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Eight Tips for Avoiding a COVID-19 Divorce

How to keep your relationship healthy while you’re both working remotely.

Couples are quickly realizing remote working together is not the same as an extended staycation! It is revitalizing for a relationship for partners to have a few hours apart each day. But what if you can’t? What if your partner is walking around the house having telecons out loud? What if you and your partner are having Zoom wars, taxing your bandwidth by scheduling calls at the same time, and getting louder and louder as you jockey for Zoom supremacy? How can you keep the peace and your sanity if you are both expected to put in a full remote workday?

Here are 8 simple guidelines to keep COVID-19 isolation from destroying your relationship.

Working together from home
Source: Kaboompics/Pexels

A basic premise underlying remote co-working is respect. Respect that the other person’s work is important and respect that your needs might differ. The goal is for each of you to get the most important things that you need, and to minimize irritating your partner. Compromise will be required. Many of these principles also hold for roommates.

1. Collaborate to create a written contract or memorandum of understanding. Google docs work well so your contract can be a dynamic document. Your needs might evolve with the situation or with time, or as external constraints on your movement change.

First, for basic relationship health, list 3-4 points that are very important to your personal comfort that you ask the other person to respect. These could be behavioral peccadilloes that low-level irritate you under normal circumstances, but really grate on your nerves when together 24/7. Anything that evokes that muttering internal dialogue in your partner, “Why can’t they do X?” can go on the list. But, only include three or four points. This is not an opportunity to nag, just a chance for each of you to ask your partner to respect a few high-priority ground rules while co-isolating. We all need to decrease our stress, not contribute to our partners’ stress. Some of these changes may even persist when we can go back to work!

Here's an example:

Partner 1’s list

  1. Please put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher after meals
  2. Please keep doors to the room closed when on teleconferences
  3. Please wear clean clothes when we are working in the same room (starts to smell rough when you wear your pajamas all day, every day)

Partner 2’s list

  1. Please monitor your stern face, I often interpret it as being angry
  2. Please take clothes out of the washing machine when they are done
  3. Please don’t let your sweaty exercise clothes pile up on the side of the bathtub

On the surface these seem fairly trivial, but they are the top three behaviors that bothered this couple when they were cooped up with each other. If one of them slipped, they could just point to the document and say, “Let’s review the contract, we seem to be slipping.”

The contract also should not be just negative. It is important to include positively valenced items as well. These are relationship-relevant, but also contribute to individual physical and mental well-being. For example:

1. Get outside at least twice per day (unless you are ordered not to)

2. Avoid the COVID-19 bad news vortex

3. Plan distractions aside from work

4. Keep a sense of humor

5. Remember, we are in this together

6. Do one thing every day to make the other person happy

Here are some more specific tips that might make working together remotely more tolerable.

2. Review your schedules every morning. Either the night before or first thing in the morning, compare calendars to see who has tele-meetings when, when you each will be requiring heavy bandwidth, when you are going to exercise, and when you can make time to catch up about your lives and experiences. If one partner has an appointment that requires significant bandwidth, that's not the time to stream Netflix. If you both have essential meetings at the same time, you might need to forgo video and you should definitely negotiate ahead where you will have your meetings, and make sure to close doors and use earbuds/headsets to minimize noise. If your schedule changes, let your partner know. Communication is key.

3. Respect the work environment. When working from home, home is your office and your space becomes multi-person-multi-use space. That means you have to be even more respectful of your work environment and negotiate who is going to work where. If you are sharing work space, be as tidy as you can. If your partner forgets to do this, it is best to communicate directly, not passive-aggressively. Don’t just throw the pile of papers she left on the kitchen table on the floor around her desk hoping she’ll take the hint, but state directly, “Hon, it would be very helpful for me while we are both working remotely if you picked up your papers regularly.” Then say thank you! A thank you goes a long way to reinforce a behavior. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you shouldn’t have to thank them for an expected behavior.

Also, if your partner is working, don’t interrupt. Just text or ask, “When is a good time for me to catch up with you for about 5 minutes?” Respect their work time as if they were in their regular workplace. These are stressful times for everyone, and kindness and consideration are both welcome and effective.

4. Continue dressing for work. Working in your pajamas all day is a bad idea for several reasons. First, it increases your risk of overworking as you have one less way of demarcating work time from non-work time. Staying in your pajamas will make it feel as if work-eat-sleep all melt into one continuous behavior. Getting dressed for work helps maintain your routine. Get up, eat breakfast, brush your teeth, put on deodorant, shave (if you do), get dressed, make your bed, go to work (or whatever your normal sequence is). At the end of your workday, reverse the process. This helps motivation, keeps you focused, and creates that necessary separation between work and down time. Plus, your partner won’t have to see your scrungy sweats and messy bed all day in your home office space.

5. Mind your bells, whistles, and notifications. You might only notice how many sounds your devices make when you are both working from home. When both of your devices are beeping, the cacophony can be overwhelming. Turn the volume down or off to ensure peace and quiet in your workspace. Also consider turning off news notifications to reduce tension for both you and your partner.

Source: Daria Shevtsova/Pexels
Source: Daria Shevtsova/Pexels

6. Plan time apart. No matter how careful we are, we will get on each other’s nerves at some point. To avoid that as much as possible, plan some time apart. Even if it means spending 20 minutes alone in the bathroom. If you are permitted, take a walk alone (staying 6 feet away from others!), or spend some time on the porch or balcony. If you don’t have those, just look out the window. Take that time to get centered, gather your thoughts, breathe, stretch. It will refresh you for when you are thrust back together by circumstances.

7. Warn your partner when you are on a video call. Some people tend to walk around the house wearing considerably less than they would in the office. If your partner has her webcam on, her workmates might get quite the eyeful unless you are warned. So find a way to make it unmistakably clear when one of you is on camera.

8. Plan an in-house date. With bars and restaurants and other venues closed, your choices are limited, so plan an in-house date. Order a meal online or cook together, dress up, light a few candles, and eat in a place you normally wouldn’t eat. Lay out a picnic blanket or eat at the dining table if you usually eat in the kitchen. Create a special time when you turn off your devices and spend positive time together. Shut out COVID-19 for a while and focus on the aspects of your relationship that brought you together in the first place.

We are all facing new challenges with very little time to prepare and adapt. Hopefully these tips will help you create a harmonious remote co-working environment in the months to come.

More from Cynthia M. Bulik Ph.D.
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More from Cynthia M. Bulik Ph.D.
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