Couplehood is a project that one has to be emotionally invested in, and which has to be nurtured and handled with great care if both are to derive joy out of it. Sustaining a fulfilling relationship at home is challenging enough, therefore, if the couple also share a work life, the challenges double.

There are couples who may have met at work as employees of the same organisation, tied the knot and chosen to continue to work there in their respective positions. Then there are those who decide to do business together, or share the same professional space like doctors  or creative writers/designers. There are others who may just assist the spouse for a particular project in a limited capacity as an assistant.

Whatever is the case, sharing a work space with your spouse comes with its own challenges and rewards.

Challenges

Graphic designers Mira and Shyam started an animation studio together. He would negotiate deals with the clients and she would do the creative work in the studio. He would often ask her to redo the work saying that the clients’ brief was different and also pressure her to meet deadlines. She felt he was insensitive to her time and energy constraints, unappreciative of her creativity, and that he was having a ball at her cost, travelling alone to strike deals abroad and enjoying 5-star luxuries at the clients’ cost while she was at the studio doing all the hard work. Once when their studio received an international award, he went on stage alone to receive it and that’s when she decided to stop working with him, and do freelance work for other studios. She felt used and he felt abandoned.

Surita who joined her husband’s business to assist in administration and accounting while he focussed on expanding the business, took grave offence when he decided to renovate the office and allot her a cubicle at the back while he made his cabin at the front. She was offended that he did not give her the status of an equal and relegated her to staff and she stopped going to office. This took a huge toll on their relationship and their intimacy, and she moved out to another room.

John and Melissa got along very well as colleagues in the same organisation. They got married and continued their work in the same way. The arguments began when he registered himself for an off-site training at a beach resort but didn’t do the same for her, as he expected her to do her own registrations like she had done in the past. She took offence and assumed that he wanted to go alone and not as a couple. She viewed it as an opportunity to combine work and relaxing togetherness, but thought he wanted to maintain his single status amongst colleagues. She was also upset when he got a chance to work in the London office of the company for six months followed by a promotion, while she continued in the same position at Mumbai. This eroded their relationship, not only as a couple but also as colleagues. Their personal issues percolated into their work and both of them were pulled up by their superiors. They were told that one of them would have to quit the company, and that they preferred that Melissa be the one as her work had not been upto mark. Their relationship ended the day she quit the job.

Nina and Robert were both in stock broking and started their own firm with great enthusiasm. However, there was no agreement on administrative styles, staff matters, how to handle the client interface, the timings of work, and practically every area of the business. There were open and loud arguments at work and at home, without any resolution. Staff would receive conflicting orders from both and clients started getting agitated because they would have to repeat their instructions as they stopped conveying messages to each other. The business suffered, the relationship suffered and above all their children suffered.

David, an ad film director and the joint owner of a production house with his wife, unilaterally decided to invest in very expensive equipment instead of hiring it, as was previously agreed by them. This wiped out most of their savings. Subsequently, the equipment started requiring expensive maintenance contracts, while work was not coming their way, and the company was saddled with this ‘white elephant’ which was depleting their finances. This became a huge contaminant in the relationship. They dissolved their partnership and divided the assets, leaving him with the equipment and her with the office property. They were both bitter, with him seeing her as a fair weather friend, and she seeing him as a betrayer of trust in the relationship.

From the above cases you can see how challenging it can be for a relationship when the couple works together. The work-home interface can get extremely stressful if not maturely and sensitively handled.

The Downside

Let’s enumerate the downside of spouses working together:

  1. Work issues are carried back home affecting emotional/physical intimacy as well as personal issues affecting work efficiency. Inability to get out of ‘shop talk’ even at home
  2. Claustrophobia and no personal space away from each other [me time] especially if there are arguments, therefore no time to calmly process issues alone
  3. Ego hassles on who has the final authority in crucial decision making at work.
  4. Competitiveness and score keeping about who works more and contributes more to the profits.
  5. Conflicting messages to staff, leading to confused and disgruntled workers.

