Blending work, home, and marriage: How to work with your spouse

Guest post by Emily Thomforde

Spouse/partner-friendly dual work station?
Spouse/partner-friendly dual work station time?
I finally finished my PhD and found myself at a loose end. My husband Jamie was wrapping up his own project when he made a proposal: why not work on an iPad word game idea together? (His background is in iPhone programming, and mine is in Computational Linguistics.) So in a week we had a working prototype and we thought hey, this could work; we can always quit if it doesn’t.

That first week of working together gradually became months, as we added features and awesomized the game into a polished product ready for release. Our daily lives had melded work, home, and marriage and we came out the other end closer than ever.

Along the way I learned a few things, through trial and error, that made working with a spouse easier:

  • Separate criticism of YOU from criticism of THE WORK. Because, come on, he knows better than to criticise you.
  • Take breaks. Time apart is even more important when you work together.
  • Schedule fun. At one point our bug-tracking system had a ticket that said “Watch the Grand Prix.” I assigned it to Jamie. He completed it. Everybody happy.
  • Be flexible. Want to work until 11PM tonight? Okay. Want to take Monday off instead of Saturday? Fine. Want to go to the 2pm Thursday opening of The Hobbit and call it a work outing? Awesome.
  • Let the dusting slide. Anyone with a perfectly happy marriage, a thriving home business, and a spotless home must have gotten access to some magical 28-hour day. You’ve got priorities.

Our partnership wasn’t always successful, though. Not only did we have the normal fights about the division of household labor, we also fought about storyboards and implementations. I was wife, cook, boss, secretary, cleaner, and talent. He was husband, dishwasher, boss, tech support, and rogue. We had to actively resist falling into traditional roles.

Keeping an equitable division of WORK work was easy; HOME work was problematic. Protocols had to be renegotiated based on the business of the day. Laundry was folded during planning meetings. Play testing happened over dinner. We didn’t always get everything right.

But through all this, we became a stronger team. I learned new things about my husband, like how to translate his constructive criticism (“I don’t like the colour” really means “I like everything but the colour.”) And I’m sure he learned things about me (probably a dozen strategies for dealing with generalised ranting).

It helped that the thing we were working on was both fun and funny. It helped lighten the mood when we were under a deadline. We found ways to integrate elements of our relationship into the game, whether with subtle plot points, pop culture references, or bizarre in-joke Easter eggs. Above all, we kept at it because we enjoyed it, and because what we were making didn’t really matter, wasn’t going to make us rich, and wasn’t nearly as important to us as our marriage is.

I gained a deeper respect for Jamie as a developer and a designer, elements of him I wouldn’t have seen outside of work, and I love him all the more for seeing his super powers. In the end, working with my husband has given me new insight into the term “labor of love.”

But there were two things that were fundamental to our continued enjoyment of the process, despite the challenges: 1. We’re married because we’re best friends, and 2. This is way easier than a PhD.

Comments on Blending work, home, and marriage: How to work with your spouse

  1. Nice piece! My husband and I just marked our 13th month of being coworkers and business partners. Our HQ is our dining room table and the two of us make up the entirety of our full-time staff. Your tips are 100% spot. on. It can be stressful at times — we can’t go home and vent to each other about our shitty day at work or our annoying coworkers or what a jerk our boss is because we live at work and we are each other’s annoying coworkers. It took a while to sort everything out, but we’re pretty good about having some semblance of ‘work hours’ now — it’s still not a 5 day/40 hour work week, but we try to be good about leaving the client stuff out of the bedroom and switching off the iPhones when it’s time to stop working for the night. And midweek afternoon matinees? Totally the best.

  2. This is great! I know that since I started working from home, it’s been difficult to develop a good routine, as I, too, tend to be responsible for cleaning and cooking on top of work. It’s not that my husband doesn’t want to contribute around the house, it’s just that our impressions tend to be different with regards to when it’s time to clean or do laundry, for example. Working from home = I toss laundry in and get back to work, or stop to take a break and throw clothes in the dryer. People coming to visit = I often end up setting aside my work to do a better clean or to get things ready. Sometimes this means that there are days/weeks where I get next to nothing work-related done, sadly.

    I know that once we move in a few days, we’ll have a lot of things to adjust (currently we live with my parents, so our tasks are divided among four, rather than two, anyway), but I’m hoping that we’ll work things out so that not as much is put on me. One thing that I think will help is that I will have a separate studio space, so the visual indication of whether or not I’m working will be more based on WHERE I am than it is at current. I can only imagine how hard it would be if we BOTH worked from home, though!

    • I’m the same with the housework; if I notice it first, then I do it. Unfortunately, this often means that I do the majority of it. Jamie and I are constantly trying to balance out the workload- and it takes active effort. Good luck with your move and if you have any tips on evening out the chores, let me know!

      • Thanks and will do! I have a feeling it’s something we’ll always have to work on improving (the balance of workload).

        At the same time, I shouldn’t complain: right now, he’s the one earning the money that pays our bills so I can work on developing my business. Realistically, even after I launch it in about two weeks, I still won’t have much in the way of sales for a while, so it’s still going to be up to him to make what keeps us going, financially. For a long time, that meant him working two jobs (one full-time, the other part-time).

