Has working from home caused a strain on your relationship with your spouse? You’re hardly alone. According to an article by The Straits Times published in May 2021, a study conducted by four researchers at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore found that women were less satisfied with their marriages during and after the circuit breaker.
Not that it might be any surprise. After all, being around somebody round the clock, no matter how much you adore them, can create more opportunities for conflict. But what exactly are the typical disagreements that couples working from home face, and does it mean that divorce rates are going up? Also, has WFH strengthened any marriages instead?
It’s all about communication
A researcher from the study had suggested that one of the reasons for the fall in marital satisfaction was that women had to shoulder more household responsibilities, and the data that Her World has collected seems to agree. In the What Women Want survey we conducted in late 2020, which polled over 3,000 women in Singapore, 59 per cent of the married and working respondents said that they spent more time on household chores.
But is that the root cause? Not quite. As it turns out, an unfair distribution of housework is a symptom of a bigger problem.
“It’s typically contempt or defensiveness in communication patterns,” says Jean XM Chen, a psychotherapist and director at Relationship Matters.
“An unfair household load puts extra stress on the existing cracks of a relationship. If there are positive communication patterns, such as mutual appreciation or comfort, the ‘unfairness’ may not cause rifts.”
She adds that because couples working from home need to work more closely together, there can be more triggers for conflict when there is already a negative communication pattern. And as a result, spouses can blame each other for everything, including not keeping the sound levels down, not ordering the food on time, and not helping the children with their homework.
Jean’s take on the lack of communication between couples working from home together is echoed by Winifred Ling, a couples therapist and relationship coach at Promises Healthcare.
“When women perceive that there is an unfair load in the care of the family, they may start to feel more resentful and dissatisfied. But their partners may not notice that they are struggling if they struggle to ask for help,” she says. She notes that she has seen a 30 to 35 per cent increase in cases since WFH became the default.
She also adds that tensions can arise when couples aren’t intentional about spending quality time together.
“Unless they are intentional about carving out time to connect with each other, being in the same space 24/7 doesn’t mean that they are engaging meaningfully. In fact, they can feel more lonely than before, as there isn’t a deeper connection, though they are in the same confines.”
A lower divorce rate
While more women have become less satisfied with their marriages as a result of the new work-life arrangement brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, the divorce rate in 2020 fell to its lowest since 2006.
In another The Straits Times article published in July 2021, lawyers interviewed attributed the sharp fall to the economic slump – they explained that couples did not want to end up in a worse financial situation as a result of splitting their assets.
“Yes, it is possible. Being financially able to provide for oneself and the children is one of the important considerations to have before deciding on a divorce,” says Jean.
Winifred agrees: “With the pandemic, there are greater uncertainties and some couples may decide to keep the situation to the status quo in order to maintain some stability for themselves, as well as for their children.
“That said, I have worked with women who decided to go ahead with a divorce in 2020, and these are usually ones who have some level of financial independence.”
With lower marital satisfaction a common sentiment among women during the new norm, are there women who were instead happier with their marriages?
“Yes. I saw several couples who used to fight because one person wasn’t spending time at home very much, but with WFH, they got to spend almost all their time together, which helped them to build trust,” says Winifred.
“Their relationships were also strengthened because they could see what their spouse was doing the whole day, so they had more admiration for their partners when they discovered the load they were shouldering. By and large, these couples feel that they are good teammates, and can see the effort that each person puts in to make things work at home.”
In a nutshell, WFH can fix marriages as much as it kills them. And at the end of the day, how a couple navigates the challenges of working from home together depends on how intentional they are about making it a success.
Has your marriage soured because of WFH? Winifred shares tips for couples who are in “reasonably healthy” relationships, but have a tough time adapting to the new norm together.