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Working Through It: What Happens When Your Spouse Gets You Your Job

‘When I first started, we would carpool to work together and talk the whole time. Those became silent car rides, and then I started leaving 30 minutes earlier just to take the bus to work’

For Love & Money is our new weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.

When her husband of 15 years lost his job as a video game developer, Rachel, a computer programmer in New York, got him hired at her workplace. Career-wise, it was a win-win. Not only would they quickly recoup the lost stream of income, but Rachel’s boss allowed her husband to work on a part-time basis while going to grad school.

But Rachel’s excitement quickly turned to anxiety as she wondered how becoming co-workers might change their home life. “My husband is highly intelligent, a bit eccentric and not the most responsible person in the world,” she tells me. “As a wife, I can nag him to take the trash out, but how does that dynamic play out when we’re in the office? And how was I going to handle being personally invested in his performance as an employee?” 

The high school sweethearts had been together for over two decades, but they were about to enter uncharted waters. Here’s how she and her husband Grant — as well as two other couples — managed all the stress, tension and unexpected chaos that happens when spouses become co-workers

‘I Sometimes Watched Over His Shoulder to Make Sure He Was Working’

Rachel and Grant, Mid-40s, New York: We’d already been married for 15 years and together for 20 before we started working together. I worked at a small web development shop for five years when Grant lost his job in the highly volatile video game industry. He was looking to move into something more stable while also going to grad school, and my boss was willing to allow for a flexible schedule so he could do that.

We came to realize that working as a couple, we became a package deal in other people’s minds, especially our boss. For the most part, we worked very well together — Grant might have needed some change to a data feed that he could call across the room to me, and I could get it fixed for him in a matter of moments. Having said that, it wasn’t 100 percent sunshine and roses. Anyone who has to share an office with someone else is going to have some pet peeves with the other guy. I had a bad habit of singing aloud occasionally without realizing it when I had headphones on, for example, and I have to admit that his tendency to talk to himself while coding would irritate me. 

We did butt heads when we differed on how to approach a problem: He’s very methodical and wants to plan/engineer things out carefully, whereas I’m more of a “cowboy coder” who will say, “Eh, let’s just try it this one way first and see how it goes.” It’s a very similar dynamic to how we approach household repairs, too. At home, I’ve learned over the years which tasks to give him and just leave to him, and which ones to take on myself to best preserve marital harmony. 

But being co-workers, and being put on similar projects, that wasn’t an option. As the one who got him hired, I tended to try and protect him from making bad decisions and sometimes watched over his shoulder to make sure he was working — something I wouldn’t have done to a regular co-worker. 

When your co-worker fucks up or has a bad day, you might notice or have a passing thought about it; when it’s your spouse, you have a lot more personally invested in making sure that it turns out okay. You don’t want your spouse to be unhappy, and you don’t want their work to reflect poorly on you in return. Not to mention, you don’t really have the option of shifting blame or throwing them under the bus if something goes poorly — at least, not if you want to keep things happy at home. 

Much like at home, then, we needed to learn how to give and take at work. I had to stop trying to be his manager, and he had to work more at fitting into a normal office setting (let’s just say that the video game industry he came from is its own beast when it comes to office culture, and it’s basically full of man-children).

Similarly, we needed to set clearly defined boundaries and clear communication. He knew if I had my headphones on, that I wasn’t to be disturbed, and conversely, I knew if he was scowling at his screen that it was best to leave him be. And we made a very conscious decision to not bring work home with us in any way. Once we hopped in the car to go home, we left any issues at the office. Very, very rarely did anything carry over from home into the office.

But even with concrete boundaries and clear communication, the relationship as a whole was under additional strain. In hindsight, too, the job itself sucked, so we both ended up leaving there and went back to just being spouses, not co-workers. 

For us, it helped that there weren’t a ton of surprises, and we had already largely worked out any issues in our relationship over the years. And in a way, it was good practice for the last two years under the pandemic — he actually just started going back to the office and I’m feeling a bit lost not having him here at home anymore.

‘Things Got Bad When Our Private Lives Became the Grapevine’s Favorite Gossip’

Mark and Sara, Late 30s, Florida: My wife and I were married with a kid on the way at 22, long before we knew how to be adults. So we had our ups and downs, but for six years were able to make it work. Then everything fell apart when I cut my hand on sheet metal, lost my hours, then lost my job completely. I bounced around temp jobs but couldn’t find anything stable and our financial situation grew worse and worse.