        I guess doing the household stuff and developing my business could instead be viewed as me working two jobs, too…In that way, it makes me feel less like I’m doing “all the work.”

  3. I love this. Another biggie I would add to the list is Figure out the Money! One pursuit we have includes working together. I do all the client relations, advertising, networking, etc., and he does all the heavy lifting (literally), equipment rentals, and completing the projects while I am an assistant. We had a big, somewhat emotional discussion about who makes what percentage of our income, since without me we would have no clients, but without him we would have no product!

    We unwisely had this discussion after we had already worked together a few times and had income in the bank. I wish we had done so earlier.

    Also, I recommend a separate bank account for joint business pursuits, so things are easier to track. And don’t be afraid to push for what you think your efforts are worth, even though the conversation is with your partner! You don’t want to regret the financial arrangement later.

  4. “Anyone with a perfectly happy marriage, a thriving home business, and a spotless home must have gotten access to some magical 28-hour day.”

    I work from home and my husband works long hours outside the home, I keep trying to figure out how other people manage to keep house and get everything else done. Thanks for the reminder that everyone has to let something slide.

  5. I tried to do this with my own wife and will admit it was difficult at first but I think the key things finding balance and understanding the difference between work time and couple time.

  6. I’ve never not worked at home with my husband. It has been super awesome for years.

    Then we had a kid. Being home with the kid a lot of the time: awesome. Having sex in the afternoon while the kid naps? Check. Getting work done? Ummmmm not so much. Has anyone figured this out? I have to send him to his home daycare to do anything, and it gets expensive. Or one of us will take the kid out for a walk while the other gets work done. I feel like our productivity has been cut in half.

    • My sister is a working mother and, after working from home for a few years and struggling to juggle caring for my nephews and keeping the house maintained and actually getting any work done, she gave up.

      Most days it was okay, but trying to have a conference call with a crying baby in the background or getting interupted in the middle of a deadline… It just wasn’t sustainable.

      She needed somewhere to work, in peace and quiet, and somewhere to send the boys to, too.

      She wanted to try coworking — working in a shared office space a few times a week, to get out of the house and interact with other adults and have a space to hold meetings and stuff — but she couldn’t find any daycare provider to take the boys.

      All of the daycare options wanted a full-time month or waaaaay too much money for part-time, and very few (if any) offered drop-in options. That wasn’t in her budget, and defeated the purposed of taking a working-from-home position.

      She started researching for co-working spaces that also offered drop-in childcare for working-from-home parents and found that there really wasn’t *anything* available.

      In her searches, she met her now business partner and they decided that if no one else offered coworking+childcare, they were going to.

      They opened a little co-working space in Greenwood (Seattle) and planned to open the drop-in daycare in the same building. They were dismayed to find out, however, that the regulations for daycares are sooooo complicated and strict.

      It’s basically impossible to get a pre-existing building licensed for commercial daycare, and there are some weird laws on the books about parents working on-site that make things like the Ikea drop-off childcare okay but coworking+childcare almost impossible.

      They’re still pushing forward, though. It looks like they’re probably going to have to either build a place from the ground up, or lease a building that was built solely for childcare and then modify it to incorporate co-working, too.

      I think they’re operating on a co-op model and accepting new members/shareholders. If you and your husband are in the Seattle area, you should check them out — it’s still going to be a while until the entire project comes to fruition, but it’s *going* to happen.

      Even if you’re not in the Seattle area, you should shoot them an email — I know they’ve been working very closely with the co-working communities around the country and would probably know of a place near you that’s offering coworking+childcare, or is trying to set up coworking+childcare.

      My sister’s space is called Works Progress. Their website is

      (Sorry if this comes across as spammy — it wasn’t intended to be!)

  7. My husband and I both work for my mother. It’s a bit of a different situation since his duties and mine don’t intersect too much (he does programming, I do….most everything else). But here’s some additional stuff that works for us:
    – If you can find a way to differentiate the roles, that can help. For instance, when I’m talking to or about my mother socially, she’s “mom.” If I’m referring to her in a work capacity it’s “Kathy.”
    – Don’t drag work conversations into home conversations; it will sap you. Don’t drag home conversations into work conversations; it’s unprofessional.
    – If you want to talk about work stuff during your “off-duty” hours then ask permission first.
    – Take at least one day off a weekend (your weekend doesn’t have to be a Sat or Sun). The computer will always be there with it’s siren song of “just check your email.” Discipline yourself to have some fun. (I know Emily mentioned this in her article but it definitely bears repeating)

    • This is great advice. Even though my husband has a separate, out-of-home job, for me, a lot of this applies. I know when I was first doing the research to start my business, I was so hyper-focused on learning what to do and how I should do it, that I was spending insane numbers of hours “working,” to a point that I did have to force myself to take a day off.

      Finding the balance with talking about work has been difficult in general for my husband and me. It’s hard to define the line between blowing off some steam and sharing too much work stress/complaints/drama. (Though I have a heck of a lot less now that I’m not working for someone else!)

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