Hannah Pearson, Malaysia
The regular response I’ve had from friends when we discuss working with a partner is “We’d argue all the time”, or “We’d drive each other crazy!” So I wanted to shed some light, first-hand, on just what it means to work with a partner. As more and more people are choosing to work for themselves, or to move to another country and find work there, I’m sure that couples working together is only going to become more commonplace.
My fiancé and I moved out to Malaysia over three years ago, into a studio apartment – that’s right, one room, with a separate bathroom. And three days later, we were working in an office sat opposite one another. We knew very few people in Kuala Lumpur, so our social life was hanging out with one another. The furthest we ever physically got from one another was when one of us had a call of nature – otherwise, we were pretty much within a two-metre radius of one another the entire time.
I’m not going to lie – that was an intense few months, as we adjusted to life in a new country, a new workplace, and working and living together. Did we argue? Hell yes! Mainly over work matters – we were starting a new department and each had our own passions and pet projects that we vigorously defended. Were there tears? Sure, but not as many as you might think.
Three years on, and we’ve worked at a digital agency together, quit within a few weeks of one another, and are now on the brink of working at our own start-up – together, of course.
So why do we keep sticking together? To put it simply, no one else can understand each other half as well. We have worked so intensely together that we can understand what the other one is getting at with just a few words spoken and we know what each other’s strengths – and weaknesses – are.
My partner calls me out when I’m avoiding confrontation, as I do to him when he’s bulldozing other people’s ideas. He calls me out when I’m being too sensitive to criticism, as I do when he prefers a lie-in to starting work. We’re far from perfect, but I don’t believe that any other colleague – or boss, even – would have that same level of insight that we’ve gleaned from seeing each other in every work-life situation.
We urge one another on, we understand perfectly the stresses of each other’s job, the politics of our workplace and know each other’s projects inside out. If one of us wants to stay at the office working longer than the other, we understand why, and don’t feel rejected or lonely. Our ‘home’ selves can fully appreciate our partner’s ‘work’ selves and the strains that they are going through.
I’d say the greatest advantage of working with your partner is trust. I implicitly trust that he will get what needs to be done, done. I know that he will never badmouth me to colleagues, or claim my achievements for his own. I’m sure that when the opportunity arises, he will sing my praises to management. And vice versa.
Perhaps we are lucky in that we have different skill sets – he’s more technical, I’m more creative – so we don’t have to compete with one another. I’m an incredibly competitive person, so I imagine that if we did have a similar role, I would find it hard to hold back and not compare our achievements against one another. And that tension would be tough not to bring home. We have also pretty much been on the same level of the work hierarchy – that period where we argued was when he was technically my manager (you see? I had to use the word ‘technically’ to avoid getting riled up). Once we were on the same level, that tension melted away.
If you google ‘should couples work together?”, there are plenty of warnings against it – as well as plenty of advice of ‘set date nights where you never talk about work’, or ‘have lunch with other colleagues, not just your partner’. To be frank, to me it’s all baloney. If you are really passionate about what you are doing, then to be able to talk about ideas whenever they pop into your head is wonderful – and makes you more productive, as you can immediately hammer out the details.
I read a great article on BBC Travel about travelling and working together by travel blogger husband and wife team, Daniel and Audrey at Uncornered Market, who gave some advice (they also wrote a great one, How to Travel the World without Killing Each Other):
“As a couple, meanwhile, our travels have provided us the opportunity to create a library of shared stories and life experiences. Our respect and appreciation of our differences has helped us grow together, not apart. But it’s important to remember that travelling and working together forces issues to the surface; work through them immediately, rather than letting them stew and simmer.
Oh, and if you board separate buses, make sure they eventually wind up in the same place.”
I’d add to that: if the opportunity comes up to work with your partner, don’t just pass it up because of all the bad press. You may just find you like it.
“I cherish the freedom in having some time apart even if it means being eight hours away from my partner during the day”
Yafieda Jamil, Cambodia
“I met him at work and we hit it off from there.” We all have friends who have said this, who met their soul mates and partners in the same working environment. It seems to be the norm since we tend to spend more hours in the office than we do socialising.
I’ve always wondered how couples are able to work together in the same place when they spend the rest of the hours together, too. I, for one, cherish the freedom in having some time apart even if it means being eight hours away from my partner during the day, as it gives us more things to talk about when we meet up after. With face-to-face conversations being scarce these days, I treasure the late dinner or supper where we catch up with each other in our own personal space. More often, we are offered fresh perspective or ideas from someone who is on the ‘outside’ and these prove to be valuable insights.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve always preferred for us to have separate group of friends including co-workers. I’ve treasured friendships that stem from being co-workers and this allows us to enjoy having separate interests with our partners. For example, my co-workers love to spend the weekend watching a movie or having brunch, while he prefers to have drinking sessions in the local pub.
Another question I’ve often asked myself is whether I’d be able to treat my partner in a professional way if we were to work together on the same project. I find that our behaviors tend to be different when we are at home and at work. At work I tend be serious and firm, focusing on the task in hand and ensuring it gets done whatever challenges arise. It could get tense, it could get stressful, it could get pushy and honestly this is not something I wish to reflect on my partner. When these things happen in a workplace, all you want to do and think about is meeting up with your partner after work and just chilling. And this personally works well for me.
I’ve also experienced incidents where couples working in the same office create drama and tension for others when they have a fight or break up in their personal lives. It’s not only a nightmare but also causes so much awkwardness when decisions are made based on personal feelings instead of professional ones. But occasionally there are couples that are able to place their differences aside and put up a professional front at work.
Would you be able to bite your lip when your partner doesn’t get along with the boss at work? I’ve witnessed a boss reprimanding a staff member in a meeting on a task that was incomplete while the partner stood in silent anger watching the whole ordeal. That can leave both parties feeling embarrassed or helpless as you’re stuck between defending your partner or standing up for management.
“If you want to talk about the office, you can do this with your father, your mother, your husband, wife or whoever in your family. Just leave it outside the office.”
I remembered this advice from my previous VP who suggested that employees should focus on work and if there are any problems, we should talk to our families instead of our co-workers. This would avoid unnecessary office politics and maintain our professional relationship with one another. What he said makes sense, as we would be more of a listening partner in a personal context, and avoid becoming involved in the office situation.
Experiencing these situations and respecting each other’s personal time makes it easier for us to have our own work lives. However, despite these personal opinions, I understand that there are couples out there that are able to work together and they truly understand their expectations and role within the company. If not, it is best to avoid any conflict that would jeopardize both career and personal life by keeping the two separate.