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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

What to do When Your Soul Mate Becomes Your Desk Mate

If all you knew about a typical American couple came from primetime television, you’d assume that my husband and I fall into one of two categories:

1. He’s an oafish man who eats ESPN for breakfast and washes it down with a Miller Lite, while I’m a “sassy” woman who tricks him into doing everything I want.

2. We are complete strangers who married each other on TV for money.

I think this media portrayal of the average couple is responsible for the look of horror that passes over people’s faces when I tell them that my husband and I have been working together at a small company for almost two years. “Together?” they gasp, “All day? In the same building?”

Yes, it’s true. There are only 12 people in our office, our desks are just a few feet apart, and we frequently collaborate on projects. How do we do it? It’s actually pretty simple.

We Mulled Over the Implications First

When a position opened up two years ago at the company where my husband worked, we considered the pros and cons. The main concern for us, and for any couple that decides to work together, is that all our eggs are in one basket. And if that basket declares bankruptcy, is acquired, or collapses, our eggs are screwed. (Scrambled? It's not an intuitive metaphor.)

The risk, however, is accompanied by its fair share of rewards: a single commute, more time together, and a joint understanding of health insurance, benefits, and 401(k) plans.

If you’re thinking about joining your significant other’s company, you need to understand the advantages and disadvantages—both emotional and legal. And ideally, when it comes to benefits details, talk to an HR representative before signing on the dotted line.

Once we decided to go for it, we established guidelines for working together.

We Leave Home at Home

When we pull up into our office parking lot, we kiss each other goodbye in the car. This is a formal way of leaving our domestic selves out of the office. Once we're in the building, we refrain from using pet names, we don't tell new clients or partners that we're married, and, if need be, we use texts or Gchat to discuss dinner and weekend plans.

That being said, we don’t try to pretend like we’re not in a relationship. It’s natural for my personal life to come up at least a few times within a 40-hour work week, and I don’t shy away from discussing anything about my “extra-curricular activities” just because my husband is in the break room, too.

We Treat Each Other Like Co-Workers

When we’re at home and I need my husband to do something for me, like mow the grass, I phrase my request like so: “Baby, I love you, especially when you do that cute laying-on-the couch-all-day thing, but get outside and mow the grass.” At work, I phrase my requests a little differently, something like: “When do you think that report will be done?”

The difference is subtle, yet important.

My husband extends the same professional treatment to me when we are in the workplace. For example, a few weeks ago, when a 5.8 earthquake violently shook the East Coast and our building, my husband ran straight out the door, leaving me behind just like any other colleague. It simply would have been unprofessional for him to show me preferential treatment by grabbing my hand and whisking me off to safety.

(A sense of humor helps, too.)

We Leave (Most of) Work at Work

We try to take a break from office-talk on the home front, but one of the bonuses of working together is the opportunity to vent to someone who actually understands what you're talking about.

Before we worked together, we would come home from our respective offices, flop down on our couches and unload—telling each other about all the frustrations of the day. I would really try to listen to my husband, but as soon as he started divulging the details about the software that crashed and the resulting error messages that sent him spiraling into a rage, I would find my mind wandering to more familiar places, like what I was going to eat for dinner.

An office is like a tiny culture, with its own language, customs, and natural resources—it can be difficult for an outsider to understand. But now that we work together, we're both equally frustrated by those error messages and can unleash our anger together.

Working with your significant other is about adjusting—tweaking your romantic communication tactics for professional deployment. Overall, our honesty with each other about our workplace behavior has made us both better employees, and seeing the results of our collaborative efforts is incredibly fulfilling.

Do I plan on working with my husband forever? Absolutely not. Have I dented the underside of the conference room table trying to kick his shins? You bet. But, for right now, working together works for us, and—with a little preparation—it can work for other couples, too.

Photo courtesy of windowsau.