Relationships: When Lovers are Colleagues

Dana Sarhan-Emile Issa- Not retouched-_MG_5343
Dana Sarhan (MSc, MFT)   Photo Emile Issa

Well known artists have coupled up through history to bring the greatest and most revolutionary work of their time. Vincent Van Gogh advised, “what is done in love is done well”. From Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, to Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gilot, Helmut & June Newton, these partners have had collaborative relationships sparking some of the period’s greatest works of architecture, painting, literature, photography, music and sculpture.

As an idea, merging marriage and work can make sense. What better partner to choose than a trusted one. In reality, however, it can be challenging. Looking closely at the correlation between intimate and work life, most couples tend to lose one or the other, either their work partnership or their romantic one. When romantic partners first consider the idea of working together, they often have no clue how stressful it is to build a workplace together. This also works for partners who are working within the same company but have different positions. Even the best of marriages are more likely to struggle under the pressures of a shared working space. The key to making it work appears to be in careful planning and understanding the risks.

“Matador & Naked Woman” Pablo Picasso

(i) Separating intimate life from work life

Boundaries are what define one’s personal space. They can easily be crossed when the two worlds merge together. Tension at work or at home can continue and play out in the other sphere. “We didn’t know how to put the boundaries in place,” a couple said. “We didn’t know how to turn it off.” For example, work problems can continue to evolve at home or in the bedroom.

Research has shown that maintaining boundaries within the workforce as well enhances relational wellbeing. A relationship can only work when healthy space is maintained in order to keep it alive and running. Desire runs on fuel and curiosity, when two people have the space to meet halfway. If boundaries are crossed, there is no other to meet or gap to bridge. “Personal space can refresh and regenerate a more neutral space… For couple-hood to work, they shouldn’t see each other all day long”, advised some.

Managing schedules to allow partners time apart throughout the day is an effective example of how to maintain healthy boundaries. Modifying workspace to create different workspaces and separate worlds for both partners is also a good example. Lastly, deciding not to talk about work after hours is shown to help individuals separate both realms and focus on nourishing their private lives.

“The Kiss” Pablo Picasso


(ii) Practicing conflict resolution skills

Effective communication and conflict resolution skills allow individuals to handle partnership effectively. Marriage and Family Therapist, Stephanie Knarr, explains that it’s the couples who already have communication issues are the ones to most likely struggle in a shared workplace.

Building effective dialogues in business, and using the same model at home can help strengthen partnerships. Challenges can serve as interventions instead of built up conflict. In fact, these interventions can provide an opportunity for building respect, active listening, individual empowerment and less tolerance for disrespect across the board.

In a recent research called Project Aristotle, Google wanted to find out the secret behind a good productive team. Scientific results have proven that it isn’t about the individuals per say, but more about their interactions with one another. Respect and mindfulness of one another as well as equal contribution to conversations are key roles.

“Lovers at Work” Original Illustration by Rosane Chawi

(iii) Setting clearly defined roles

Partnerships are both written and unwritten agreements, either at home or at work. Defined roles will divide duties, allowing two partners to respect one another’s area of expertise and personal space without overstepping each other, thus avoiding future conflicts.

“We have contracts”, Laura McLaughlin, LMFT, LMHC, explains: “If you are going to borrow money from a family member or partner, you have a contract. It’s spelled out, it’s clear. It’s not harsh, it’s clear so that you can relax afterwards”.

Depending on mutual agreement, comfort, and personal lifestyles, couples can either take on a traditional partnership, a contemporary one, or one in between these two extremities. Roles are shaped accordingly, and partnership is evolved in both business and domestic life. When interviewing couples from both realms and lifestyles, with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, and religions, all highlighted similar experiences; the importance of boundaries, communication, and specified roles.

Famous Fashion Photographer Helmut Newton shot by his wife June (Alice Springs)

Results have also shown that it is more likely to work if both partners have equal work positions whereas different hierarchal positions can put a strain on personal relationships. “There is always a conflict of interest, especially if the other partner is at a higher position…” Conflict of interest can play out in different arenas, and if not dealt with effectively, can lead one partner into self sacrificing for the other’s comfort. “I could fight to grow more professionally, but I don’t, so that I don’t cause problems for him and so I accept what is given”.

Fair treatment amongst all employees can be challenging, especially if a romantic partner is involved. To avoid favorism, extra care can be put in dealing with evaluations, rewards, bonuses, budget management, and career growth. Open communication between romantic partners will help maintain an honest discussion between them, especially at times when one partner feels there was unfairness involved.

“Frida & Diego” Frida Kahlo

(iv) Building a partnership model
Many couples find themselves in what one partner describes as “joined-at-the-hip” phase when the couple launched a company. It might seem necessary to work closely together all day, every day, while getting a business of the ground, which gives it the famous term “joined together at the hip”. This arrangement can be toxic for any relationship. Closing down on space, and disregarding boundaries, can take a toll at home.

A partnership model will constitute clear boundaries, what is okay and not okay, defined roles, expectations, and what values are to be put on the table. All along the way, continuous effective communication skills can help maintain this model and keep the partnership alive, healthy, and running, both at work and at home. Perhaps this partnership model can translate to clear and direct languages at home.

For example, children will try to play parents off each other, or try to turn a “no” from one parent into a “yes” from another. The same thing can happen in the workforce with employees. Having clearly-defined roles and an organizational chart can help prevent employees from trying to split spouses against one another.

Max Ernst & Dorothea Tanning

Follow Dana

twitter @danasarhan

Video Art by Elias Abkar

Kamsyn October 2016