your floorboards and bursting into your living room while the dog cowers, remembering better days.
My partner and I have had maybe six arguments in six years. But it was clear that even we had to take swift measures to be sure we would not destroy each other after a few weeks of working alongside one another in the same space. It’s been several months since our respective jobs led us here (our arrangement predated the outbreak of Covid-19), and I’m pleased to report we’re down to maybe one tense moment a week. The latest one: He was looking for a specific pen; I was in a meeting and was not sure this was an important household issue to discuss in that moment.
If you’re co-working with your significant other, or just nervous this might soon be the case, here are some tips to keep in mind.
Establish zones and stick to them
You need a zone. They need a zone. The kitchen has to be a common zone, or you will inevitably have a situation where one of you has 20 minutes to eat and the other one of you is in a meeting in which they do not want a co-star. Set aside any feelings of late-capitalism absurdity and go ahead and text each other, or even set up your own Slack group or other chat channel to communicate from different rooms. Yelling is not only intrusive, it also doesn’t include nice gifs that could convince them to bring you a LaCroix from the fridge.
You also need, if possible, a neutral zone where you can meet to work together when you suddenly realize, “Oh wait, I get to spend all day with this person who is supposedly my favorite.”
And don’t worry, those moments will happen.
Should you need to occupy the other’s zone, you must first ask permission to approach. My partner holds what sound like very productive meetings in the dining room, while I require the office upstairs. Sometimes we meet in the living room to work together on the couch. We feel something approaching fondness at these times.
Make your limitations known
I work in the news business, which means constant deadlines as well as activities like reading, editing, or writing, during which I cannot hear a human voice or my nerves will audibly snap. I spent a couple of weeks offending my partner by walking away mid-conversation or not paying attention to him while he talked. Finally, we just had a grownup chat about it, and I reserved some rights.
Decide who will do what, and when, around your home
One of the nicest things about working from home is that you can plan for deliveries, laundry, or dog walks according to your schedule. But now there are two schedules to work around. If the doorbell rings and you are not in a meeting or in a terrible time crunch, get it—and insist this favor is repaid to you in kind.
Come up with a plan the minute the unexpected happens
If you have a child and that child comes home sick, you must decide who will be point-person during various blocks of time. Failure to do this can and will plant the seed of the Resentment Tree and water it with Oh You Think Your Job is More Important Than Mine elixir.
When a situation arises, you must agree to never, ever respond with a simple “I mean, I’ve got a really busy day.” We all have busy days. The correct answer is “Here is what I can offer.” Generosity breeds generosity.
Preserve your breaks
You need a rule that anyone taking a break cannot be accosted, so that their precious four minutes until their next meeting is not filled with the recap of the other person’s last meeting. This is one of the easiest rules to insist upon when you’re the one enforcing it, and the hardest one to abide by when you’re the one who needs to vent. But remember, you have work friends for that. They’re on Slack, they know all the backstory already, and they won’t be sleeping next to you tonight.