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Work spouses: A great friend or a potential recipe for disaster?

Work spouses, or the idea of a colleague that you’ve worked together for so long and see each other on a daily basis, that your professional lives have become so intertwined to the point you two are considered “married at work.” While the definition of a work spouse is sparse, a work spouse is best described as someone that you collaborate on work opportunities all the time, someone who understands the ups and downs that you experience on the job, someone whom you effortlessly click with and display palpable chemistry and someone that you can go to rant all your work woes with. They are your confidante, partner-in-crime and rock at work.

Contrary to popular beliefs, the name is not meant to be taken literally. As a matter of fact, work spouses maintain a fully professional, platonic and respectful relationship. The lines are drawn at professionalism, and both parties are aware of the personal lives that they lead outside work. A work spouse is someone “whom you’re tied to at work”, not “a spouse met from work.”

Not tied to a particular gender or sex

Before we move on, we think it’s important to clarify the nature of work spouses. Although the term is mostly used in heteronormative contexts, the relationship can extend to non-heteronormative scenarios too, although significantly lesser. According to psychologist Irene S Levine in a 2010 article on work spouses, at least 65% of married individuals have reported having or having had a work spouse. And when we home in on gender, it is found that 69% of married men have work spouses compared to 63% of married women who have done the same in the workplace. In terms of same-sex work spouses, the numbers are lower, though still notable, sitting at 34% for married men but at a significantly higher rate of 67% for married women. All in all, this shows work spouses happens to individuals of all gender and sex. In fact, psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne believes we may have unknowingly had a working spouse at some point in our workplace.

Are work spouses good for you?

Many people believe work spouses are beneficial to our workplace wellbeing, and the sentiment is echoed by notable publications including Women’s Day and Reader’s Digest. When handled with mutual respect, care and professionalism. a work spouse can:

Provide a private and supportive social support system to fall back on

Knowing that there’s someone at work that you can go to for advice when life gives you lemons is helpful.

Foster trust and rapport together

Having someone that you trust at work, who understands your work ethics and work style and can easily work with you.

Increase work productivity

The presence of a work spouse increases your positive feelings towards your job, which raises job satisfaction and job identity level, therefore increasing your work performance.

Be your aide

A friend in need is a friend indeed. A work spouse is someone that you can count on when things get rough at work, someone who can pick up your slack when you fail to fall through at work at times.

Challenge and push you to the limits

And vice versa. Someone who knows you inside and out at work will call you out on your behavior if they think you’ve done something wrong, someone who provides you unfiltered and honest feedback regarding your performance, someone who challenges you to confront your fears and overcome your insecurities at work. These are people that we need to help us grow.

Get along with you at work

Not just in terms of work, but someone who is willing to hang out with you during lunch breaks or during Friday happy hours after a long day of sloughing at work.

Provide a non-judgmental space for you to be your authentic self

Work spouses can double up as an emotional support in times when your personal life partners, loved ones or actual spouses can’t. These people allow you to open yourself up and be vulnerable about your emotions on a certain level, and they may have borne witness to emotions that are otherwise privy to the people around you.

Provide a common ground to talk about things at work

A work spouse may be someone who shares overlapping interests, problems and values with you, providing the two of you with the opportunity to discuss more topics.

Vouch and advocate for your work skills

A work spouse is someone you potentially want to go to when you need a referral for your new job. They have worked with you long enough to understand your strengths and can certainly vouch for your accomplishments at work.

All in all, the perks of having a work spouse is immeasurable. They bring a sense of camaraderie, make work a little less dull and provide you with something to look forward to daily. As quoted by psychologist Eugene Tee in his entry regarding having work spouses:

“Our work spouses are comparable to us in terms of our goals, qualifications and work styles. Mirroring much of the characteristics of the model husband or wife, the work-spouse relationship is also one characterized by trust, a strong emotional bond, and frequent, high-quality communication.”

The dark side of work spousal relationships

In some cases, work spousal relationships may actually evolve into a literal sense and turn into a “spouse met from work situation.” When lines are blurred, these platonic feelings, be it in heteronormative and non-heteronormative context, may turn complicated and potentially develop into romantic feelings. As Tee puts it, companionate feelings may “spill over” into the professional-personal life boundary and result in something a little more serious.

Workplace romance is a topic that needs no introduction at all. It is commonly explored by HR practitioners and psychologists alike. The concern about workplace romance isn’t the relationship per se, but the repercussions that follow suit should the relationship fail or be discovered. Tee, Whitbourne and Levine all caution against the dark side of a romantic relationship gone wrong, and urge employees to check in with HR or refer to their respective company’s fraternization policy before deciding if they would like to commit to a deeper relationship. Some disadvantage or concerns arising from workplace romance may include:

● Creating a sense of favoritism or bias towards said work spouse

● Tarnishing or harming either work spouse’s credibility or name, particularly in relationships that

have gone wrong

● Triggering a potential lawsuit on the grounds of sexual harassment or abuse of power if feelings

are unreturned/rebuffed or simply as act of grudge from work spouse for the failed relationship

● Leading to conflicted moments of needing to decide between an employee or a work spouse in an

important decision-making situation

● Causing disruption at work

In the case of a failed workplace romance, the parties affected may find it hard to bury the past behind them and move forward for the greater good. Furthermore, the above doesn’t include discussions about how work spouses affect married individuals’ personal lives too, such as jealousy in married spouses and/or infidelity issues resulting from work spousal relationships. Generally speaking, the stakes are higher for married individuals who may have work spouses compared to singles.

There are however, exceptions to the case. Certain singles have successfully cultivated a healthy and professional yet romantic relationship with their work spouses, either discreetly or publicly, and go on to tie the knot. Ultimately, workplace romance is a tricky tightrope to tread, and it involves having a good judgment of the situation i.e. knowing how the relationship may affect you professionally and personally before deciding if it is worth jeopardizing your entire career or marriage with your work spouse. Once discovered, the management may either choose to terminate either parties or dissuade them from continuing the relationship any further, although it still boils down to the involved party’s prerogative to do so.

Even if the relationship does not become romantic, people should still be concerned about work relationships souring at some point. Particularly if both spouses are vying for the same job promotion at work, things can quickly get out of hand and turn ugly, even resulting in unhealthy rivalry or animosity. In fact, platonic relationships can just as easily stir jealousy in a married employee’s life and cause a serious dent in their actual marriage. And work spouses may also run the risk of being a bad influence towards each other should they choose to amplify their undesirable traits or qualities over positive ones i.e.: hedonistic traits involving partying, slacking at work, drinking, smoking, frequent absenteeism to name a few.

Recognizing the stakes involved…

There’s an adage about the workplace that reminds us we should avoid having romantic relationships at work at all costs. Work spouses are otherwise a great way to lighten up the mood at work, and having a close friend who can push you to be at your best is a boon. However, great care must be exercised to ensure the boundaries are not overstepped and that it does not upset either parties involved if the lines are blurred. To that we say, go ahead and have a work spouse, but do be mindful of consequences that come along.

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