‘Work Spouses’: Job Advantage or Potential Danger?

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 1, 2011
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They might not exchange wedding vows or even become romantic partners, but workers logging long hours on the job can forge strong ties akin to a marriage. They become “work spouses.”

It doesn’t necessarily mean they are carrying on an illicit relationship with their office partner. Think Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa of “Live! With Regis and Kelly.” Or Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer of the “Today” show.

Mike Bawden is half of a two-person public relations firm in Davenport, Iowa. He and his female business partner of two years, Liz Merdian Lareau, worked together when he ran a 40-person agency. They are married to other people, both of whom are attorneys; have children; and are their families’ primary breadwinner.

“[We] rely on each other a great deal when it comes to getting the job done, maintaining our sanity and dealing with the occasional family crises that result from [each] having four kids,” Bawden said.


They work out of their respective homes but frequently get together and refer to each other as their work spouse.

“The resulting give and take of the relationship has resulted in better work, more clients and real profitability. I blame it all on my partner, of course,” Bawden said. “It’s been a great thing.”

In fact, nearly two-thirds of 640 adults surveyed in July 2010 for Captivate Network said they have or had a work spouse. The findings are based on persons in 14 major metropolitan centers in the U.S. and Canada responding to anonline blind survey panel. The panel was made up of more than 3,500 white-collar workers.

Additionally, it found:

  • 68 percent of married men and 82 percent of married women who have or have had a work spouse said their real spouse/significant other knows about the office mate.
  • 86 percent of married men and married women said their real spouse/significant other has met the work spouse.
  • 57 percent of married men and 62 percent of married women said their real spouse/significant other and the work spouse are not or were not friends.
  • 85 percent of married men and 87 percent of married women said they never “crossed the line” with a work spouse.
  • 80 percent of men and women said they lost the work spouse when there was a change in jobs.
  • 51 percent of married men and 57 percent of married women said their real spouse/significant other and the work spouse had opposite personalities.
  • 48 percent of married men and 39 percent of married women said the real spouse/significant other and the work spouse are completely opposite in appearance.
  • 40 percent of married men and 22 percent of married women said their work spouse’s appearance is important to them.

People who are work spouses might be married or have a significant other or are single and hold positions at or below the executive level.

They are a kind of best friend in the workplace, said psychiatrist Dr. Jacqueline Olds, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and associate in psychiatry at McLean General Hospital.

And like best friends, they can be of the same gender. The working relationship of David Letterman and musician Paul Shaffer is an example of a same-sex work spouse arrangement.Slightly more than half of the adults surveyed for Captivate Network have had a same-sex work spouse, although a higher percentage of women than men have done so. That’s because, according to Olds, while women will talk about personal matters with another woman, men are less likely to have such discussions with another man.

So how do you know if you are or have a work spouse?

Some signs, according to CareerBuilder.com: You can be blunt with the other person about his or her appearance and hygiene; you know what to order for the other person at breakfast, lunch and coffee breaks; you share inside jokes; you can finish each other’s sentences; the other person knows nearly as much about your personal life as your real spouse/significant other.

Potential for Danger

“Part of what gets people up in the morning and to work often is having friends at work,” Olds said.

Having a work spouse can be a tremendous advantage if the people involved are not the gender to which they are attracted; otherwise there is a danger that over time the friendship can grow into something more, she added.

She and husband Richard Schwartz co-authored the book, Marriage in Motion: The Natural Ebb and Flow of Lasting Relationships (Da Capo Press, 2002), which explores the face of lasting relationships over time, dangers to those relationships and how lasting relationships can be sustained.

“People always had a best friend in the workplace … but in our era people think they can handle friendships with the sex they are attracted to, and they think they can keep it at the level of friendship, but it doesn’t always work,” Olds said.

“If any one of us made a very, very close best friend with somebody at work who was attracted to us, then we would be playing with fire as the relationship got closer and closer, because we may not be able to handle the forces of attraction.

“Relationships are apt to progress over time, so if people work with the same person over seven years,” for example, “it’s hard for the relationship not to progress to a greater closeness.”

