For better or worse, coronavirus tests couples forced to share home
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[March 19, 2020]
By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Before coronavirus
shut his office, Scott Ford worked with his phone in one hand and
chatted with his dozens of co-workers as he paced around their desks at
Techstars, a startup accelerator based in Boulder, Colorado.
Now he sits across a shared desk from his wife, a proofreader for a
publishing company who demands total silence so she can focus on her job
in their newly occupied home office in Superior, Colorado.
"I have no one to talk to, although she sits about 24 inches (61 cm)
from me," Ford, 50, told Reuters in a phone interview.
"I'll read something and say 'Hey, can I tell you something?' and I'll
break her concentration. It drives her crazy."
Coronavirus is challenging not just health but also home life for an
unprecedented number of two-career American couples forced to work at
home, at times in close quarters.
With more women in the U.S. workforce, dual-income families have become
the norm, according to Pew Research Center. In 2016, the latest year for
which statistics are available, 66 percent of families with children
under 18 brought home two paychecks, up from 49 percent in 1970.
With Covid-19 closing businesses nationwide, spouses sharing the home
office are discovering unsuspected work habits of spouses they thought
they knew well.
A meme making the rounds on social media has suggested couples working
at home invent an invisible colleague, then blame that colleague for bad
behavior such as leaving dirty coffee mugs around the house.
Marriage therapists say two-career couples must show mutual respect for
one another's work habits and set boundaries if they want marital
harmony to survive in self-quarantined home offices.
"You have to find ways to build in some distance even if you're in a
small space," said Alon Gratch, a New York psychologist. "That could be
by working with ear phones and with agreed-upon rules that you don't
interrupt each other's work."
Mark Berkley, 49, a software designer who needs quiet to concentrate,
and his wife Susan Halper Berkley, 49, a loquacious executive at a
medical communications agency, spent the entire weekend fixing up their
attic home office in Maplewood, New Jersey, after their New York offices
were shuttered by coronavirus. But their shared workweek had a rocky
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Mark Berkley and Susan Halper Berkley work from home due to
coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in Maplewood, New
Jersey, U.S. March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Barbara Goldberg
"I came up at 8:30, facing a deadline at 12. I was storming around,
trying to get stuff done. I was relying on other people so I was
annoyed, huffing and puffing," Halper Berkley said.
"Mark came up at 9 and was like, 'I totally can't concentrate. This
is not working.' And took all his stuff downstairs," said Halper
Berkley, whose house also is now occupied by two college-aged sons
sent home from their shuttered campuses.
In Arlington, Virginia, a kitchen table now serves as a home office
for Sarah Title, 29, a software company manager who lives in a
one-bedroom apartment with her fiance Gavin Hilburn, 29, an IT
support contractor for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Hilburn has been relegated to a kitchen countertop a few feet away.
"I could throw something and hit him. We're getting close to that,"
said Title, adding Hilburn starts his work-at-home days by turning
on a televised sports event, muting it but "still, I can see it out
of the corner of my eye."
At the same time, he has impressed her with other work habits.
"He gets really focused on what he's doing so I'll say something to
him and he won't respond real quick. I think it's endearing. It's
cute," Title said.
Barbara Berger, a New York psychotherapist, said working couples
must have "a really high level of cooperation with time outs and
communication" to weather the coronavirus storm.
"A lot of this has to do with how they got along before this
happened. You think you value your partner's work, but do you value
theirs as much as you value yours? In a good relationship, that
value exists to begin with," Berger said.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty
and David Gregorio)
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