From four couples who are living in this reality, too.

By Sam Reed
Updated Mar 19, 2020 @ 6:30 pm
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Credit: Maskot/Adobe Stock

“Are you losing your shit?” my boyfriend asked me. He was seated beside me on the couch and reading over my shoulder as I wrote the placeholder title of this story on my Google Doc: “How to not lose your shit when working from home with your SO.”

He had the mischievous smile on his face that I knew would only lead to more teasing (read: distraction) — so I playfully shoved him off the couch, asking to be left alone so I could work. He resisted at first (“c’mon, Sam, you don’t like me anymore?”), but ultimately obliged and retreated to the second bedroom of our Brooklyn apartment, where he got back to his own work.

Both he and I have worked from home occasionally since we moved in together last year, but never for days at a time, and only rarely at the same time. But with the outbreak of the coronavirus, that’s changed — we’ve now spent the last eight days socially distancing ourselves from our friends, while trying to accomplish work. Things have been great so far, but there was a part of me that wondered if the 24/7 facetime might soon become a little … much.

For some couples who live together, isolation is not going well. Meg Zukin, a social media editor in Los Angeles, was able to monetize the Quarantine Couple Drama by collecting stories from partners in relationships that were suffocating as a result of isolating at home, compiling them, and charging nosey people (hi, hello) $1 for access to the juicy content. Zukin raised over $6,000 in just a few days, and donated the money to those most affected by the impact of the coronavirus.

But it doesn’t have to be doom and gloom! InStyle spoke to four couples who found themselves in a new work situation thanks to the coronavirus, and how they were coping without “losing their shit.”

Here are their tips:

Establish a schedule.

Ali Adam, 26, and Cormick Barnes, 33, who live in a one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, both work in client-facing roles that require frequent phone calls. “We’re communicative in advance about our schedules for the day,” says Barnes, a director at SoFi. “We make sure our virtual meetings do not overlap,” and if they do, “we find respective spaces to talk.”

Understand that your partner’s Work Self may be different from the one you know.

“We have to be aware and respectful of each other’s work habits that we may not be familiar with,” adds Adam. She says that because their home is a place where they’d typically be goofing off, they’ve had to make an effort to avoid their usual antics. “The biggest challenge is having our entire music collection in front of us and not being able to play music,” joked Cormick. “No music during the day.”

Luke Winkie, 28, and Becca Jennings, 27, journalists in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, have more of an “open office plan” energy. They not only play music during the day (Luke DJs), but they chat with each other, too. (It helps that they work in the same industry.) “I enjoy our office-like banter,” says Luke. “[Our work] is all we talked about before,” he added (somewhat) jokingly.

Joel Dean, a software engineer in Kingston, Jamaica (which has also followed self-quarantine practices as an attempt to control the country’s coronavirus outbreak), works from home every day, however now that his wife Ayana, a digital marketer, has also been instructed to work from home, he’s been forced to break a few of his habits. “A few days ago I was singing out loud, and she had to come in and tell me to stop,” he said, laughing. They’ve also changed their Slack notification sounds, so that they don’t confuse each other’s messages for their own.

But adjusting to each other’s work styles goes beyond noisy distractions in a shared space. Ayana encourages couples to really get an understanding of each other’s processes, and acknowledge that what “might look to you like I'm wasting time” may be, in fact, very productive. When my boyfriend sees me scrolling through Twitter in the mornings, for example, he’ll hit me with, “it doesn’t look like you’re working.” But that’s only because he isn’t aware that being in the know about conversations is part of my job, and Twitter, for better or for worse, is part of that.

Ultimately, learning about your partner’s “work self” can bring you closer together. “It’s fun to get an understanding of what each other does every day,” says Cormick.

InStyle.com’s own deputy editor Laura Norkin made the quite the discovery of her own:

Set physical boundaries.

Your therapist may have spoken to you about emotional boundaries, but physical boundaries are just as important in quarantine.

