What Is a Work Spouse and Do You Have One?

balancing work and business life
11.02.15
Samantha Walters

My name is Samantha Walters and I am what you would consider a “millennial executive” over here at Colocation America. Every Monday (get it, get it, Samantha on Mondays – the S.O.M column) I will write a little something on whatever is on my mind from business practices to current events and everything else in between. 

This week’s topic is on your work spouse. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of going out to lunch with a co-worker, his pregnant wife, and their adorable one-year-old daughter. As we walked down the road to the local Denny’s, my coworker made an off-handed comment, “it’s a lovely day to be walking down the street with my real wife and my work wife.” At hearing this I nearly tripped over myself – work wife, say what? I did a quick nervous laugh, changed topics, and we had a pleasant lunch.

meeting with your work spouse

As my work day came to a close, I called up my Dad and explained to him what happened (hey, you are never too old to be a Daddy’s girl). I noted that this was not the first time he had said it but it definitely was the first time in front of his actual wife. My Dad immediately said that it’s a compliment to be someone’s “work wife” and goes on to give an example of his own coworkers who are “work husbands.”

Still, I was skeptical – what does it mean to be someone’s work wife? Are we really that committed to each other? What do we do that is spouse-like? As per my usual, I Googled it.

But, before you read on, here is a disclaimer:

Flat out, I am a commitment-phobe (actually, I am more afraid of falling in love, but that is a longer story). As the joke goes, if I can continue going on dates or even talk with someone for more than 2 months, I will marry them. Also, while we are discussing my personal issues, I have a problem with labels and get unnecessarily uncomfortable when people refer to me by them. Trust me, as my nearly 2 month summer fling would tell you, it’s a real deal breaker.

Now that you know too much about with me (goodbye all potential dates and readers who think I am crazy, it was fun while it lasted), let’s get to it: turns out being a work spouse is a good thing.

According to Urban Dictionary, the most popular definition of a work wife is a “person at work (same or opposite sex) that takes the place of your “at home” spouse while you are at work (no sexual relationship is part of this being!) You talk with, connect to, and relate to this person as good as or better than your “at home” spouse with regards to all things work related.”

Ok, I can stand by this definition. Yes, my work spouse and myself do talk, connect, and relate on all things work related and that is it. Period. When you run a business with someone, you tend to get very close and spend many days in and out of meetings. Because of this business-critical need, we do have a good relationship or else we would be in trouble.

Turns out, I Am Not the Only One

Valut’s 2014 Office Romance survey showed that 32% of respondents said they have an office spouse and it’s a good thing. Many studies have found that employees are more productive and more loyal if they have close relationships with their colleagues. Writer, Sophie Kleeman at Mic, defines a work spouse as a “coworker with whom you share a special, personal bond. In the office, they’re “your person” – the one who just gets you.”

Researchers go on to explain that the best parts of a work spouse is that it is characterized by trust, reciprocity, and support. Considering professional satisfaction and success are at stake, work spouses are built entirely on trust. This individual understand the pressures, personalities, interactions, and underlying narratives that compose 90,000 hours of our lives.

balancing life and business life

One researcher, Olivia O’Neill, a professor from George Mason University, notes that a work spouse between two people can lead into a “family.” O’Neill states that, “a work spouse relationship can create a “subculture” of companionate love that eventually can spread through the organization.” If people start including others, it can create a “little family” built on a work relationship.

However, ever so often the relationship goes from platonic to romantic. According to a survey conducted by Chad McBride, a professor who studies work spouses and work relationships, only 2 people out of 276 respondents have had a sexual relationship with their work spouse. Further, 80% of the respondents noted not being sexually attracted to their work spouse.

Although these numbers show it’s not an ongoing problem, people fear it. Apparently committed people fear it so much that even Dr. Phil has an article on “how to keep boundaries with a “work-spouse,” which explores the “thin line” from friendship to adultery. He then goes on to give you some, in his opinion, much-needed rules, to your work spouse relationship. For example, don’t drink with your work spouse (apparently, boundaries get blurred), avoid constantly talking about your office spouse at home, and, for no reason should you ever be alone with them.

Now is there anyone that actual hasn’t broken one of Dr. Phil’s 9 rules?! I mean, come on, how many of you haven’t had a drink with your close coworker? Are you telling me that every one-on-one meeting you two have requires a babysitter to see if you’re getting close to “the line”? Ok, so some of his points are outlandish but they are grounded in some truth – this is not a personal relationship but a professional one and it needs to stay that way.

Can Society Accept That Men and Women Can Just Be Friends?

Depending on which history lesson you listened to, “office wife” is not a modern term but one rooted in the 1930s when women and men started working together (some even credit the term to expressing the relationship between a Minister and his secretary*). Despite the early-dated first use, it has only been within the last 40 years or so that “work spouse” has taken root in man organizations. With more women in the workforce, there is a new camaraderie among men/women coworkers. The high stress and long hours have created this new relationship between men and women.

But not everyone is ready to use the term.

having a work spouse

McBride found that women are more likely to report having a work spouse. He notes that men are wary of using the term as it may be seen as improper and lead to sexual harassment and/or improper conduct accusations. McBride also notes that the term itself might be the problem. He surveyed nearly 300 individuals that are involved in work spouse relationships and found that 40% didn’t like the label and don’t use it themselves.

So Do You Have a Work Spouse (or Whatever You Want to Label It)?

According to CNN, here are the seven tall-tale signs that you might have a work spouse:

  1. You depend on a particular co-worker for office supplies, snacks and aspirin.
  1. There are inside jokes that you and a specific co-worker share.
  1. You can be bluntly honest with this person about his or her appearance, hygiene or hair (and vice versa). You’re comfortable enough to point out that the other’s hair is sticking up — or that someone’s fly is down.
  1. When something eventful happens at work, this co-worker is the first person you seek out for a de-briefing.
  1. At breakfast, lunch and coffee breaks, your closest co-worker knows what to order for you and how you like your coffee (and vice versa).
  1. You and your co-worker can finish each other’s sentences.
  1. Someone in your office knows almost as much about your personal life as your best friend or real-life spouse does.

I know, personally, I have all seven of these but I’m no longer concerned about it, apparently it’s a good thing!

 

*Wilson, P.W. “The Career Secretary: In America There Is No Counterpart of the Englishman Who Serves Great Men and Often Succeeds Them.”The New York Times, January 8, 1933.

 

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