Rewards

However, there is also a great upside to working with your spouse.

Gretta would crib about the limited time she had with her husband who was a television journalist—till she decided to intern in his research team. Once she saw the dynamism at the news channel office with crazy timelines, she was able to understand and empathise with him about his time constraints. She started snatching whatever time they could have at coffee breaks or accompanying him at important events as his assistant. It made them bond more and a mutual respect was established. They valued every moment they spent together, and the quality of their relationship improved.

Ashok was a surgeon and Komal was a gynaecologist. They had their own nursing home. They often assisted each other in complicated surgeries, and checked into each other’s patients during the post-operative period. They held the fort for each other if the other was unwell or busy elsewhere. So, when she was home with the kids, he would manage all her patients. This doubled their efficiency.

The Upside

The upside of working together therefore can be enumerated as:

  1. Efficiency doubles as you can stand in for each other when you are from the same profession or when you know all the aspects of the business. It also increases financial security in the business.
  2. No financial irregularities with your spouse, as s/he is equally invested in it as ‘our’ business and not there for personal gains.
  3. Both being equally interested in the success of the business, both would willingly work hard and also understand the work demands, time constraints etc. and therefore empathise with the other.
  4. Work and pleasure can often be combined while travelling for meetings, conferences etc.
  5. New skills acquired by one can be taught to the other if from the same profession.
  6. Logistical comforts like commuting to and from work together, having coffee breaks and lunch together at work, thus having more time to catch up and connect compared to other couples.

A Project for ‘the Project’

No significant relationship can survive healthily unless it is given a ‘project status’, and unless it is worked on consistently and maturely by both. Therefore, the work doubles for a couple [the project] who now works together professionally or in a business [a project].

Some ground rules for couples working together are:

  1. Separate identities with clear role demarcations based on skill-sets of both, with independent decision-making within those roles and no interference from the other. Suggestions can be asked from and made by the other, but the final authority would lie with the one whose role it is.
  2. Major financial decisions and any other big decisions in the running of the business to be made through a mutually respectful consultative process.
  3. Separate and equal geographical space for both within the office, which gives a sense of personal identity and aids functionality.
  4. De-clutter the work-home interface and actively de-link one from the other to give your best at both places. E.g. To and from work, hear some music in the car, plan a weekend break/holiday, discuss children etc. and actively avoid [or if extremely necessary then ‘timetable’] ‘shop talk’ at home, while also actively avoiding discussing home issues at work.
  5. See your work as a manifestation of the team spirit of both, and an example of how well both can work together. Make it a collaboration and not a competition.
  6. If there are intricate personal issues that require resolution, keep them ‘on hold’  while at work, and schedule them to be discussed only once you are home. Maintain the sanctity of both spaces.
  7. While making work decisions, always ask yourself what’s best for ‘our work’ and what’s best for ‘us’.

Heart to Heart

My husband and I together set up the Heart to Heart Counselling Centre [HHCC] several years ago, to help and train people in the area that we were both passionate about—mental health. It was ‘our baby’ that we together nurtured, and today it has come of age. The fruits of our nurturance are there for all to see. When we counsel couples, our own life speaks louder than our words, and it is this speaking from experience that has made all the difference in helping rescue and enhance so many relationships. When we talk of the ‘labour of love’, we know from experience the labour that goes into sustaining a loving and harmonious partnership. Our personal relationship and HHCC have both been cherished projects and we respect and value what each of us contributes to the team.

We have creatively brainstormed when designing workshops and co-authoring articles, we have combined work and pleasure travelling to conferences and to set up counselling cells in remote areas, we have shared knowledge with each other, we have held the fort for each other in emergencies, we have both worked hard according to our own skill sets and never interfered in each other’s domains, and we have taken care to have, and respect, each one’s individual space at work. We have also learned through trial and error to strike the right balance between ‘work time’, ‘we time’, and ‘me time’, as well as to maintain the sanctity of both our worlds by not mixing one with the other, and it has been a tremendously rewarding journey for us.

This was first published in the May 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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