The 24/7 marriage

June 23, 2015

The perils and perks of working with your spouse

By Caitlin Crawshaw (Originally appeared in M Alumni News—Summer 2015)

Although Dr. Anna Piénkowski is a marine geologist, it’s not unusual for work to follow her home—sometimes literally. At the moment, there’s a compound microscope and slides of algae sitting on her dining room table. And, of course, she eats dinner at that same table with her coworker—and husband—Dr. Mark Furze.

Both Anna and Mark are professors at MacEwan University. While most spouses kiss each other goodbye in the mornings, they hop in the car and drive to work together. And, while many families struggle with work/life balance, the line between work and home is almost too blurry to see (at least, without a microscope).

The couple is part of a growing number of Canadian spouses who share not only a home, but also a career or workplace. As a result, they must manage a relationship both on and off the clock, while maintaining a household and, in some cases, parenting. “It’s quite the juggling act,” says Dr. Fiona Angus, a sociologist and assistant professor at MacEwan University.

It’s hard to know just how many Canadian couples share the same career or workplace. But in the business realm, data from Statistics Canada shows that a growing number of couples are working as “co-preneurs,” says Fiona. “It’s been a slowly growing phenomenon certainly since the late 1980s or early ’90s.”

But now, economic uncertainty is driving even more couples to start their own businesses to boost the family income. Agricultural ventures make up the largest segment of these ventures (about 30 per cent), followed by online retail businesses (15 per cent). The rest are “scattered across the spectrum,” says Fiona.

Whether couples are working together at the same company or running their own business, their challenges are similar. “It comes down to the simple fact that couples are with each other 24/7,” she explains. Any existing problems are bound to mushroom, even in couples with harmonious relationships. That’s why people need to be thoughtful about how they approach working together.

From band mates to soulmates

MacEwan alumni Kirby and Dave Barber are professional musicians living and working together in Vancouver. They met in 2005 as music students practicing guitar. Kirby had just moved to Edmonton from her hometown of Salmon Arm, B.C., following in the footsteps of her older brother. He introduced Kirby to his band mates, including Dave. “We started hanging out,” says Kirby. Not long after, Dave asked her on a date.

They began playing music together early into their relationship, forming country band Buck Wild with some other students. Kirby played bass and Dave played guitar and banjo. Although both their music careers and relationship were new, it felt natural to collaborate creatively—there was no sense of competition. “We were still learning our craft,” says Dave.

After graduating, their first band dissolved, but the duo began freelancing for other country artists in Alberta. They were often hired by the same artist, which meant touring together. They savoured the shared time, as well as the chance to travel the province.

Time together

As the years went by, the couple married and started their own band, GB Roots. They also moved to Vancouver, primarily for the lifestyle. They continue to tour together, but also separately—which can be tough. “I just got off a five-week tour Kirby wasn’t on,” says Dave.

“When you’re used to spending a lot of time together, that’s a long time to be away.” Sometimes, the two can be touring with different bands at the same time, which means even scheduling a phone call across time zones is difficult.

It isn’t the only challenge they’ve encountered. Kirby points out that when you perform with a spouse, they know instantly when you’re not having a good night. “You can feel a bit self-conscious.” And, as a married couple travelling with a band, they worry about making their band mates uncomfortable. For that reason, they treat each other like coworkers. “Let’s face it—nobody wants to be working with a bickering couple,” she says.

But these are small worries, easily shrugged off. Both Kirby and Dave feel blessed to share their passion for music with one another and prefer spending most of their time together. While they keep things professional on the road, they don’t worry too much about setting boundaries between home and work. “So far, we’ve let them blur together,” says Dave. Although, from time to time, they’ll have a date night that doesn’t involve seeing a band or talking about music—usually it involves going for a hike or out for supper.

“Not because it’s stressful,” says Kirby, “but just because we need some variety in our conversation.”

Scientists in love

Anna and Mark take a similar approach—choosing to blend their lives at work and home, rather than separate them. Since they often collaborate on research projects, it’s not unusual for the couple to spend a Saturday co-writing a paper or talking about it on the drive to campus.

The couple met in 1999 at Bangor University in Wales, during an introductory earth sciences class. Anna was an undergraduate student taking the course and Mark was a PhD candidate working as a teaching assistant. As their relationship bloomed, so did Anna’s love of science and research, so she decided to earn a PhD of her own.

The two scholars now work in MacEwan’s Department of Physical Sciences in different yet complementary fields: Anna in microfossil paleontology and biogeochemistry, and Mark in sedimentology and geomorphology. They often collaborate on research projects related to Arctic seafloor mapping and climate change. Both insist that it’s a pleasure to bring their work home.

“It’s not work,” says Mark. “It’s a vocation. It’s a lifestyle.”

Challenges for an academic couple

That isn’t to say that working in the same field has always been good for the couple’s relationship. For years, they struggled to find permanent academic jobs in the same city. “Finding something on the same continent, let alone the same city, is hard,” says Mark. For about three-and-a-half years, they worked at different institutions—Mark at MacEwan and Anna at Bangor University—and saw each other only four months a year.

It wasn’t sustainable. Just before Anna was offered an assistant professor position at MacEwan last year, the couple decided to stop living apart. Not only are they finally working in the same city, but at the same institution—just across the hall from one another. “We totally lucked out here,” she says. “MacEwan’s a great place to be.”

Of course, even with secure employment, there are challenges to being an academic couple. “Sometimes, it would be nice if one person had a nine-to-five job so dinner would be prepared,” laughs Anna. And Mark points out that it may be healthy to have your spouse tell you to stop talking about science, now and then.

But they wouldn’t have it any other way. “Our relationship and our life together has evolved with our academic trajectories,” says Mark. “It’s tightly bound with our own identities and our identity as a couple.”

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