(My) Challenges of Working alongside a Partner who is not your Coworker

Or how to move through your struggles with your quarantine mate

Funny story:

While I was cleaning the bathroom, I was listening to a couples therapy training (for couples therapists) on my headphones, specifically about how to make a rapid repair of the beginnings of an argument, before it catches fire and turns into a big deal, in a couple who is housebound and trying to co-work, during this time of coronavirus.

I often listen to trainings, useful podcasts, professional development stuff as I do my household chores. But I don’t often get to practice in the moment what I am learning.

The specific example of an upcoming skirmish given in the training was one when Partner A was getting frustrated with their technology struggles and called out in a demanding way to Partner B to come help them right then, to figure it out and make it right. Partner B felt like their own work wasn’t being respected and that they were being treated like an underling or servant, and snapped back at Partner A in a dismissive sharp way; which made Partner A more angry and defensive (and even less considerate of Partner B), and then the whole cycle went downhill from there.

This was a real-life example – the way things actually usually go between two people who are feeling stressed and pressured by the confines of COVID19 (or any other super challenging situation).

Maybe you know this to be true in your own household. I know I do in mine. Sometimes the littlest thing (or the way something is said) can set off the longest, most miserable times of tension and argument in a couple relationship.

At the moment that I had just finished hearing about a better way of handling that kind of interaction, my partner interrupted me about some difficulty with his emails he was having. To be fair, he didn’t know I had earplugs in, and I didn’t hear him at first. When I realized he was talking to me, I made a big production of taking out my earphones and rolling my eyes in exasperation (didn’t he see I was busy?), but I did answer his question. Then I quickly returned to brushing my teeth and finishing up with cleaning up the bathroom. I thought he had walked away, but he continued waiting there (again, to be fair, this time he was waiting for me to finish up.)

When I noticed out of the corner my eye (actually I was startled to see his reflection in the mirror) I turned around and with a mouthful of toothpaste and spit I yelled, “What now?!?“ He wasn’t fazed. He asked me to check an email he had written to make sure it sounded OK.

I roared “Oh my God! Can’t you see I’m brushing my teeth?!? What’s the matter with you?!? You’re like a child! Go away!!“ – Or something harsh and ridiculing like that. I shoo-ed him off. I was so mad and so bothered… JUST exactly at the moment after hearing a training about how to stop that kind of reaction in the bud.

Of course, then he was mad and offended too, and stomped off, grumbling and calling me names under his breath (I imagine he did, anyways).

According to the couples training, I HAD JUST LISTENED TO, we could have had a “rapid repair” exercise. We could have had a meaningful interaction that would have felt better for each of us, and avoided the hurt feelings and resentments that just festered all day…

What I could have taken the time to say goes more like this:

“Ouch! That bugs me when you interrupt me like that. I would’ve rather heard from you something like, “Hey sweetie, I know you’re busy right now, but I’m having a problem with this email. When you get a chance can you help me with it?” I would’ve felt respected and that what I’m doing is important too, and that you weren’t seeing me as someone who had to stop everything and immediately tend to your needs. And I would’ve been happy to help.”

And then ideally, he would have said, “I’m sorry. I do realize that what you’re doing is important and I am so grateful to you that you’re handling all the bathroom wipe downs. I wish I had respected your time and said “Hey, this email I’m working on is a mess and I’d appreciate your help with it when you have some time.”

(Of course, part of the exercise is that BOTH people know the sequence and agree to do it).

And ideally, I would have then said:
“Thank you for saying that. I feel better just to hear you think that what I’m doing is important too. It makes me feel appreciated and more willing to help you even in the moment, when you don’t come at me with a demand to drop everything I’m doing. I wish you would be more thoughtful about how you asked me for help and be considerate of me.”

And then ideally, he would say something like “I didn’t realize the way I ask you for help sounds demanding or like I’m putting you down, to you and makes you feel even more like you don’t want to help me. I appreciate it so much when you give me the extra edit to my emails. I wish I had asked for your consent to help me, and not barged in on you in my moment of crisis. I’m sure I could’ve waited a few minutes longer. I like it when you are clear with me about your boundaries and needs.”

