Due to working-life changes forced by coronavirus threat, some people are having a working-from-home revelation: finally understanding what their partner actually does for a living. (Katherine Streeter/The New York Times)
It felt like a fat soccer ball to the stomach when my friends asked over drinks -- back in January -- where my boyfriend (of nearly 15 years; we live together) was working these days. "Oh. Um. I think for some health care company?"
I felt a little ashamed (I should know this!), a little proud (wow, we must have so much else to talk about!) and very confused (who even is he?). How was it possible that I could write an encyclopedia about this person but couldn't tell you how he spends 50 to 70 hours a week, or how he's spent 50 to 70 hours a week every week over the last 20 years of his career?
This is what I do know: He works in the technology sector. He builds websites and apps for a variety of clients. He does back-end and front-end stuff. Develops. Strategises. Has 'stand-up' meetings. Algorithms. Works with AI? He's on phone calls a decent amount, and when he completes a task, he says "ta-da!"
But even after working from home together for several weeks now in response to the new coronavirus, I can't combine those words into a job description, and I'm pretty sure if I tried, I would end up sounding like one of the artificially intelligent robots he may or may not be trying to create or destroy.
Is this knowledge gap in a relationship a signal of something broken or unhealthy? Is it bad if we aren't able to pass the Turing test when answering questions about our loved one's job -- especially now, when those of us who are healthy and still employed are working close together, side by side?
Even though it definitely feels like there are some wrong answers to those questions, there aren't. The depth of understanding of your partner's job, and their comfort with that understanding, varies from relationship to relationship.
"There are some couples I've seen who are in the same field and met in the office, and part of their connection is connecting over their career," said psychologist and couples therapist Melissa Johnson. "Other couples, they're in completely different professional spheres, and it doesn't matter, it doesn't impact their connection. They're able to support each other."
"Some couples are relieved to leave work at work and when they come home, they're able to tap into all the other aspects of who they are in their lives outside of their professional world. For other couples," she said, connecting over their work is "one of the primary ways they feel stimulated," and being able to "talk through the latest project or stressor and have their partner get it is important."
It's only cause for concern if you want your partner to understand the ins and outs of your career and work and they don't, or vice versa. "The health of the couple really depends on if both people are getting their needs met," Johnson said.
Expressing those needs is more important now than ever, especially since people in cities are living on top of one another with little space for physical and mental alone time. Johnson recommended, even if it doesn't sound sexy, setting up a weekly meeting with your partner to take a look at the week ahead -- who has work calls when, who should be watching the children when, etc. -- to make sure you're both on the same page and can anticipate the needs of the individual and the needs of the couple.
"This is an opportunity for a lot of couples to practice teamwork. It's a goal a lot of couples have in couples therapy when I'm working with folks, and this is an opportunity to really sharpen and strengthen those skills," she said.
Maybe some of you out there relate. Maybe some of you are staring at your partner right now and wondering what they're working on or how they could possibly prefer Microsoft Teams to Slack. Or maybe you're just sitting there baffled, wondering how it is that you ended up partnered with someone who says "Let's put a pin in that" with alarming regularity.
Alexandra Hsie, 30, is a freelance video producer who lives in Manhattan with her fiancé, Peter Andrews, 31, who she hears is a UX designer. Andrews tries hard to understand what she does, Hsie told me, but she goes elsewhere (her friends in the industry and her colleagues) when she needs someone to get in the weeds with her about anything related to her work. Which is exactly how she wants it to be.
"I deliberately didn't date within the industry because I didn't want that to be the relationship, to come home, talk about work, and then go to work and do that again. It's too much, and I need a break."
Hsie and Andrews do discuss their jobs, but not the "nitty-gritty,' she said. "We can talk about top-level things like managing people who are younger than us, and dealing with Gen Z-ers and what our different tricks are for that," she added. "Other than that, it has to be about the forest instead of the trees."
For some couples, understanding what your partner's job stress feels like is more important than understanding the job itself. Taking time to be compassionate toward "the pressure of the hierarchy at work or the promotion stress," or your partner's anxiety around their "client flip-flopping what they want every hour of the day," Johnson said, is certainly a way of showing support.
Pauline Tran, 30, has been dating Liam Martens, 29, for over six years, and they live together in Brooklyn. "I talk about this with my friends all the time that I literally have no idea what he does," she told me.
Early on in their relationship, it used to bother her that they worked in different fields: She's now in public health video production, and he works in the reinsurance industry.
Their professional difference isn't a source of frustration for them now, though. "I know he's really ambitious, and I know that he cares about his job and really wants to be productive and do really well, and I find that really admirable," she said. "I still find myself attracted to him because of those qualities, even though I don't know what he does."
As for Martens, "I feel like I have a good sense of what Pauline does, but the details, the true day-to-day details, I don't." When it comes to understanding each other's work, "high level is sufficient," he said.
Martens and Tran have also spent about two weeks working from home together, but their understanding of each others' jobs hasn't increased substantially, they told me over email.
"I think I am more aware of the types of projects he has, but I don't think I can say I can explain reinsurance in depth to someone else," she wrote. "I do know that he's been on a lot of calls and loves to walk around the apartment while taking them."
Martens' pacing is something Tran could bring up in a weekly check-in that Johnson recommended. If your partner has "a really benign but totally-can-get-under-your-skin kind of habit," Johnson told me, shouting out something silly like, in this case, "pacing!" could break the ice and also communicate to your partner that they're doing The Thing.
"It's helpful, though, to have those kinds of conversations ahead of time, because if you're just doing it in the moment, it's an attack or can easily feel that way," Johnson said.
My partner and I have been working exclusively from home for about three weeks, and I now have more keywords to add to his job description and a better understanding of the tactile tasks and problems he faces, but my knowledge doesn't extend much beyond that.
It's been interesting to learn about his technical skills, but I still prefer connecting over things other than our jobs, and that works for us.
When I asked him to describe what I do for a living, he looked up from the seed catalog that just arrived (plants are a passion in our household) and said, "You write articles."
Lindsay Mannering is a founder and president of The Dipp, a founding team member of Bustle, and an occasional writer of articles.c.2020 The New York Times Company