Anyone who’s dated a small business owner knows the relationship comes with a certain set of, well, quirks.
There are the cardboard boxes that multiply like Tetris blocks, full of pins and prints and chipped ceramic mugs, spilling into your living room and lining your hallway. There’s the unsettling familiarity with the hum of a DYMO LabelWriter 4XL, becoming numb to terms like “click through rate” and “brand awareness.” There’s the subway ride to a holiday craft fair delicately holding a heavy neon sign that reads “GIFTS” (the cab was already full from all the stuff you pushed down the five flights of stairs that separates the street from your Brooklyn apartment).
My boyfriend Adam and I live and work out of this apartment. Our workspace is a site of professional negotiations rooted in individual creative endeavors. It hugs our bedroom, complete with piles of dirty underwear, sleepy late night conversations, and complete unravellings. Our success in one space tends to affect our mood in the other - it’s kind of the worst working next to someone whose “tone of voice” over breakfast was less than neighborly, and it’s kind of the best working next to someone who you want to kiss.
I should preface this by saying that on paper we couldn’t be more different. Where Adam leaps, I tiptoe. While just the thought of public speaking is enough to make my palms sweat, he pursues speaking engagements. I love the beach; the sun makes him sneeze. Our creative pursuits are a testament to these differences. Adam is an artist whose work reflects his personality and vision, and I’m a freelance journalist who aims to spotlight other people’s personality and vision. I would say he’s the yang to my yin, but let’s not get carried away here.
Our work space is simple. Two white IKEA slabs glued together over sawhorses. Two computers. Two chairs. Two sets of earphones - because battles here aren’t waged over religion or politics, they’re waged over music. We’ve tried agreeing, but the music that helps me write - the ambiance of Brian Eno and Ryuichi Sakamoto - puts Adam to sleep. The music that helps him illustrate - say a mashup between Barenaked Ladies and Gorillaz - makes me want to flee the apartment. Earphones are vital, the bigger the better, to nonverbally signal a retreat from inane small talk and business chatter that one would normally share with their coworkers over Slack. We say “I’m going to the office now” before covering our ears, which sounds kinder than “Please shut up about that meme you saw on Twitter.” Likewise, we call the pile of cardboard boxes “Box Town,” as in “Box Town is getting a little out of control lately!” It helps to give annoying things cute names.
We still haven’t figured out a cute name for that feeling when your partner’s level of stress is so potent that it bleeds into your own. Sometimes, the boundaries between supportive boyfriend and functioning creative get ambiguous and porous, the unpredictability of freelancing clinging dangerously to the stability of a relationship. I once stressed so much over an article that, near deadline, Adam internalized it by preparing himself for my meltdown. It never came. Instead, he had the meltdown as we were getting ready for dinner.
You get used to picking up on your partner’s nonverbal cues as well. Not that I’m particularly subtle. I’ve been told that I have a tendency to stress-type, striking my keyboard as if it were a punching bag. Honestly assessing the temperature in the room is important, so if either of us feels particularly frazzled, I’ll work at a cafe. Being honest about where you stand, but also where your partner is and what they’re up against both personally and creatively, is the only way to understand when a situation benefits from your absence. The privilege I have of working remotely also helps me distance work stress from my relationship. It can be easy to mistake one for the other. Sometimes, protecting our role as “boyfriends” means temporarily sacrificing our role as “co-workers.”
On our best days, those two roles entwine effortlessly. We are our biggest cheerleaders, bouncing ideas off of one another, celebrating our successes and comforting each other’s failures. We laugh. We work. We laugh work. We might even agree on the same music, something clubby and introspective. One of us will break to ask if the other wants a sandwich, or a smoothie. Sometimes I look over and the 16-year-old version of myself swells. I get to work next to my favorite person! In my own apartment! And I’m drinking a smoothie in my underwear!