And then ideally, I would say something like “Thank you so much for listening to me and for caring about how the way you ask me for help makes me feel. I appreciate that you realize you were impatient and could’ve waited a bit. I feel listened to and cared about by you when you are thoughtful about how you ask me for help. I feel important to you and as if you care about how I feel too. I love that you were honest with me and flexible enough to hear constructive feedback without reacting in rage.“…

And then ideally, he would say something like:
“Thank you for telling me in a good way that I kind a messed up, but not holding it against me. Sometimes I don’t think long enough when I get stuck on the computer and I know you are patient enough to help me figure it out. And thank you for accepting my efforts to do it better. I like how we support each other and can work as a team.”


Now I know that might sound really drawn out and too far-fetched to really happen in real life in a heated moment, when tempers are flared. In actuality, this process if done well, might take 5-10 minutes.

But then it might spare 48 hours of tension, yelling, walking on eggshells, feeling all butt-hurt, being resentful and miserable. Wouldn’t that be worth it?

And we all know that living in close quarters during these trying times is going to breed more moments of contention (and that dreaded contempt) between couples.

Do you want to make this next month or longer of confinement even worse by heightening the tension and unpleasantness of a spat with your partner?

The process for the rapid repair exercise is for Partner A to say or do something stupid or reactionary or bothersome to Partner B.

And instead of taking the bait to the spiral down, Partner B says what they would rather hear from Partner A in that instance and why that would be important to them or how it makes them feel.

Then Partner A repeats those words that Partner B wanted to hear (in their own words) and adds some understanding of the feeling that’s been expressed.

Partner B responds to Partner A, acknowledging how it feels to hear what Partner A said and requesting again what they wanted to hear; adding how it makes them feel.

Partner A repeats again the wished-for response and elaborates on the feeling and importance of the request.

Partner B repeats one more time – with more feeling and even appreciation for what Partner A has said.

Partner A repeats one final time what was requested, with added understanding.

(Partner B’s wished for request is repeated three times and Partner A’s statement of that wished for request is repeated three times; each time each elaborated with understanding, feelings, appreciation, and why it’s important. Three times seems to do the trick and provide adequate repair and attention to the original injury)

And to be TOTALLY TOTALLY FAIR; the exercise is repeated again, with the partners switching roles.… So, my partner could have said:

“Damn, I hate when you yell at me when I ask for your help. I wish you would’ve just said “Sorry sweetie, I’m just finishing up. I’ll be out in a minute. I feel so dissed when you yell at me like that!”…
Etc. Etc. Etc…

(I think that’s another blog post! But If one partner doesn’t get to be the one requesting a change in the other partner’s response, it would be a good exercise for the Partner who did do the requesting to write out or imagine what the other Partner’s requests would have been!)

The point of this exercise is to recognize that you’ve been hurt by something that your partner has said, and to be clear about your own feelings and what you would rather hear from your partner, and to help them give to you what you really want, without provoking an argument. Your partner who said the first thing doesn’t have to defend or engage in an argument, but simply repeat what they heard from you, with added understandings.

It is clarifying for the partner who was offended, to define and own their own feelings and what they preferred to hear, and for the offending partner to actively listen and make amends. Switching roles gives both people the opportunity to DO both things and to take responsibility for how either one of them contributes to the tension at hand.

The point is not for one partner to take full responsibility and be the one who fixes the wrong, but for both people to do that, while deepening their understanding of one another.

I have taught many couples how to do this rapid repair, and they have all been grateful for a tool that interrupts the typical nosedive and negative intensity cycle that we can easily fall into.

Even after the fact, I can see how helpful it would have been for my partner and I to practice some ‘rapid repair’ early on in our conflict. I wish I had been able to do in the moment what I had just learned to do, when I was listening to the training, and the perfect moment erupted.

But there’s always next time (which of course, will happen again and again…).

What do you think about this tool? Can you imagine doing it with your partner? It’s an interesting exercise to play out.

Here’s wishing you many rapid repairs in your relationship struggles.

Hang in there as the pressures of co-working while cohabitating continue to mount. With some intention and attention, you’ve got this!

Take good care and watch for details about my free workshop for couples trying to manage coronavirus stress, coming soon!