Most people spend more time with their “work family” than their real family. Sometimes what you appreciate most about your co-workers is that they don’t come home with you.
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So what if your co-worker is actually your partner?
Or given the pandemic, maybe you suddenly started sharing a remote workspace together, even with separate careers. Can working together that closely be too much of a good thing?
Let’s get to know the common pitfalls for couples who work together, so you can avoid them. Here are the keys to make working together a success, for your career and your relationship.
1. Common Pitfalls of Working Together
Let’s start with the downsides you might expect when you work with a spouse or a partner.
You Feel Like You’re Always at Work
If you work together, it’s easy to bring your work into your personal life.
Couples who work together at someone else’s company tend not to have this problem as much as copreneurs (couple entrepreneurs) who start a business together, according to research by Kathy J. Marshack, a Ph.D in Psychology. Marshack found no difference in terms of career satisfaction or marital satisfaction between dual-career couples and copreneurs. She did find, unsurprisingly, that work invades home life to a much greater extent with copreneurs.
So Much Togetherness
You’ll see this on both the pros and cons list of spouses who work together:
- Pro: You spend a lot of time together.
- Con: You spend A LOT of time together.
Individuals and their relationships are unique. What is an advantage to one couple can be a major disadvantage to another. Some couples may find all that time together strengthens their relationship.
Natalie Compagno owned and ran Traveler’s Bookcase in Los Angeles with her husband, Greg Freitas, for 10 years and now works with him again, writing content for lifestyle brands. Being work spouses has been a satisfying arrangement for them because they enjoy spending a lot of time together, although that doesn’t work for every couple.
Not spending enough time on relationships is a major regret in many people’s lives. Realistically, however, all that time together may create irritation or encourage boredom for some couples.
Increased Career Instability
When you and your partner or spouse work in the same industry, industry downturns hit both income-earners. If you work for the same company, the rumors of potential layoffs threaten you both.
Couples who are in business for themselves face even more stress and can become very vulnerable financially, notes Jeff Reid, director of entrepreneurial studies at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Many entrepreneurs rely on their spouse’s income and health insurance, but copreneurs often don’t have that extra security.
Work Arguments Never End
Compagno has a realistic outlook.
“In any relationship, there’s always something that you’re going to argue about, something that comes up over and over again,” she says. “So when you work together, that naturally becomes what you argue about.”
The difference, Compagno notes, is to make sure you’re not arguing about your relationship, but that you’re trying productively to solve problems at work.
2. Keys to Success for Couples Working Together
So, how do some couples make their working relationship a success?
Set boundaries to ensure that your work doesn’t engulf your life and your family responsibilities don’t undermine your work.
According to Marshack’s research, this tends to be more difficult for the working wife than the working husband. Women tend to carry their self-concepts as wives, mothers, or daughters into all aspects of their lives. This shouldn’t be a big surprise that men don’t do this to the same extent, given the tendency of the male brain to compartmentalize.
Having rituals to establish boundaries can be helpful: shutting off a computer, leaving a room or building, closing the office door, turning off phone notifications.
As a couple, consider setting norms and limits. Decide where and when you’ll talk about work. Set work-free zones, where you don’t let it enter your conversations. Physically limiting work’s hold on you is generally healthier, whether you work with your spouse or not. But it’s even more key when you’re protecting your relationship.
Planned Time Away
Plan regular time away from each other to develop outside of your shared work and relationship and avoid resentment.
For introverts, this may mean time alone. For extroverts, this may mean ensuring you have your own social outlet, separate from your spouse. Either way, when your personal lives and your working lives are tightly interwoven, you need to schedule time away from each other for the health of your relationship.
“Plan regular time from each
other to develop outside of your
shared work and relationship
and avoid resentment.”
Compagno and her husband currently live in the small quarters of a houseboat, as working writers. They’ve had good success using different arrangements, including using a work share space. When they don’t have that option, they schedule time slots into their day–usually separate workout breaks–when they can be alone or share time with friends.
For copreneurs, define and tend to your own separate responsibilities to reduce miscommunication and conflict.
The clearer your roles and responsibilities are, the less tension there will be interpersonally. This applies not only to co-worker couples, but to any co-workers. Divide up responsibilities clearly, negotiate as needed, and revise roles where it makes sense. It will save you considerable stress, instead of wondering who is picking up which pieces.
Gibb Dyer, a professor at Brigham Young University and recognized authority on entrepreneurship and family businesses, said the most effective copreneur couples do a couple of things:
✓ Each spouse brings a distinct expertise to the business.
✓ They meet periodically with an advisory board for objective input and progress reviews.
“Often when you mix family relationships and businesses together,” Dyer explains, “there can be conflicts and issues. It’s difficult unless you get a third party to help you.” Dyer also emphasized the importance of communicating well, citing John Gottman’s research on building your emotional bank account for your marriage. It’s important to ensure you have a deep reservoir of goodwill as stressful times inevitably appear.
Share the Wins
Enjoy your shared world by setting goals that are important to both of you, encouraging each other, and celebrating successes.
A wonderful benefit of working with your spouse is that you get to share in the successes of your enterprise. This is especially meaningful in work for a cause or purpose about which you’re both passionate.
You will understand each other’s day-to-day reality. You can support each other in a way you simply can’t when you work in two different worlds.
Historically, spouses often worked side-by-side, depending heavily on each other. Some believe that today’s separation of couples–working apart in separate worlds–has estranged long-term couples in the modern world. So if working together as a couple seems unusual and risky, you can comfort yourself that this actually has been done successfully for centuries.