The idea of a “work spouse” is nothing new. Workers have long been working overtime, especially during the recession. Now many co-workers spend more time together than they do with their own friends and families. Eventually these colleagues begin to resemble platonic significant others rather than cubicle neighbors.
In a 2008 survey, CareerBuilder found that 11 percent of workers said they had a work spouse. A work spouse is a co-worker with whom you share a relationship that resembles a normal marriage, except there’s no romance behind it. As another survey by The Captivate Network’s Office Pulse points out, an office spouse can be of the same sex or the opposite sex. These are the co-workers they spend the day instant messaging, texting and emailing — sometimes even on the weekends.
What happens when work spouses don’t get along so well? Like any relationship, it’s bound to have its tough times, and it can spill over into your work life and even your home life.
Knowing your boundaries
Work spouses are bound to fight because, at the end of the day, they’re co-workers. They’re going to disagree about the way a project is being handled or the direction the business is going. Or maybe one person affected the other’s sale and cost her a commission. Or maybe you heated up salmon for lunch and now the entire lunch room smells like a seafood restaurant, which does not please your work spouse. Whatever the case, you’re going to disagree.
What matters is that you draw a distinction between disagreeing and fighting, because the latter is rarely acceptable in the workplace.
“Work couples may have a special relationship at the office, but that is still separate from how they should behave as employees,” says Sharon O’Neill, author of “A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage.” “Generally, organizations do not tolerate fighting in the workplace — no yelling, no disrespectful dialogue, etc. Disagreeing at work, when done appropriately, is never a problem.”
That civility needs to stay the same when you make up. O’Neill advises workers to remember that despite their friendships, they’re still co-workers in a company setting.
“Work spouses should follow the organizational expectations and treat the work spouse in exactly the same way they would any other co-worker and make that formal apology,” O’Neill says.
Letting your work spouse affect your real spouse
According to the CareerBuilder survey, 20 percent of workers with a work spouse say their actual spouse or significant other gets jealous of their work spouse. What’s more, the Captivate Network survey found that 22 percent of married people with work spouses keep the relationship a secret from their actual spouse.
Obviously the relationship has the potential to cause some problems between you and your actual significant other. But it doesn’t have to. You might not want to bring work home with you, but the stress of disagreeing with a work spouse won’t necessarily disappear the moment you leave the office. It’s fine to talk about your work spouse at home and not keep the relationship a secret.
“Most people in a healthy relationship at home are helped by a spouse who can listen, empathize and maybe add some thoughts to the problem,” O’Neill says. “It’s not healthy to compartmentalize both worlds.”
What matters is that you prioritize your real spouse or significant other and your work spouse.
“Most work-spouse situations have an impact on one’s real marriage or family life,” O’Neill acknowledges. “[To] be upset over a work-spouse fight at the office can be quite disturbing to your partner and your marriage. One’s home partner may, rightly so, start questioning how someone else is taking up emotional time and energy. It is much too easy if the marriage is having its problems — which all do — to enjoy the office friend and not put the energy into the home situation. It is too easy to get off track of one’s priorities.”