Office spouse
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In a recent survey, 17 percent of respondents said they had a workplace spouse. The results were about the same for single and married employees.
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updated 4/26/2007 5:04:15 PM ET 2007-04-26T21:04:15

With all the heat World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz has been taking over his girlfriend's career path, he might be forgiven for thinking "why bother?".

Sometimes it just makes more sense to have a purely platonic girlfriend or boyfriend at the office — a "work spouse," if you will.

With a work spouse, you know each other's favorite food; gripe about co-workers; confide about personal issues; and support each other during good and bad times. The main difference? There's no canoodling.

Yet with reports turning up more and more regularly showing that work pressure is making real married couples too tired for sex anyway, maybe there isn't that much of a difference.

With a 9-to-5 marriage, a "couple" gets support without the hassle of a romantic entanglement. After all, with the amount of time we spend at work it's not unusual to become close — if not intimate — with our colleagues.

Take Greg Dalmotte and Lois Marino, who both work in BankAtlantic's employee relations office outside Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. They fight over who makes the coffee each morning (it's usually her). She yells at him for eating too much bacon for breakfast (it's bad for his cholesterol). He affectionately calls her Lo. She calls him at 7:40 each morning to discuss the day ahead.

Sound familiar? Dalmotte's wife Barbara thought so. She was the first to coin the term for them. "We knew we were work spouses when my wife told me, 'Your work wife is on the phone,' " says Dalmotte, Marino's supervisor.

There's no romantic interest on either side. In fact, both families have become so close they go to concerts together, attend the kids' parties and have regular card nights. For an old school guy like Lois' husband, Jamie, it was tough in the beginning always hearing about "this Greg guy."

"I grew up being the jealous type," says Jamie Marino. "Nobody goes near my woman or I'll break their legs. You grow out of that. With her being so close to him at work, she has to be that way."

Just like with any spousal relationship, they offer each other support. They attack projects as a team and push each other to be successful. "If I need support I go to him," says Lois Marino. "We don't feel like we have to conquer anything alone."

That goes for non-work-related issues too. She recently consulted him when deciding whether or not to get in touch with her estranged sister. He consults with her on parenting issues. "It's nice to get a man's perspective," she says.

The term office spouse has become so prevalent it made its way into a poll last year on attitudes in the American workplace. Of 750 respondents, 17 percent said yes, they had a workplace spouse, according to the Harris Interactive poll. Marital status didn't seem to matter. Singles and married folks reported to having an office spouse at the same rate.

Marriage — even a faux one — can be stressful, and the potential fallout from a breakup of an office marriage might be just as great as in real life.

But research shows having close ties at work is good for employees and the employer, says Linda Carr, an industrial organizational psychologist at Sun Microsystems. Aside from showing a new employee the firm's culture and unwritten rules, they serve the same role as a mutual mentor. They bounce ideas off each other, offer advice and emotional support. That, says Carr, is the No. 1 reason employees give for staying with a job.

"A lot of my work is around why employees stay or leave a company," says Carr. "My research absolutely shows that employees will devote more time to an organization and go the extra mile if they have close ties at work."

Plus, it never hurts to have someone to go shopping with. That's what Jacalyn Lee and her office husband Patrick Farrell did during lunch breaks while working at the same New York City public relations firm. "She dragged me to Banana Republic all the time," says Farrell. Aside from shopping excursions, both say the other was able to understand them in ways that their actual significant other couldn't simply because they work in the same industry.

Like many partnerships, though, Lee and Farrell ultimately broke up. It wasn't a fight or another woman. No, this was a distance problem. Farrell took another job and moved to Boston.

While they've kept in touch, their relationship hasn't been the same since. But there's always the chance of them getting hitched again at another company in another town.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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