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  • Writer's pictureRazlan Saharudin

I'm Marrying My Co-Worker and That's Okay

The first time i broached the idea of starting a company with my then-girlfriend (now fiancé) Adriana Tunku to her father, the first thing he said to me, almost reflexively, was “Oof, that won’t be good for the relationship”. Years later, I finally understood where he was coming from with his ominous statement - working together is much harder than being together. Spoiler: Adriana and I are about to get married after 8 wonderful years together! However, forming and building Denhouse together was no simple cakewalk - working with your partner is TOUGH. They say you get to know your partner after living with them - i say, try starting a creative company with them (right before the whole COVID pandemic no less!). Reflecting back on our years together, I've learned a lot on how to be a better partner in life and work, and now, about 2 weeks to our wedding and in the spirit of Valentines, I thought I’d share some valuable lessons I've learnt along the way.

Outside of working hours, she is always right. She wants burgers and no pizzas? Let’s go. She prefers lilies over roses? Yeah, roses suck anyway. She thinks Durian is overrated? Just smile, shut up & eat your Musang King whilst she goes for her spin class, you Durian slut. But when it comes to work, girlfriend privileges go out of the window - she is always right, except for when we’re at work. It’s important though, from the outset, to draw clear boundaries between work & life, and your respective roles. For Adriana and I, it was particularly relevant given our production roles of Director & EP - two roles that, if not worked out properly, can be diametrically opposed to each other. I’ve had many debates with Adriana over a client’s notes that she disagrees with, or over an idea that may not be feasible to execute given the time needed. She may be the boss outside working hours, but given that we’ve agreed on each of our professional roles, I am her Executive Producer and boss at the office. I like to say that when we’re at work, I am not her boyfriend - we are strictly colleagues, and will act accordingly. 

Expanding on this point, you need to present yourselves professionally to the crew & clients, and that means don't look like a couple when working. That means treat each other the same way you treat everyone else. Now this doesn't mean you can’t show some love or support to your partner at work - you just have to be smart about it. Adriana and I have developed certain phrases that, when heard on set, wouldn’t sound unnatural, but given its implicit meaning could help cheer her up. For example, you could establish the phrase ‘Have you eaten yet?’ as ‘I love you, how are you feeling today?’. Then, your partner could either reply with ‘Yes’ which is code for 'I love you too, I'm feeling alright’  or ‘No’ which could mean ‘I love you but I am stressed or upset about something’. Whatever codewords you develop, it all boils down to good and clear communication between you and your partner. And no, our phrase isn’t “Have you eaten yet?”, it’s a little more subtle (and embarrassing) than that.

It is also important that when discussing all things work/production - It’s not what you say, but how you say it. Despite the clearly drawn boundaries that we’ve explicitly laid out on multiple occasions (ahem), feelings can still be hurt. After all, a Director is a creative role, and any good creative would be quite protective or attached to a particular idea. Directors usually have great ideas that don’t respect budgets or timelines, and producers usually focus on the budget/timeline irrespective of the quality of the idea. Sometimes it’s worth spending extra money or time for a particularly amazing idea, but for the most part, reality is a cruel mistress. I’ve had to relay some unwelcome comments from the client on a particular edit, or had had to shut down some overly ambitious ideas, but the delivery matters more than the message. It isn’t always perfect, but for the most part, setting clear boundaries and being thoughtful in how you deliver a message are cornerstones of any successful working relationship. You don't want to be on the receiving end of “so what did you really mean by what you said at work today, huh?” when you’re cuddling up at night.

The single most important thing when working with your partner is to explicitly separate work time from non-work time. When working with your partner (especially after a bad day), you are guaranteed an aggressive eye-roll (at minimum!) should you ask them “Soooo how was work today sweetie?”. The worst case scenario would be that you guys begin arguing about work and it turns into something personal, and both your valuable down-time would be tainted, with a possibility of a bouquet of “i’m sorry” flowers or “forgive me” pastries. It’s like doing work on your bed - you don't want to associate a place of rest with something stressful. You don’t want to associate your relationship with just the work you do together - you are more than just the work. Take time away from work and have dates like a normal couple - talk about gossip, pop culture, family & friends. Remember how you courted her during the early days? It certainly wasn’t through a well organised Excel Spreadsheet, unless it is, in which i salute you, King.

Remember that you are a tag team! It has been quite overwhelming recently, having to prepare for our wedding whilst running the company and multiple productions at the same time. What we would do was to have morning ‘wedding’ scrum briefings before we have our daily work scrums with the team. That way we can delegate together, and ensure that we are on top of both the work & non work tasks. We’ve had many times where I would cover Adriana when she’s busy at work and handle her chores/family commitments, and vice versa. It helps alleviate our workload and avoid getting too overwhelmed. Tag teams ftw.

As you can tell, a running thread in all of the lessons learnt revolve around communication. Communication is key! Careful communicating on boundaries & creative debates are important, but one should also keep in mind on how to communicate on set, or around other people. As you can see, I used ‘communication’ 4 times since the start of this paragraph, so you can see how important communication is (and not because I'm a lazy writer). You wouldn’t want to bring a ‘couple fight’ into the workplace. Productions can be a chaotic work environment, both on and off set, and sometimes tensions may be high. It is important to schedule regular check-ins and to always hear out your partner on any issue they may have. 

Looking back at all we’ve learned and done together, I am thankful (but not surprised!) after all this time, I still get butterflies whenever I see her in the morning, for work or otherwise. We’ve seen each other at our best, and have definitely witnessed each others’ worst. I sincerely believe that our foundation has been made stronger after working together - and that we can depend on each other on both fronts of our lives. I’m excited at the prospect of our new chapter together, as a married couple. The idea of building a family and a home, all whilst juggling producing/directing commercials and (hopefully) our very own films may be daunting, but one thing’s for certain: We have each other’s backs - always. Also, lilies are better than roses. 


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