Workplace tyrant, flirty colleague, compulsive interrupter… Few of us knew our partners’ office personalities – until we started working from home. So has it improved the nation’s relationships? Stuart Heritage (nervously) asks his wife.
If you ever thought you really knew your partner, there’s a good chance that lockdown has changed that. Not only do you now know how they react to a once-a-century global health crisis – are they a coper or a catastrophiser? – but you’ve also been able to peek behind the most secret curtain of all: how they behave at work. And this can be a real shock.
We are all different things to different people, so it can be truly discombobulating to learn that the image a loved one presents at work is completely at odds with the one displayed at home. Your headstrong boyfriend might reveal himself as weirdly submissive to his bosses. Your slobby wife might secretly be the office go-getter. Until now, there has been no way of knowing this.
One friend of mine, for instance, has got used to her husband being monosyllabic and sullen at home. However, it turns out that at work he’s incessantly chirpy – with everyone. ‘I had an idea that this might be the case when I once saw how many exclamation marks he uses in work emails,’ she told me. ‘But on Zoom it’s even worse. He shouts everything at top volume, like the Jolly Green Giant. I think it’s a defence mechanism because it gets louder and more annoying if he doesn’t know the people he’s talking to. I can’t wait for it to stop.’
Similarly, a male friend of mine moved in with his girlfriend in November, and only now has to contend with the new-found realisation that she’s a compulsive interrupter. ‘She’s never socially interrupted anyone at any point in our relationship,’ he told me. ‘However, I reckon she does 95 per cent of the talking in every work call I’ve overheard. Her colleagues don’t get a look-in. There’s a bloke at my office who’s like that in conference calls and everybody hates his guts.’
And spare a thought for the woman who’s discovered that her easygoing partner is actually a tyrant. ‘I hadn’t realised how strict he is,’ she says. ‘He just seems to spend all day in the spare room telling off the young lads for not finishing their work on time.’
It can be a shock adjusting to an entirely new persona, especially when it’s someone we think we already know. But the important thing to remember is that your partner hasn’t really changed – they’re just using the skills required for doing their job well, and these are often completely at odds with the ones they need to be a decent person at home.
‘Every human being takes on a different role in different environments,’ says psychologist Emma Kenny. ‘It can be very frustrating to hear your partner being annoying at work. But you have to remember that it’s a role they have to play. We have a protective defence mechanism at work that requires us to act in an appropriate way for a professional setting. We have to set boundaries and that means you can’t always be the frivolous, fun individual you are with your partner.’
But this isn’t to say that we’re all shacked up with secret autocrats; quite often the opposite is the case. I heard one story about a woman who has only just discovered that her husband has a ‘polite work laugh’ that he regularly deploys during calls. She had never heard it before. ‘It’s funny to hear someone you’ve lived with for nearly 30 years sound like an entirely different person all of a sudden,’ she says. Another friend has only just realised that her boyfriend is actually a bit of a slacker, saying, ‘Despite being at work nine to five, I hadn’t realised he really only works four hours a day.’
Emma also describes situations where people have been made uncomfortable by how flirtatious their partners are at work, not understanding that it’s primarily used as a professional lubricant to get things done. ‘We lose our graces in relationships a lot of the time,’ she says. ‘This is because we think we’re loved exactly as we are. But if our partners are used to us being grumpy, and then we’re suddenly really flirty at work, it’s understandable to think, “Well, why don’t they talk to me that way?” However, that isn’t how life works. Sometimes, if you’ve been making decisions all day, you just want to come home and slump in front of the TV.’
Of course, working and living with the same person isn’t always a bad thing. ‘It can also be really sexy to learn that your partner is a whole other human being at work,’ says Emma. One person I spoke with would certainly agree: ‘Hearing and seeing them as a teacher blew my mind – how kind yet stern his voice was, what he was like playing games with the children. It filled my heart!’ Another says, ‘I am extremely attracted to my husband’s work personality. Now I struggle to concentrate sometimes when I can hear him talking.’
Good or bad, though, I am here to tell you that this dissolution of the work/home divide does get easier. Both my wife and I have always worked from home, so we’ve had years to get used to each other’s different personalities. Like when she types on her laptop so hard upstairs that I can hear it through the ceiling. Or when she hums tunelessly as she writes. These cute little personality quirks remind me that she is multilayered and fascinating in any situation. Then again, I just asked her what my work personality is and she replied ‘shrill’. So now, obviously, we have to get divorced.