“He’s a heavy breather.”
“She chews with her mouth open.”
“He types … with only two fingers.”
Those are just a sampling of the complaints I’ve received from people venting about their partners — and newfound office mates — as more people work from home during the coronavirus shutdown. People marry for better or worse, but not for conference calls. Now they’re unearthing sides of personalities hitherto confined to board rooms and slide decks. Sometimes these behaviors are funny and even alluring; other times, they can lead to serious rifts.
“I’ll be on Zoom, and he starts to unload the dishwasher,” laments Arlington’s Eileen Mathews (with a certain degree of humor).
“I never knew noise-canceling headphones had limits,” says Patrick Campbell, CEO of a Boston-based software company.
Oh, Eileen and Patrick, you’re not alone. This is the situation millions of Americans are facing as they adjust to working from home with a new set of colleagues: their beloved family.
I feel their pain. My husband is even-keeled. Low-key. Many call him unflappable. And yet he begins work calls with a bubbly “Hey, buddy!” overlaid with a twang that makes me wonder if I married a sales operations manager or a circus clown at a rodeo.
“It’s always sad to hear the business gobbledygook coming out of my artsy husband’s mouth. Kickoff calls! Statements of work! Taking ‘everything’ offline! Ping ya back later!” says Hamilton’s Tracy Mayor.
Another woman’s husband has taken to G-chatting her things like “you smell” from across the house.
“I really miss having an HR department,” she laments.
So what’s a good office mate — and partner — to do?
First, to some degree, give in to your powerlessness. Recognize that autonomy is a thing of the past, at least for now. Just as same-day Amazon deliveries are a quaint luxury, well, so is personal space and silence. You can’t just click out of your marriage or mute your mate. Give in and accept.
“People are annoying. The problem is, in this day and age, we don’t expect them to be. We expect to be able to press a button; we expect the computer will give us an image in a fraction of a second. We expect things will go how we want,” says Kathy McMahon, a Boston-based psychologist and couples therapist.
“When a spouse is speaking too loudly and we can’t concentrate, we think he needs to change because he’s annoying us rather than being able to understand that, right now, you have to put your heads together. Otherwise, you’ll have power struggles.”
Yes, you can silence an annoying colleague on Zoom; you cannot do the same with your paramour. Thus, it’s important to tread meaningfully and carefully — to get on the same page and align on fundamentals, in work-speak.
And so, says McMahon, “Wave the white flag. Let the person know you’re not starting a fight.”
Instead, begin by validating him or her. Underscore that you know they’re working hard and under stressful circumstances, then follow up with a specific request (such as, say, shutting the door when on the phone). Then ask, “What do you think?”
“Go from accusation to conversation. Make it a common problem, not just your problem,” she says. “You’re all in the same boat.”
Indeed. And the stakes are higher than ever.
“I predict one of two outcomes: One outcome is that people will get closer and feel they’ve set a path for themselves and will be inoculated against severe stress, able to get through anything,” McMahon says of the post-pandemic world. “Or, like some reports in China, we’ll see a heightened divorce rate.”
So try to find silver linings. Maybe this close proximity can even be (dare I say it?) good for relationships. It allows us to see our partners in a fresh framework; the woman who can’t load a dishwasher might be formidable in a meeting, and the guy who doesn’t know how to do the laundry might, in fact, be downright adept at his job.
Divorce lawyer Dave Bilodeau (cases haven’t spiked, yet) and his attorney wife fled their small North End apartment for a summer house on Cape Cod to ride out the pandemic. They’re balancing client calls while caring for their four-year-old. It’s been challenging but eye-opening in a positive way, Bilodeau says.
“She’s a lot tougher at work than she is at home, so it’s fun hearing her on some of these phone calls, being a lawyer instead of a wife and mom. I had a sense of what she was like based on how we talk about cases, but I hadn’t really seen her in action,” Bilodeau says.
Campbell says that the newfound proximity has helped his wife appreciate his career.
“I’m on the road every week out of the year, so being cooped up has given her an appreciation of how hard I really work and that those road meetings aren’t vacations or something. Her words, not mine,” he says.
And Somerville’s Jay Diengott, a caterer, is using the togetherness to pursue hobbies with her partner — as well as a housebound roommate.
“We’re eating all our meals together instead of two or three times per week; we’ve hung art in every room of the house; in the mornings, we exercise together; in the evenings, we plan an activity, such as baking or board games,” Diengott says. “It’s been useful setting up schedules so we know when we’re doing things together or alone.”
She does, however, point out that their home is spacious.
“I adore my roommate, but we have two floors with bedrooms and offices, and a back yard,” she admits.