love and the teleworker

published in Distans, Stockholm, Sweden. February 1996.

Well sooner or later the question had to be asked, the thought acknowledged and our curiosity satisfied. What happens to the sub-text of working life, sex, romance, and intrigue when someone goes home to work. Rarely mentioned, yet ever present in one form or another, these aspects of human interaction are woven into our working lives. Often denied, sometimes unconscious, occasionally a troublesome preoccupation, we all to a greater or lesser extent depending on our ages and life styles, enjoy the social intercourse we have with our work colleagues. The boundaries inherent in the traditional office environment allow for the mild flirtation, the gentle ego flattery and the fantasy love affair to be enjoyed in the safety of clearly defined place and time zones. Home and office remain separate, one doesn't impinge upon the other, and as we say in England, "What the eyes do not see, the heart does not grieve over." The arena changes when we combine the work place and home, but I suspect the full gamut of human emotions remains the same, but now they all have to be contained within the boundary of the home.

Working from home is a great challenge to us. If we are to enrich our lives by adopting this increasingly popular way of working, if we want to integrate our work and home lives, those aspects of behavior which harmlessly enough enriched our office working lives may not seem so harmless when brought into the domestic arena. For they are unlikely to go unnoticed by those most intimately involved with us. Let me give you an example.

David and Christine had been married for fifteen years when David decided to become self employed and work from home. They were both delighted with the prospect of spending more time with each other, particularly as the children were at school all day and Christine already worked at home. Both Christine and David were professional people, confident of their place in society and secure in their relationship. Christine had given only fleeting thought to David's work colleagues as she rarely came into contact with them. In fact she had had no real idea of how he passed his working days, nor had she been terribly interested; her own days had been full and satisfying, she had no need to be involved in David's working life.

At first all went well, better than that it felt like a second honeymoon. Feeling like naughty teenagers they would drift upstairs during the afternoon and make love. Reveling in their new found freedom, they would take advantage of a wonderful spring afternoon and take a walk, cheerfully making up for the lost time in the evening. Christine enjoyed chatting to David when she took him a cup of tea, and David found Christine's visits to his room a reassuring reminder that he wasn't alone. Teleworking was proving to be as good if not better than expected. No more commuting, lots more time with each other and the children, freedom from the politics of the office.

The honeymoon period lasted for about three months and then things began to go wrong. David began to get busier and busier, the delightful interludes which had given them both so much pleasure gradually disappeared, David was constantly preoccupied. Whenever Christine popped in to see him, he would be on the telephone or engrossed in the computer. The fax machine was a constant source of information which paid no heed to office hours.

By the Autumn, six months after David had come home to work, not only had the romantic interludes in the afternoon disappeared, but if felt that Saturday and Sunday and many evenings had too. It seemed that it was possible to work twenty four hours a day seven days a week, and that although David was physically alone in his room, it felt to Christine that the relationships he had behind his closed office door were far more important than his relationship with her. She became increasingly resentful and angry and very jealous of the seductress behind the closed door. For his part, David became angry and hostile, he couldn't understand this angry and suspicious woman. Why he thought didn't she just get on with her own work, with her own busy life, why was she intent on knowing what he was doing; she had never been interested in his work before he came home to do it. What they both wondered had happened to their love life.

Now Freud knew a thing or two about life and love. He is, I know regarded by many today as old fashioned, sexist, and a male chauvinist, but when he wrote about the Oedipus Conflict he was writing about the intolerable feelings of pain and jealousy experienced by us all when we feel excluded from a relationship that is important to us. Most of us can remember occasions when we were not invited to a party and the feelings of hurt that that aroused. When we feel excluded from a relationship that involves our partner, our most primitive passions can be aroused.

Primitive passions are very painful and terribly difficult to handle, which is why most of us most of the time keep them deeply hidden away, both from ourselves and from everyone else. We find ways of managing life so that we do not need to experience these painful feelings. One way of doing that is to compartmentalize our lives.

Let us return to David and Christine's plight. She was not a jealous person by nature and what David did at work was his business, in other words, when he was at the office he could enjoy social intercourse with his work colleagues without it having the slightest effect on Christine. But when that "intercourse" was happening behind closed doors in their home, albeit by wire, it had different implications. It could no longer be ignored because it was happening in the house. Innocent and normal, it was never the less excluding to Christine. Christine was suddenly beset by old feelings of exclusion, of being sent to bed as a child whilst her brother stayed with the grown ups, of not being welcome in her parents bedroom.

David however was beset with a different set of feelings. He remembered a mother who was intrusive and critical, who would never leave him alone to have his own life, suddenly his partner appeared to have the characteristics of his mother, intrusive, critical, and jealous; David responded by withdrawing from Christine and becoming secretive. Christine's worst fears that he was indeed excluding her were realised. An impasse was reached.

I began this article by referring to the challenge facing us if working from home is going to enrich our lives (I do not see much point in doing it unless it does). Working from home means that we will be no longer able to separate our work self and our home self in the way we have for the past hundred years or so. We will no longer be able to leave our domestic troubles behind us when we go to work, and vice-versa and we will have to accept and recognise that our partners do indeed have interesting and stimulating relationships apart from us. To quote Freud again, his definition of a healthy personality was simply of someone who was able to "work and love." Perhaps our definition of a healthy Teleworker might be someone who remains aware that his work and his love reside under the same roof.

As a Post Script, I need to tell you that Christine and David did not remain at an impasse, they came to understand their difficulties and so were able to resolve them.

© Pauline Hodson