After a year of dating, Valerie* and her boyfriend Frankie* moved in together. Sure, they’d bicker occasionally but they were in love, and who wouldn’t put up with the occasional tiff over the dishes in exchange for a few extra hundred square feet of living space that pooling their rental budgets would afford them?
And then three things happened: Frankie went back into the office full-time, Valerie started a fully-remote job—and they got a dog. “That was when our relationship started to crumble,” says Valerie.
At first, the tension centered around the demands of caring for their new puppy, Daisy*, who needed at least two hour-long walks during the day. “I found it so hard to fit that in between meetings,” says Valerie, adding that puppy-parenting while working (watching her drag a rug across the room while trying to be present in a meeting, for example) was stressful, especially when if left her with no time to take a breath during the day.
“I was so envious that my partner could go into the office, focus on work, get everything done, and then come home,” she remembers. “I felt like I was never able to be fully present, either with work or with Daisy. I was half-assing both.”
And that’s before we get to the other domestic labor Valerie found herself doing during the day, from vacuuming up dog hair or doing a load of laundry. “I couldn’t do my work in a dirty space,” she explains, even though her partner often told her to leave those things for when he was back from work. “He didn’t put pressure on me, but it’s like, ‘I’m here, and it’s bothering me.’”
When he was home in the evenings, Frankie was usually happy to tackle things like dinner or Daisy’s afternoon walk—but he also expected to have plenty of time for himself to go to the gym or play video games.
“That’s when we butted heads a lot, because I felt like he needed to make up for the eight plus hours he hasn’t been here,” Valerie recalls thinking, saying it was a “toxic” mentality in retrospect. “I felt like, how dare he relax when I haven’t had a second to breathe, and now my work day is bleeding into my evening because of all the stuff I wasn’t able to get done during the day because I was looking after Daisy.”
In short: Valerie was beginning to feel like she’d taken on the full domestic load of a 1950s-style housewife while trying to juggle a demanding career, all while being in a relationship with a man who (theoretically) espoused thoroughly modern ideas of equitable partnership.
And the culprit for all this tension and resentment? The fact that Valerie was working from home full time while Frankie was in an office every day.
The culprit for all this tension and resentment? The fact that Valerie was working from home full time while Frankie was in an office every day.
She’s not alone. In fact, according to Elizabeth Earnshaw, a licensed marriage and family therapist, this dynamic is becoming increasingly common, particularly among heterosexual couples where the “WFH” partner is a woman.
“In many ways, people initially thought work from home might actually help women because they’re not going to feel so pulled all over the place,” says Earnshaw, co-founder of OURS, a digital tool that helps couples build stronger relationships. “And while both things can be true—I can be grateful for the flexibility of being able to step away to pick up my kids and no one will even know I’ve left, for example—what I’ve heard is that it’s almost like the same issues that were happening when women were working at the office, but there’s a second layer of judgment.”
That new layer, of course, is the “Well, you’re at home!” clause: the school calling with a sick kid, and the partner in the office assuming you’ll be the one to go get her because you’re working from home. Or being automatically the one who will start work late because the plumber is coming and someone needs to let them in.
Where this might once have been a negotiation between partners, Earnshaw adds, it’s now an assumption. “Now it’s like the person that’s leaving the house just leaves, because it’s like, ‘Oh great! You’ll be here.’”
The fact that you might have an important meeting at 12 when the contractor is coming, or the optics are equally bad when you ditch a meeting with your boss (even a Zoom one) to take the cat to the vet, is less up for discussion these days. (Oh, along with the idea that you somehow have more energy to cook dinner because you haven’t left the house.)
What makes this all the more difficult, as Valerie can attest, is the fact that this behavior isn’t directed by some ideological shift or conscious decision by consensus. Slowly, then all at once, the division of domestic duties takes a giant step backward.
“Something my couples have talked about is the fact that they didn’t mind it at first,” says Earnshaw. “At first, it felt like this new freedom. Now, they’re wondering, ‘Well, why am I the person who had to cancel an important call to let the plumber in?’” If their male partner perhaps did less of this sort of stuff before, she adds, it’s likely he’s doing even less (or none) of it now. “That resentment is now becoming much more of a problem.”
If it’s not addressed, Earnshaw continues, this is an issue that has the potential to cause major rifts within a relationship if either person in the couple feels like they’re being unfairly treated in this bargain.
"It doesn’t have to be equal, but it should be equitable."
The solution? “It doesn’t have to be equal, but it should be equitable,” Earnshaw says, noting that some couples might be totally fine with an option where the WFH person is always the default parent or domestic-chore-doer. “It becomes a problem when people aren’t naming this disparity, and then actually having a conversation and consciously deciding how this is going to work in our family.”
Key to this, Earnshaw adds, is realizing the fact that all dual income couples, including LGBTQ+ ones, will struggle with this balance at some stage. “When we normalize it, people don’t feel shame,” she says. “When people feel shame, they get defensive.” (Cue the “well, I work really hard too, my commute is exhausting, I don’t get what your issue is etc" arguments.)
An exercise Earnshaw likes to do with couples struggling with this is asking each partner to write down everything they do in a week to care for the home or family. “What they’ll start to realize is whether or not there’s one person who’s taking on way more,” she says. “And then the other person is often like, ‘I didn’t even think about the fact that you were working and you’re also doing laundry and running the dishwasher, but I’m getting this protected time where I just work and then I come home and I drag the trash can to the end of the driveway and that’s about it.’” This can often lead to a productive conversation about how that work can be redistributed more fairly.
For other couples, however, tension over the WFH domestic divide may be the straw that breaks a relational camel’s back. That’s the case for Valerie and Frankie, who are in the process of separating.
“I think it was just the tip of the iceberg,” says Valerie, who says the issue exposed some major ways that they were just fundamentally different people, including his inability to understand why she was finding the situation so hard, especially when he offered “solutions” like just leaving their dog, who has behavioral issues, in the apartment alone while she worked in a common space in their condo building upstairs.
And while she wouldn’t rule out another relationship with someone who worked in an office while she worked from home, Valerie says: “It has just made me reconsider the kind of person that I’m doing it with.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.
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