God created the first couple to be "united into one" and placed them in Eden, where they ruled over the animals and took care of the garden. They lived a seamless life, where work and home were intertwined, not separate. By God's design, their home was their office and their co-worker was their spouse. I always imagine them working in the garden side-by-side in wedded bliss. After all, there were no dinners to make, papers to file, or meetings to attend. But what happened after sin entered the world? Did they start to bicker over who was in charge? Did they criticize each other's efforts? Did they compete over who checked more things off the to-do list?
Today we can't tend Eden with our spouses, and we don't have the privilege of totally seamless lives. Our lives usually have lines drawn between work and home. Yet many of us end up working alongside our spouses in some way, whether in the secular workforce or in ministry.
We are often told to beware working with our spouses because the arrangement can be fraught with potential dangers. And there are some pitfalls to avoid, but there can also be great blessings. I know this from personal experience. My husband and I worked in the same military unit for two and a half years and we've served in children's ministry together. Those experiences are the ones that closely bonded us and grew our faith in God the most. So in an effort to more fully understand both the dangers and blessings of working alongside a spouse, I interviewed five other couples who have worked together in various settings, from owning a business to serving as missionaries.
One pitfall some couples encounter is unclear role boundaries. Couples I interviewed who work in secular office settings found that learning to transition between work and home roles is essential. One couple who works in different departments of a corporation tried riding to and from work together in the same car. But this caused friction because they have different ways of transitioning between their roles. One spouse wanted to talk about work (and sometimes side-seat drive!), while the other spouse preferred the drive to be quiet. They realized that riding separately helped make the boundary between their roles as coworkers and spouses clearer. I can relate to their need for space between work and home. While my husband and I were deployed to Iraq, my husband's "office" and our "home" were adjacent rooms in the same building. The physical closeness made it difficult for us to mentally separate our work and our personal lives. We had to create a boundary between work and home by leaving our building to eat together before and after our shifts each day.
A hard boundary between work or ministry and home life is less practical for couples who work in ministry or own businesses together because their roles are more closely intertwined (like and Adam and Eve). Some of the couples I interviewed devoted most of their free time to discussing work or ministry. One wife, who worked as a missionary with her husband, admitted that they were workaholics. But she believes that they should have established some boundaries between their work and personal lives.
Another pitfall of working with a spouse is being unable to submit to your spouse. Ephesians 5:21 tells us to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." If it is too hard submit to our spouses at home, it can seem even harder in work or ministry. For the couple that worked as missionaries, the husband was the boss. They didn't always agree about ministry decisions, so the wife learned to submit to her husband both personally and professionally. The couple who owned a farm together was also challenged by this. The husband was the farm manager and the wife was his helper. This initially caused strife because the wife felt that she was treated as a hired hand. In their case, the husband learned to submit to his wife's feelings and treat her with more respect and kindness. In some cases, neither spouse is the boss but each has authority in a different area. This was the case for one couple who owns a business and another couple who serves in children's and music ministry. Each had to learn to let their spouses lead. One husband's advice was to always remember that your spouse is doing what he or she thinks is best. It's easier to submit to decisions when you know your husband or wife has the right intentions.
A third pitfall is competitiveness. I learned this lesson personally. The military is a highly competitive environment where a person is constantly evaluated in comparison to peers. For most of our service, my husband and I were promoted and awarded equally. But one time my husband received a higher award than I did. Outwardly I was happy for him, but inwardly I was jealous. For months I felt bitter anytime his award was mentioned. Then God reminded me of Galatians 5:26: "Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another." My jealousy was hurting my marriage and indicated that I needed to mature in my faith. Instead of envying my husband, I should have celebrated with him. Since we were "united into one," I should have viewed his achievement as a blessing for myself as well.
Though I've spent a lot of words describing the pitfalls of working with your spouse, all the couples I talked to found it to be a wholly positive experience. Most felt it strengthened their marriages and grew their faith. As one couple noted, "shared experiences always help a relationship grow deeper." The couples who worked very closely together in business or ministry felt that the joy of shared desires and struggles and the excitement of achieving shared goals were the greatest benefits of working together. They created "wonderful memories and cherished experiences." Even couples who didn't get to work side-by-side experienced this. The couple that works in different departments of a corporation noted that they can relate to each other's difficulties more and better understand each other's work lives when they are working in the same office.
A second benefit of working together is improved communication. In fact, all the couples I interviewed mentioned that working together forced them to learn to communicate more clearly, patiently, or respectfully with one another. Also, three different couples mentioned that learning when to keep their comments to themselves was a lesson they benefited from. They learned that it's important to allow your spouse room to work or lead without constant suggestions or criticism. Once these couples overcame their initial communication problems, they felt they had greater respect for each other and the talents God gave them. Their improved communication led to more joy in watching their spouses serve, grow, succeed, and lead.
Better teamwork is a third benefit of working alongside your spouse. For couples in the secular workforce, having a spouse in the same office increased the connections, knowledge, and influence they had. This helped them accomplish work more quickly and effectively. One husband mentioned that he was able to save time on a project because he knew the procedures of his wife's department. One wife said that working in ministry with her husband allowed them both to "play to each other's strengths." She also felt that working together helped them make Christ the center of their relationship. Anytime Christ is the focus of your partnership and your ministry, you will be an effective team.
I ended my interviews by asking each couple what advice they might give to other couples working together. This is what they said:
- It's a learning process. Be willing to listen to your spouse, learn, and compromise with your wife or husband.
- Be ready to submit to your spouse when it's his or her turn to lead.
- Enjoy it! Working and serving together should be fun. It's a blessing from God and an opportunity to deepen your relationship.
- Remember that you are a model of biblical marriage to others. Demonstrate Christ-like love for each other because others are watching.
In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Paul summed up the sins (pride, envy, anger, and selfishness) that cause difficulties while working with a spouse. And the lessons learned among the couples I interviewed match Paul's description of love (patience, kindness, humility, submission, faithfulness, and endurance). If you can avoid the sins that cause strife and instead "encourage each other and build each other up" (1 Thessalonians 5:11), you will experience the wonderful blessings of working alongside your spouse. Stated most simply, working alongside your spouse teaches you to love your husband or wife better. It won't be perfect, but as you grow you'll learn to be a more loving spouse and a better follower of Christ.
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DeAnna Acker is a wife, a mother, and a freelance writer. She served in the U.S. Army with her husband for five years, where they twice worked for the same boss and once worked in cubicles less than 50 feet apart. You can follow her on Twitter @DeAnnaAcker.