Finding Balance While Working From Home as a Couple

The Covid-19 pandemic has created volatile situations inside many homes, damaging even the strongest relationships, ending others, and overwhelming attorneys with divorce enquiries. Balancing the demands of working from home with added domestic responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, childcare, and homeschooling is increasing the strain on many couples.

Couples navigating this ongoing crisis should re-negotiate how they manage the boundaries between work and home duties. Understanding the causes of tension and bringing a few negotiation skills that are already part of your professional problem-solving skills into your home can help improve your relationship.

Understanding What Is At Play

Conflicts around roles are amplified. Tensions between family roles and work have escalated in the absence of a clear, physical demarcation between work and home. When everyone (and the cat) is sharing the dining room table, work tasks intrude on home responsibilities and vice versa. This spills over and places further strain on relationships while also reducing our ability to focus on them.

Preservation becomes the priority. In close relationships, especially marriages, we tend to place greater emphasis on protecting our relationship rather than getting our needs met. We then avoid issues that should be handled directly, or we capitulate before reaching agreements. The cost of the outcome can be resentment that further fuels conflict.

We rely on mind-reading. Relationships are likely to amplify the assumption that our partners know how we feel and understand our needs. As a result, we don’t identify our needs but instead that our partners will “just know” and act accordingly. When our partners fail to meet these expectations, not only do we experience disappointment, but we may question their commitment.

Improvisations create an imbalance. When negotiating work and domestic responsibilities, we might solve the “who does what” with a direct approach. For example, an urgent meeting arises, and the other partner is left to handle the children, or the groceries have run out and the less-exhausted partner goes to the store. The problem with this type of approach is that over time, one of the partner’s urgent needs supersede the other’s important needs.

Put Your Negotiation Skills to Work

Don’t avoid issues. Address frustrations and annoyances as they occur. Problems that are ignored grow and emotions that are suppressed intensify. If your partner’s loud typing disturbs your work, talk about it before you break the keyboard. Individuals who tread adversities as they arise are happier and healthier and become stronger in their relationships.

Understanding the stakes. While being accommodating creates the illusion of keeping the peace, it is only beneficial when the importance of personal outcomes is low or when we place greater importance on preserving relationships. At home, issues often seem deceptively low in stakes. Who takes out the trash, unloads the dishwasher, or walks the dogs don’t matter so much on a day-to-day basis, but if partners default to meeting the demands of the moment when both are tired and need more time for work, then sooner or later, something will break. Selflessness may be effective in the short term, but it can also create a slow burn of resentment and affect things like your job performance, the quality of time spent with your children, and your mental health, none of which are low-stakes outcomes. Instead of accommodating, take the time to explain what is important to you and invite your partner to participate in coming up with a solution.

Resist the blame game. Blame fuels conflict and encourages arguments. When tensions flare, avoid the temptation to point out and dwell on past failures. Focusing on who has done more household chores, borne the brunt of caregiving, or claimed more uninterrupted time for paid work or recreation does not resolve anything. Adopt relational thinking by making problem-solving central to your conversation instead of blaming. While calling out selfish behavior is tempting, stating your needs is more effective.

Maximize value with log rolling. In a situation where two partners are frustrated because they both believe they are doing more than their fair share of the household task, agreeing on the number of hours each person spends on tasks, allocating equal blocks of time for caregiving, or assigning specific tasks to each partner might seem like the obvious solution, but they may not be the best ones. Logrolling, which capitalizes on the differences in partner preferences, can help you determine the best possible agreement given to the specific context. For example, if partners differ in when they work most effectively (morning or afternoon), they can maximize benefits by agreeing to take on domestic and caregiving responsibilities in their “off-time” in return for uninterrupted “peak time”.

Build a bridge. Finding a solution that addresses the most important needs of both parties can help partners realize even greater benefits. To do this, partners need to understand the source of each other frustrations, for example, they lack downtime, are facing overwhelming work tasks, or are worried that the kids are not learning through virtual school. Once the underlying needs are identified, partners can work together to reformulate the problem and make plans to fulfill them. The problem shifts from “how do we allocate household tasks fairly?” to “How can we effectively manage tasks while achieving what we care about the most?”. 

Once you arrive at a solution, beware of declaring “problem solved”. Agreements always reveal additional roadblocks. Even in the most stable times, negotiations are encouraged to build in a feedback loop to check that the agreements are still working well for everyone. Check in with each other often and be prepared to improvise and innovate.

While negotiating your needs can be challenging, because we value and do not want to disrupt relationships, doing so can be transformational. Reframing negotiations as problem-solving exercises increase the partners’ willingness to cooperate and “go hard on the problem and soft on the person” and conveys how much they care about their joint venture. While reacting to the urgent until exhaustion sets in is understandable, a few hours of discussing the important issues might forge a path toward a better partnership after the pandemic.

Laurian Ward can coach you in managing your relationship, especially in difficult times.