'Honey, we're home!' – the rise of workplace couples

One evening last April, the Lunts' dining-room wall was plastered with yellow Post-it notes. It was the first night of the husband-wife collaboration on Stephen's home-repair business, and Mary Lou was aghast.

"I said, 'What's your vision?' " she recalls. "And I remember sitting there thinking, 'The man has no vision.' "

She laughs about it now. The Post-its have morphed into a successful plan for The Handyman of Rochester, and the upstate New York partnership is thriving. But that spring night spent staring at the wall embodied both the angst and joy of couples who work together: Different visions, different work styles, and constant spillover between work and home are fused with an intimacy that's rare in the working world and a unified professional purpose that's rare in marriage.

Couples are working together – in shared businesses or as corporate cogs – more often than ever, according to a new study by Cornell University's Employment and Family Careers Institute. In terms of professional success, the results are positive: Co-working husbands have more control over schedules and greater commitment to their employers. Co-working wives have higher salaries.

And typically, says co-author Stephen Sweet, there's a notable egalitarianism in how they prioritize their jobs. "Co-working couples tend to be less likely to favor the husband's career over that of the wife," he says.

Workplace romance

With the workplace increasingly doubling as social venue – a fusion of office, restaurant, gym, and bar – interoffice romance seems inevitable, paving the road to corporate marriage. An American Management Association survey shows that 25 percent of employees have been romantically involved with co-workers.

True, high-profile foibles abound: William Agee and Mary Cunningham, who met at Bendix Corp., endured Ms. Cunningham's forced resignation. Oracle's CEO Larry Ellison was sued for alleged sexual harassment of his executive assistant. But beyond these stories, beyond the generalities of Cornell's research, marriage is a myriad of subtle-ties. It's the minor frustrations of co- working that rub a marriage raw – or the quiet accommodations that make it a joy.

"Blending [work and home] makes our lives complete," says Jonathan Rhudy, who works 12 feet from his wife at Carter Ryley Thomas, a public-relations firm in Richmond, Va.

Many others agree that co-working adds a dynamism of shared purpose. Among the couples in the Cornell study who didn't work together, only 20 percent of wives felt both careers got equal play. In the co-working group, that number more than doubled.

Such equal play rings true with Steve and Margaret Daniels, both district managers for Wal-Mart in upstate New York. Married 30 years and co-workers for 16, they "believe in 50-50 as far as our family goes," says Mrs. Daniels. "There have been times when Steve's needs have been greater, and we may have moved for his career. Now there's times where my needs may be greater. We give and take based on what's come up."

On the down side of co-working, though, there's inevitable spillover between work and home. Mr. Daniels admits he "can't ... say that we are ever not working." At dinner one night, chattering about Wal-Mart, he and Margaret looked up to see their children mimicking them.

And for Rita McConnell, who worked alongside her husband, Bryan, at a Pittsburgh environmental agency for a year and a half, proximity was a mixed blessing. Though it was convenient to confer on who'd pick up the dry cleaning, the two were dogged by office politics, as well as a tendency to second-guess each other's professional decisions.

It's a small world

In retrospect, she says, "I was surprised at how closed off my world got without me even noticing. We'd gotten into this weird funk of coming home and gossiping." Now, with Rita working downtown, she and Bryan have whole new realms of conversation.

Other couples, however, may not have such agreeable resolutions. Enter Bob Nachshin, a divorce lawyer in West Los Angeles who's handled the cases of boxer Oscar de la Hoya and Walt Disney president Robert Iger. About 10 percent of his cases involve co-working couples.

In one memorable feud Mr. Nachshin litigated, a husband and wife owned an upscale French restaurant. When they split, the wife opened a competing French restaurant 10 minutes away.

Although working together may increase thoughts of divorce, it's unlikely to precipitate them, says Dr. Annmarie Cano, a psychology professor who studies marriage just down the hall from her husband at Detroit's Wayne State University. The riskiest setup is "two spouses who have a lot to say and think that their way is the only right way." But, she quips, an advantage to co-working is the clear hindrance to on-the-job affairs.

Still, for the most part, firms discourage co-working couples because they fear unequal performance, according to Nachshin. "One person can be star, and the other a failure. What do you do with the one you're unhappy with? And if both are stars, that [also] causes conflict."

He won't allow family members to work in his firm, and can't imagine toiling alongside his lawyer wife.

For Fort Lauderdale, Fla., chefs Peter and Pamela Babcock, the struggle for fame can indeed create waves in otherwise smooth waters. When Pamela was invited onto chef Emeril Lagasse's trendy cooking show, Peter longed for his own limelight. "It's nice when you see your spouse get ... accolades," he says. "It makes you proud. But in a corporate setting, it can get a little bit competitive."

Or take newlyweds Michael and Tatiana Swanson, in the rare position of having one (Michael) supervise the other. It's a proximity that fuels creative tension: The couple argues almost daily. "I walk in his office and tell him what's on my mind," says Mrs. Swanson, director of sales and marketing for their Florida technology-training company. But humor and compromise dissolve the feuds.

Corporate communications

For Ms. Lunt of the Post-it notes, communication is crucial. "Whatever problems you have communicating as a couple become magnified when you're communicating as business partners," she says. To facilitate those conversations, she and Stephen force themselves out of the house and onto their boat, then drift on a nearby lake to talk shop.

And then there's conjugal claustrophobia. Michael Friedman, vice president of the Manhattan public-relations firm Linden Alschuler & Kaplan, proposed to co-worker Katharine Gomez after three weeks of courtship. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Gomez found another job.

"It wasn't bad until you had a fight, and then you didn't have a place to stew," recalls Mr. Friedman of the time they spent working in the same 30-person office, desks directly across from each other. "By the time we got home, we were kind of tired of each other."

"Now, you get home, and it's like, 'Oh! You're new. Hello!' It makes home more of a fort from the outside life," he says. "You do have to miss someone for at least eight hours to appreciate them."

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