Edward R. and Linzy Beltran, a married couple who live in a four-bedroom home in Austin, have both a dedicated office for Edward, who works from home frequently for his real estate job, as well as a makeshift space for Linzy, who is usually in an office as a music events planner. “I started setting up a second ‘office,’” out of a folding table and some accessories, says Edward. But Linzy still prefers to work on the backyard patio. “It hasn’t really been used ... but it’s there and ready to go in case she needs to set everything up inside.”

Even in smaller living quarters, establishing a designated work area has proved key. “So far, Becca’s taken the living room, and I’ve taken the kitchen area,” says Luke, who moved to a two-bedroom apartment with Becca in early March — at the beginning of the stateside coronavirus panic.

Says Becca, “My area is the living room, and I’ve been using the couch and coffee table as a desk — but the kitchen area and the living room are kind of the same room. So we’ll get our work done and take a five-minute break to chat.” When they need to take phone calls, they — like any responsible office dweller — move to a separate space so as not to disturb the other.

Just say “no.”

Don’t be offended if your partner can’t hang with you. Really.

“What usually happens is I get some free time, and I want to divulge what I’ve been doing,” says Ayanna, “Or he comes out ready to talk and interact with me, and we nip it in the bud.” For the Deans, straightforward communication works best for getting each other to understand that they’re busy. “Hey I’m doing some work,” is all it takes.

“He’s the king of ‘give me a minute,’” she adds with a laugh.

For me personally, giving your partner space when you want to speak your thoughts in real time, is the most challenging. Edward agrees. “One thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes I want to say something, and then I get really disappointed in myself,” he says. “Because she’s not here to entertain me, she's here to work.”

Sign off (like, actually sign off) and spend quality time together.

Joel, who has given presentations (outside of his job as a software engineer) at local Jamaican corporations about the benefits of working from home, as well as tips for employee productivity, says that signing off — like, actually signing off, none of that answering Slack messages on your phone business — is the best thing you can do for both yourself and your relationship.

“Being able to know when to sign out or disconnect [is especially important],” he says. And let your partner in on it — they might not know the difference between when you’re doing work from the couch on your laptop and when you’re reading InStyle.com from the couch on your laptop. “Especially as a couple, you want to establish routine,” he says. Preferably that's not just zoning out in front of the TV together.

For Edward and Linzy, self-quarantine has allowed them to try a few new things: “I love to cook, and we really like to try out new recipes,” says Linzy “With our normal busy schedules you don’t really find the time to try them. But now we’ve really taken to cooking something that’s healthy and good.”

Board games anyone?

Accidents happen, but that’s par for the course.

Ayana recalled walking in on one of Joel’s video meetings, bringing to mind the infamous BBC News clip in which a correspondent’s toddler sauntered into her dad’s office while he was on live TV. “I flung the door open because I didn’t know he was in a meeting,” says Ayana, laughing. “Good thing I was fully clothed!”

While having your SO creep into the background of a video conference call is less than ideal, it pays to keep in mind that your colleagues are making the same adjustments, and cameos from your partner (or your dogs or children), are expected.

Find some alone time.

As many cities around the globe inch closer to a full “shelter-in-place” mandate, couples are spending not just the work days together, but pretty much every hour of the day. While none of the couples consciously sought out alone time, they all said that they’ve managed to find some space throughout the day. Edward picks weeds (he says he enjoys it). Linzy is reading more books. Cormick enjoys working out, and Ali has been traveling solo to pick up take-out food for lunch.

It may not be much, but this time away from each other can help allow you to decompress, says Ali. And don’t forget to call your friends! “On Wednesday I’m hosting a digital karaoke party,” says Linzy.

Take this messy situation as a time to bond.

Yes, this is a gooey “find the silver lining in a dire situation” ask, but these couples actually warmed my heart when describing how they’ve grown closer. “I love being able to wake up, and instead of rushing up to the subway, it’s ‘let’s get a coffee and work out,’” says Adam.

“It’s nice feeling like we’re dealing with a world-altering event together,” says Luke, before turning to Becca: “I feel safe with you.”

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.