It potentially can lead to an affair, leading to trouble in the office and at home. Even if the relationship is platonic, work spouses can create hard feelings among colleagues who might feel excluded.

“It literally limits your ability to build other relationships at work,” said Dr. Karissa Thacker, a workplace psychologist and executive coach who has consulted on HR issues, “because your work spouse is a kind of committed relationship. So perhaps it might be better to avoid getting a [work] spouse and [instead] have a whole group of close confidants.”

Donna M. Ballman, an employment attorney since 1986, has seen work spouse relationships.

“Those relationships can work great. The problem is when they ‘divorce,’ ” she told SHRM Online. “Sometimes those relationships go bad just like real marriages, and they can get as ugly.

“Because of the depth of personal confidences shared, that information can and will be used against you. I’ve seen pretty intimate e-mail and text exchanges used to accuse co-workers of sexual harassment. Suddenly those cutesy jokes don’t look so good on paper,” she said.

“If it’s a subordinate,” she added, “the supervisor is going to be disciplined or even fired for having an inappropriate relationship.

“Even when these relationships stay solid, if one of the people involved is targeted for termination, those e-mails and texts will be combed through” and damning conversations remembered, she warned.

Karen Matthews, founder of Real Change Experts, has worked with her ex-husband and a woman who became a close friend on the job. She and her female friend remain close even after their careers took different paths, Matthews said.

“When there are unresolved relationship issues, the stress can affect people’s ability to deliver consistent, high-quality job performance,” Matthews observed. “Conversely, when people have a high level of self-awareness and communicate well, the employer can get better results. The work spouse can be a supporter since he or she understands firsthand the trials of the spouse’s work.”

Wielding Influence

While a slight majority of adults keep their interaction with the work spouse confined to the office, one-fourth communicate even on weekends and weeknights, the Captivate Network survey found.

Work is the main topic work spouses discuss—followed by dishing about co-workers—but more than two-thirds also talk about their real spouse/significant other.

Work spouses even influence each other’s buying decisions. In fact, 78 percent said their work spouse influenced their restaurant choice, 56 percent said it influenced a technology purchase and 47 percent said it influenced clothing purchases. More than half said the work spouse had a greater influence over their book, jewelry and clothing purchases than their real spouse or significant other.

A work spouse “connotes a peculiar kind of emotional monogamy” that is different from a close friendship, Thacker said.

Workplace spouses can be a source of tension for real spouses. And real spouses can be a source of tension in workplace spouse relationships,” she said. “There is one key familiar human issue at play: Who gets listened to the most?”

The recession has played a role in work relationships, according to Thacker.

“Work friendships have tended to either intensify or blow up. No matter which way you look at [it], work friendships have become more obvious, overt and important under the stress of the recession.”

Sharing worries beyond the scope of work can contribute to a growing closeness.

Fifty-nine percent of married adults who were married or had a significant other said they confided at-home problems with a work spouse, with married men more likely to do so than married women (57 percent vs. 47 percent). Slightly more than one-third of married adults—35 percent—discussed their sex lives with a work spouse, with men more likely to do so than women (31 percent vs. 26 percent).

“When there are hard times, people are more likely to want to talk about personal issues because they’re so worried about everything and it’s a relief to talk about it,” Olds said. “You might talk to your spouse … [but] there isn’t quite as much time for talking as there is at work” and without children around.

Warning signs that work spouses are heading into dangerous waters, she said, include starting to want to travel together all the time, always wanting to work late to be with each other, and concealing how often they talk with each other.

“I’m sure there are just as many examples of work spouses that are completely helpful as there are work spouses that can be destructive to the workplace [and committed relationships].”

However, talking about the possible dangers might help employees from getting too deeply into a work spouse relationship, she said.

“Remember that the workplace is filled with temptation,” Olds warned. “People feel that ‘temptation’ is an old-fashioned word that has no application in modern life, but it really does. People need to sort of recognize that they’re not always in full control.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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