As Offices Reopen, Couples Are Dealing With Separation Anxiety
“I know I sound crazy, but it feels dreadful being away from him now.”
An hour and two cups of coffee into her workday, and Jess, 28, can only think of one thing — going back home to see her boyfriend.
“I know I sound crazy, but it feels dreadful being away from him now,” she says. “I constantly want to go home to snuggle.”
After working from home together for over a year, Jess and her boyfriend fell into a comfortable routine. They’d lie together in bed while looking through emails, sit across from each other typing at their kitchen table, and take turns making lunch during the week. Yet when Jess’s office reopened in August, and her boyfriend remained remote, the transition presented a surprisingly difficult adjustment for the couple.
“I find I have to call and text him on my breaks even though I never have much to talk about,” Jess says. “I just want to be home with him so bad.”
After a long stint working from home, you’re probably used to wearing stretchy pants, doing laundry between meetings, and having your partner around 24/7 to provide quick dopamine hits. So as offices reopen and one or both partners are going back to work in person, couples are re-negotiating their routines and communication habits once again.
How WFH Changed Relationships
According to a 2020 study of 2,002 adults in the UK conducted by eharmony and Relate, a third of people living with their partner say that a month in lockdown feels like a year’s worth of a relationship. Additionally, over two-thirds of respondents reported that spending time at home together made their relationships stronger.
Dr. Melissa Robinson-Brown Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Renewed Focus, says working from home with a partner allows more time for building emotional intimacy, and establishing new traditions, like coffee in bed or afternoon walks. You may feel closer to your partner than ever before, and uneasy about the idea of not being around them all the time.
“The past 18 plus months have literally reshaped the way we think about relationships,” Dr. Robinson-Brown, tells Bustle. “From shifting communication patterns to getting used to the ability to tag-team regularly with your partner on tasks and chores — it’s become a routine that feels like the norm for many individuals.”
After finding a new rhythm with your partner constantly by your side, the idea of being apart may provoke some feelings of anxiety. If your daily routine together brought you a lot of calm or gave your something to look forward to — especially when things were so uncertain last year — having that added level of security taken away might require some adjusting.
On the other hand, for extroverted people who live for coworker happy hours and water cooler chit-chat, getting back to in-person work has been a welcome change. After failed attempts of bread-making and getting into at-home couples yoga, Liza (she/her), 27, feels energized going to work IRL. Putting on outside clothes, taking the bus, and spending some time away from her wife makes her feel like her own person.
“It’s been nice to get back to my usual routine, and now my wife and I have stuff to tell each other about!” Liza says.
Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist, explains that the shift back to the office might trigger previous lifestyle habits. Whereas work from home was a great equalizer of sorts, now couples might need to figure out how to preserve that newly-leveled distribution of chores as their schedules ramp back up to avoid falling into old patterns.
“Every couple will differ by the type of job they have, and the nature of their working styles,” Dr. Klapow tells Bustle. “These factors coupled with personality and communication styles will drive how comfortable or uncomfortable couples will actually feel.”
How Couples Are Navigating The Return To Office Life
For Las, 26, and their partner, working from home meant really living in the moment. With no commute or office dress code, the pair could savor their mornings together. “During [lockdown], we could spend so much time together, and it was great,” Las tells Bustle. “We could cuddle in the morning and then I could get up at 7:50 and be more or less ready to roll at 8:00 a.m.”
Now that Las and their partner are back working in person, carving out quality time is proving to be a challenge. “We have to work to get time together,” they say.
All the experts agree that transitioning back into office life is a marathon, not a sprint. After spending so much time together at home, you and your partner likely aren’t ready to be in your own offices and not talk all day.
“Take the transition incrementally,” Dr. Klapow says. “Be slow, communicate with each other, and respect each others' needs around more or less time apart as the transition occurs.”
Just as re-adjusting to office life will take time, finding a new balance at home will demand the same.
While they used to be able to go to the grocery store together and tackle household tasks as they arose, Jess shares that she and her partner have had to establish a more formal division of labor. “I do the laundry and shopping on weekends,” she says. “Since my boyfriend is still home during the day, he does most of the chores.”
As working from home provide Las and their partner with consistent routines, they share the now need to make new cooking and cleaning schedules every week, according to their partner’s availability. “My partner works retail, so her schedule is unreliable,” they say. “Now whenever they get their hours for the week we have to sit down and make a plan.”
Dr. Robinson-Brown encourages her clients to start slowly with these new lifestyle changes and try to communicate openly as they go along.
“Build up to a new normal that works for you,” she says. “Don’t underestimate the power of a text or quick video chat to ground you and remind you that your partner will be present when you get home.”
What About Couples That Always Worked IRL?
For service workers, healthcare professionals, and other folks who went to work in-person throughout lockdown, the issue is more about coping with the “return to work” narrative.
Bike courier Jackie, 24, lives with her longtime partner who works in the service industry. She shares their conflicting schedules combined with the sheer exhaustion of the past year and a half has resulted in less quality time together. Now, all the talk about the “return to work” makes both Jackie and their partner feel discarded.
“The ‘opening back up’ rhetoric is surreal,” Jackie tells Bustle. “It’s like everyone’s been on a meditation retreat while I’ve been in a horror movie.”
Alice, who’s a 27-year-old nurse, agrees, describing the toll the past year has taken on her love life. “I have been mostly too exhausted and stressed out to devote any time or energy to my partner,” she says. “My capacity for emotional connection has been quite diminished.”
Both Alice and Jackie describe feeling “pressure” from friends and social media to be going on dates or taking weekend trips. Yet, they both share a reluctance — inability, even — to engage in romantic activities.
Dr. Robinson-Brown shares that for those on the front lines, it’s completely understandable to feel beyond burnt out right now. Rather than trying to force an elaborate, Bachelor-esque date with your partner, she suggests building your comfort and emotional bandwidth by doing little social things. Start by seeing a friend for a quick drink or a walk in a park, then, if you’re feeling up to it, try to transition into some intentional time with your partner.
“As with many things, take it at a pace that works for you,” she says.
Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. clinical psychologist