Future Tense: The Spouse in the Next Room

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Future Tense

By TEDDY WAYNE

Megan Hustad, an author who runs an editorial consultancy in New York, had worked from home for about a decade, relishing hours of solitude that boosted productivity.

Then she met and moved in with her boyfriend, now her husband, who works part time from home as a programmer for a quantitative hedge fund.

“All of a sudden I found it really hard to concentrate,” Ms. Hustad said.

In the rapidly transforming freelance and work-from-home economy, Ms. Hustad and her husband are one of many couples figuring out how to negotiate a shared living and professional space.

According to Census Bureau data analyzed by Global Workplace Analytics, the number of teleworkers — full-time employees who work primarily from home — more than doubled from 2005 to 2014, to about 3.7 million. (The number of self-employed individuals who work from home, like Ms. Hustad, declined slightly over that period, to 2.8 million.)

As Ms. Hustad has discovered, mixing business and cohabitation can sometimes be challenging, even for couples who enjoy each other’s company.

“It’s probably better for your relationship for each of you to spend a few set hours a day with people you like considerably less than you like your partner,” she said. “That way you can be truly delighted to see them at the end of the day.”

“Spending so much time together is deeply unerotic,” she said with a laugh. “You have to guard against sliding into mediocrity.”

Making Ms. Hustad and her husband more vulnerable to such regression is the fact that they work in relatively tight quarters in their Lower East Side loft, separated by a door that does not close fully.

Even more sardined together are Nisse Greenberg and Meredith Degyansky, millennials who live in a six-bedroom house with seven others in Crown Heights.

Mr. Greenberg described the two of them as “retired before we ever worked, and still cobbling together an income with odd jobs”; he is an oral storyteller who teaches math, and she is a conceptual artist who sometimes teaches art or waits tables. He estimated that they spend five days a week at home together, and he said they are frequently in their bedroom.

“We’ll often say, ‘I’d like the room for three hours,’” Mr. Greenberg said. “We make sure to go to coffee shops, sometimes separately. After five days in a row of being in that bedroom, it feels like you’re marinating in the same juices.”

Couples with more spatial distance report having an easier time of it. Jen McNeely, the founder and editor of the Toronto-based women’s lifestyle site She Does the City, lives with her husband, Jamie Drummond, who is an editor for Good Food Revolution, a food and wine blog, and a sommelier who consults for wine agencies. Ms. McNeely runs her publication from the second floor in their Toronto home, while Mr. Drummond works in the basement.

“I was a little concerned we’d get on each other’s nerves,” Ms. McNeely said. “But it works quite smoothly. It’s about respecting each other’s space.”

Likewise, Michael Fusco-Straub and Emma Straub work on separate floors in their home in the Columbia Street Waterfront District neighborhood of Brooklyn. Mr. Fusco-Straub, a graphic designer, and Ms. Straub, a novelist, have been together 13 years, most of that time as work-from-home freelancers. But they used to do their jobs in the same room.

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“If that didn’t work, we wouldn’t be together now,” he said. “It’s ‘schmoopy’ to say this” — referring to a “Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry and his girlfriend call each other by the same name — “but I’m not sick of her at all. We’re really cool with spending 24/7 with each other. When we don’t see each other, it feels like something is off. It’s nice to always have someone there.”

Nevertheless, he recognizes that having separate offices is better for their contrasting work styles.

“I work in short bursts, and I’ll come upstairs and bother Emma until she tells me to go away, then I’ll come down and work some more,” he said. “Emma’s a real 9-to-5-er. She’ll punch in and sit there until she’s done with however many pages, and she needs complete silence.”

There can be interpersonal benefits to sharing an office, too. Ms. Hustad said that the extra time with her husband had accelerated their intimacy. “We know each other better and our quirks and eccentricities,” she said. “We’ve mostly been on our own, so we each had our way of doing things. We had to get over our selfishness really quickly.”

Ms. McNeely said: “A lot of people don’t have a clue what their partner does on a daily basis. Maybe they’ve never even been to their office. You can have big problems in a relationship when you lead a separate life your partner isn’t aware of.”

The absence of co-workers or a boss, though, can also transform a partner into something of a supervisor.

“If one of us is exhausted and needs a nap, you feel like you owe an explanation,” said Ms. McNeely, who has an infant. “It’s not the same as reporting to a boss, but there’s a certain accountability or incentive to work harder.”

Mr. Greenberg and Ms. Degyansky have even adopted an oversight strategy out of the corporate playbook.

“We have ‘goals meeting’ at 8:30 every morning,” Mr. Greenberg said. “We write down the things we want to accomplish that day and tell them to each other. The process of saying, ‘I’m doing laundry today’ to someone else keeps you accountable.”

The announcement of goals (frequently more elevated than laundry) is as much a warning of unavailability to the partner as motivation, he pointed out.

“We started doing this on vacation, when we were in the same space every day for a month,” he said. “We realized that when we didn’t talk about our artistic goals, there’s this assumption that the other person is free to hang out anytime if you don’t have a regular job.”

Teamwork and brainstorming, especially for couples in similar fields, is another boon.

Mr. Greenberg and Ms. Degyansky talk through their work problems, usually on walks. He said these strolls are a necessity — not merely to get out of the house, but also to schedule quality time together.

“Often we’ll spend a whole day together, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve spent any time together, because we were in the same room but working on separate things,” he said, relaying a mise-en-scène familiar to any screen-mediated couple.

Mr. Fusco-Straub seconded the importance of shared activities outside the home.

“We spend so much time together that it almost seems absurd, but it’s important,” he said. The couple has two children, including a newborn, but before that, he said, “we tried to have a scheduled night, because it is a different feeling going out for dinner rather than sitting in the house watching a million episodes of ‘Transparent.’”

And all of those hours logged together typically make a work-at-home partner more comfortable requesting alone time than the average cubicle-mate who is afraid of offending a chatty co-worker.

“When Emma’s deep in a book, and I get restless and come up and bother her,” Mr. Fusco-Straub said, his wife will tell him, “O.K., you’ve got to go now.”

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