My wife had been working at a big-box retail store for a few years and was eventually able to pull some strings to get me a job there as well, stocking and unloading trucks in the back. For the first few months, I was happy to have stable work. We continued to struggle financially, but we were in a better situation than before. 

Slowly, though, I grew to despise it there. The job itself was fine, but the people and the place were incredibly toxic and borderline abusive. My wife was a tier up from entry-level but worked in the front of the store so didn’t see what it was like, and when I talked about the conditions or things my manager did, she wouldn’t hear it. She’d say her experience there was totally different, that she liked the people I “apparently hated” and that anyone could do the job so long as they showed up. 

I took that to mean she thought I was just being lazy, and the occasional discussion or vent about work always turned into a fight. I insisted that I was grateful for the job, but I just couldn’t stand it there. She took that to mean that I was ungrateful for her sticking her neck out for me, and that me being unable to stand the workplace and the people there meant I hated her as well. Things got worse when she started confiding with her friends at work, because our private lives became the grapevine’s favorite gossip. When people in the back room started to ask about problems at home, I felt more and more alone. 

I felt trapped in a life I hated, and that anything I did to get out of it — find a new job, go on unemployment or separate from my wife — would somehow only make things worse. It would be one thing if we were making enough money to get by, but we still struggled to make ends meet. That added to the overall stress, not to mention doing our best to raise a toddler on top of it all. When I first started, we’d carpool to work together and talk the whole time. Those became silent car rides, and then I started leaving 30 minutes earlier just to take the bus to work. 

I drifted further and further into depression. Looking back, I’m sure my wife was depressed too. She knew how miserable I was and worried it would end in me, or both of us, losing our jobs. 

And that’s exactly what happened, but not because it was her or my own fault. Out of nowhere there was a “restructuring,” which was management’s term for it now being pretty much impossible to work 40 hours a week. Without the hours, we weren’t going to make it financially. As a couple, the year of stress and scorched earth fighting left us with no energy to come together as a family and figure it out. I was pissed at her for not listening to me about the company, but I was more pissed at the company. She was mad at me for needing to rely on the same company, or exhausted from feeling responsible for my performance at work as well as hers. A couple days after getting the news, she went quiet, then moved herself and our daughter in with her parents. 

We haven’t officially filed for divorce yet, but it’s in the works. I have a better job now as a machinist, and make enough money to send what I can for child support. If anything, we’re both happier apart than we were together, which I hope is what’s best for our daughter. 

‘If We Had Continued as We Were, We Would Have Just Made Each Other Angry and the Business Would Have Failed’

Rick and Marie, Mid-60s, Texas: Both of us worked in the computer industry and first met in 1978. We were married in 1982, and worked in the same engineering group until 1984, but we rarely worked together. We both left the company in 1989 and moved to Santa Fe, where, after six months, we bought a small restaurant. She and I are true to ourselves in both places, work and home. But when we started working at the café and became totally dependent on each other’s performance, the differences in our personalities and approaches to work intensified. 

I had spent the last 10 years supervising people and she was an independent contributor to her group, so she lacked experience in managing people. She was meticulous and exacting on herself and employees, while I was more free flowing on my own and in my directions to others. 

This made working at the café a grating experience. Though we were fully engaged when working on strategy and planning tasks, we totally disengaged when doing tactical, elbow-to-elbow work together. Most of the friction came from her sometimes conflicting directions to employees on how they should be doing things compared to my free-wheeling nature. If we had just continued as we were, we would have just made each other angry and the business would have failed. Looking back, we feel lucky that we understood each other so well that we came to a solution very quickly. 

Our solution was simple: We’d alternate between one of us going into work and one staying away. It was risky, but we understood that this needed to happen if the restaurant was going to function, and we trusted each other to competently perform each role. It actually worked much better than we expected. The in-person always went into work refreshed from the day off and the out-person could relax or work on bigger things.

Once we figured this out, the café work became a real pleasure, especially after the gross sales went up and costs went down. Our stress was gone, and we had fun with it. What we learned from working at the café 33 years ago remains true today, 40 years into our marriage: We don’t do well when working together around the house or yard, but we’re usually in full agreement on strategy and plans.

Working at the café was an exciting time for us and it even attracted some famous folks, mostly from Hollywood and NYC, which made it even better. In 1993, we finally had a baby, sold the café and moved to El Paso so our son could grow up near his grandparents and cousins. Now he’s 29, lives with his girlfriend and was recently hired as a full-time high school teacher. For parents, seeing your son or daughter do what they want to do in life eclipses most everything else.