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Asking for a Friend: What should I do if working from a small apartment is impacting my relationship?

Here's the reality: You’re gonna get on each other’s nerves for a little bit and that's OK.
Couple sitting on sofa working
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Caroline Moss is an author and host of the podcast "Gee Thanks, Just Bought It," which helps people find the products they need to make life easier, better and more productive. Now with this column, "Asking for a Friend," she'll help people with the advice they need to make life easier, better and more productive.

Dear Caro,

I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York, with my husband. We both have office jobs and are often working late hours. We spend more time together on the weekends and on weekday mornings before we leave for work.

Now everything has changed and we’re both working — and doing everything else — from home for the foreseeable future. And we’re getting on each other’s nerves.

I know we’re lucky to have the privilege of working from home, but I wonder if this is going to ruin my marriage by the time this is all over.

First of all, it is totally reasonable that you’re getting on each other’s nerves. In the last several weeks, the entire world has come to a screeching halt, forcing everyone to manipulate their schedules, their children’s schedules, their work schedules, eating habits, sleep patterns, exercise patterns, personal budgets and basic routines. Our mental health is more precarious than ever. Even the most flexible chameleon-like of people are finding it difficult to navigate these waters.

While therapists can offer concrete tips for keeping the peace, I'm here to share what's helped in my personal experience working from home with a partner in a New York apartment.

Your husband was never meant to be your co-worker. You didn’t marry him because you wanted to share an open office plan 24/7 without the option of leaving your house.

I have been working from home with my husband for years and the beginning was really, really hard. (And I could leave the house whenever I wanted!) We just work differently. I need chatter and noise (as I write this, I have an old episode of “Gilmore Girls” playing in the background), and my husband needs absolute silence. I start my day at 7:30 a.m. and become less productive as time goes on. My husband spends a few hours doing nothing before diving in headfirst around 11 a.m. and working past dinner. When we both started working from home permanently, we argued all of the time. We had a hard time respecting each other’s weird work habits and needs. We had the added perk of renting a two-bedroom apartment because we knew working from home was in our future, yet we still bickered and got exasperated with each other all of the time.

Here's the reality: You’re gonna get on each other’s nerves for a little bit and that's OK. Your kitchen table is no longer going to be a kitchen table, but an office. Your bed is now another office. You’re going to be able to hear his Zoom meetings while trying to attend your own. He used the last of the milk in his coffee. You haven’t washed your dish from dinner two nights ago. He’s annoying you and you’re annoying him.

My best advice to you is to do as much reconfiguring as you can. Amazon sells foldable desks for under $100 that you can set up in a corner. (If you’re ordering supplies online, remember that the delivery drivers are putting themselves and their families at risk. If you can, tip them and give them a water bottle when they drop off your new supplies along with a Ziploc stuffed with a few disinfecting wipes.) Use headphones and listen to white noise videos on YouTube or episodes of your favorite show while you work. Try to have one meal together each day if you can and if you can’t, don’t beat yourself up about it. Everyone says “don’t bring your work to bed with you” but right now, bed could be your husband’s desk, or yours.

The long and short of it is this: When you decided to buy (or rent) your apartment, you weren’t planning for this. That’s not your fault. Remember looking at this apartment before you decided it would be yours? You pictured a comfortable sofa where you’d spend Sunday mornings reading. You bought a big television for movie nights and a kitchen table that seats four so you could comfortably invite friends over for dinner. The apartment had no outdoor space, but what New York apartment does? You were in close proximity to a park and the subway to your offices was just a few blocks away.

As someone who lived in New York City for nearly 11 years, I know that it is not a city you move to for the spacious living accommodations. You live here because of the food, the nightlife, the opportunities!

Now that’s all gone, albeit temporarily, but right now, today, it’s all gone. It’s just you, your husband, and a bunch of Zoom meetings every single day for an unpredictable amount of time. Also, the rent is expensive and you only have so much storage for canned food.

What I’m trying to say is give yourself a break. I am glad you acknowledge your privilege in this, but it’s also OK to say, "I hate everything about this." I do, too. In fact, I think we all do.

Remember that this is unprecedented. We are living through historical times. It will hopefully not be forever, and it’s not your fault you didn’t predict the need for much more space when you signed the lease on your apartment.

You are going to get on each other’s nerves. Accept it. But also take everything day by day, do your best and realize that none of this has anything to do with your compatibility as a couple.

Hang in there,