When I first heard the phrase “work spouse” about ten years ago, at first I thought it referred to an actual married couple that just happened to be working together. Then I realized that the persons who were using the phrase weren’t married at all to each other. My next thought was that they must have an intimate/romantic relationship.
Upon thinking about it some more, I thought this couldn’t possibly be the case as the phrase was being used quite openly in the workplace. Having a torrid elicit affair with a fellow coworker is certainly not something any right-minded individual would flaunt. Yet colleagues were referring to other colleagues as their work spouses. Most often women would use the phrase “work husband.” It led me to ask a few more questions about this particular type of relationship.
Clearly I’ve been behind the eight ball for quite some time because these types of relationships are very common and actual research has been conducted on these unique yet very special relationships. So what exactly is a work spouse?
Captivate Network, a market research firm released a survey that found that 65 percent of workers have or previously had a work husband or wife. Houston-based psychologist and relationship therapist Linda Young, Ph.D., had this to say about work spouses, “It’s your number one ally and advisor at work—the person you can laugh with or be stressed out with, have politically incorrect conversations with, and give honest opinions to.” Hmmm, I started to wonder whether I’ve ever had a work spouse?
You would think that the amount of time spent with your “special work friend,” would eventually lead to temptation, ultimately leading to something “more.” Studies indicate the opposite. Most of the time nothing salacious is going on, having said that there were about eight percent of workers who admitted to “crossing the line” with their work beau.
So is it advisable for two employees to establish a work spouse relationship, especially if both are in committed relationships? What if it was you and you ended up in that eighth percentile that actually do cross the line? Is it really worth the risk? Are there any benefits to such relationships? As you can tell, my mind was swirling with so many questions.
Dr. Young did express an upside to having a work spouse. Her view is that it could actually increase productivity. It could make one look forward to going to work to see their work spouse. To be fair however, I had to look at the flip side of the coin. Are work spouses strictly talking about work? Are they relying on each other for support when things get tense at work or there is a need to vent about something relative to work?
These questions led me to another learned psychologist Chad McBride, Ph.D., who studies relationships between work spouses at Creighton University. According to Dr. McBride, “Most of these couples find themselves blurring the boundaries between work life and personal life.” A quarter of the couples stay in touch on weeknights and weekends, 63 percent discusses health issues, and 35 percent talk about their sex lives. Now this can lead to some dangerous territory if you ask me.
When weighing the pros and cons presented by both psychologists respectively, I’m inclined to err on the side of caution. Keeping things professional makes one less vulnerable to ending up in a precarious situation. There is a natural human tendency to want to connect on a deeper level with someone, at least over time if not immediately. So if the conversations between the work spouses have gotten personal to the point where one person is expressing their dissatisfaction with his or her spouse, I think it’s safe to say that your close buddy at work whom you’ve spent countless hours with may become a bit more attractive and could make the grass look a little greener on the other side.
In the end, there is a delicate balance to maintaining a work spouse relationship that doesn’t “go there.” Women especially who are often under high scrutiny as they ascend the corporate ladder must question themselves as to whether the gossiping, overt or direct smear tactics that may ensue due to these platonic relationships is really worth it.
Whether we accept it or not, the rules of the game still do not equally apply in the workplace between men and women. So ladies, my advice, just don’t go there.
Billie Bowe is the President and CEO of Benchmark Consulting Services Ltd., a management consulting firm with expertise in human resources management. We believe in a global, strategic approach to management consulting. As our clients’ needs change and evolve, we offer solutions that grow along with them. We work as ‘business partners’ with our clients bringing about innovative solutions that are aligned with their business goals and objectives.
Photo courtesy of Ashleigh W [FLICKR]