If we’re lucky, we all have our work ally. Your water cooler gossip partner, your ride-or-die lunch buddy, and the person who has your back in a contentious meeting or after a challenging chat with your boss. In other words, your work spouse. More than 50 percent of women and 45 percent of men surveyed by Simply Hired said they had a colleague so near and dear to their heart, they labeled them a work wife or work husband.
Research published in the Harvard Business Review found that having at least one best friend at work can improve your performance. But the same study found that those friendships can start to have the opposite effect if they start getting too emotionally involved. And of course, if you start to develop romantic feelings for your work spouse (which Simply Hired said 84.4 percent of men and 61.4 percent of women did), that’s when things get sticky. We talked to both experts and those in the trenches about how to best navigate your relationship with a work spouse, and what to do if there’s trouble in paradise.
Having a Work Spouse Has Benefits (Not That Kind)
“The people you work with are incredibly important to your overall success,” explains Lauren McGoodwin, founder of Career Contessa and author of the upcoming book Power Moves: How Women Can Pivot, Reboot, and Build a Career of Purpose. “You’ve probably heard the saying, people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.” People who have work spouses report higher levels of confidence and resilience and lower levels of burnout than those who go it alone.
Chad McBride, Ph.D. chair of Communication Studies at Creighton University, studies the work spouse relationship, and his subjects have reported that those relationships can actually help improve tensions between your work and home life. “Your work spouse already knows more about what’s going on at work than your spouse would have,” he explains. “So you can kind of vent and process that information all at work. Then when you're at home, you can really focus on your family.”
You’re also more likely to take criticism from your bestie who you know has your interests at heart, and she can help provide meaningful feedback on projects and interactions. But you’ve got to resist the urge to get too close.
Set Ground Rules for Success
“At the end of the day, this is your work spouse. It’s not your actual spouse,” McGoodwin explains. “You’ve got to be careful you’re not creating a toxic work environment or creating cliques.” Attaching to your work spouse’s hip can also prevent you from hearing other viewpoints or developing valuable connections with other team members, notes career expert Adrian Granzella Larssen, former editor-in-chief of The Muse. “Like a ‘real-life’ marriage, you can't depend on your spouse for everything,” she says.
And perhaps most importantly, your work “marriage” requires a high level of trust. “One of the distinguishing factors between just a close coworker and a work spouse is the level of trust and the level of disclosure,” McBride explains. “Because you trust the person, you tell them more than you would other coworkers. That's a benefit, but it can also be a risk.”
Getting ‘Hitched’ Can Have Drawbacks
McGoodwin experienced that breach of trust firsthand, when she saw something hurtful on her work wife’s computer that wasn’t meant for her eyes. “I was shocked at how devastated I was,” she says. “It felt very much like a ‘real’ breakup.” When that happened, McGoodwin took a couple of weeks to cool down and gather her thoughts before confronting her coworker. But she also made a concerted effort to sit down with the offending party, to try and understand why she did what she did, rather than sweeping it under the rug. “The bottom line is that you do want to have a conversation because you want to be able to have a productive work relationship,” she explains.
Sharon Alan had a similar experience. She met her work wife when she interned in her department, and they immediately hit it off. The pair began hanging out after work and stayed best friends even after Alan’s internship ended. Her work wife later hired her on full-time, but things went south after that. “Our entire friendship, she had complained that she was drowning in work and said that she desperately wanted me to come on to help out,” Alan says. But her friend soon started stonewalling Alan’s attempts to work with her. It all came to a head when Alan received a text from her work wife meant for another coworker, complaining about Alan’s work on a project they had just wrapped that day.
“Once she started making it harder for me to work, I knew I needed to clue my boss in,” Alan says. Her boss was understanding, and told Alan to loop her in on all communications with her toxic work wife. Once an authority figure got involved, she backed off, but their friendship was never the same. She left for another company shortly thereafter.
Boundaries Make It Workable
Mandy Fullerman learned firsthand the importance of setting clear boundaries with work spouses after two of them tried to turn her workplace into a toxic one. In the first instance, a priest who was serving on the same military base mistook her friendship for something more. “He called me one night and said ‘Hey, I really miss you. Like, miss you, miss you. Mind you, I’m married with four kids and he gave two of those kids their first communion,” Fullerman recounts. After he offered to fly Fullerman to his location just for dinner while he was out of town, she knew it had gone too far. Both she and her then-husband told him to back off, but she ended up leaving the base anyway.
When she began working as a human resources manager at a medical practice, Fullerman ran into a similar issue. The owner of that practice started seeing her natural instinct to go above and beyond – helping him paint and hang diplomas in his office and finding and adopting an office dog – as something more than support. He began calling her after-hours and on weekends, asking her to perform tasks that were even further outside her job description. And after Fullerman got engaged, her work spouse offered to buy the ring to keep her to himself.
“I'm naturally a caretaker,” Fullerman says. “I feel that's important that people see that when they confide in you, they know it won’t go anywhere. And sometimes, it can be mistaken for something else.” To this day, she considers her experiences a lesson in setting, and sticking to, clear boundaries.
Err on the Side of Openness
McBride and Granzella Larsen both recommend setting the tone in your work spouse relationship right from the start, and keeping the lines of communication clear between you and your work spouse. It can make sure you're very happy together for many brown bag dates to come.
“It's also important to pay attention to how the relationship looks to outsiders, especially other colleagues and your manager,” Granzella Larsen explains. “Fair or not, spending too much time with one person may start rumors that you don't really want swirling around the office.”
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