Bonding with work peers has always been an important part of office life, but employees are taking things to the next level. There is a growing tendency toward taking a "work spouse," i.e., a colleague whom one confides in and deeply trusts.
A new survey from digital media company Captivate found that 70 percent of business professionals currently have or have had a work spouse — a lift from the 65 percent the company saw in 2010. In 2006, just 32 percent of employees reported having work spouses.
Scott Marden, CMO at Captivate, said the recent survey polled 375 employees in various types of white collar companies (mostly small firms) across the U.S, and that for the most part, the rise in work spouses was expected.
"When you have employees who are peers in age, education, and have similar background, it's good matchmaking for friendships," said Marden. "Today, employers are encouraging collaboration, open communication, and outside interests."
In Need Of a Confidant
Many of us are spending a lot of time in the office, and are remotely checking in from home. Having a work spouse can help get us through the stress.
"Workers — especially those who are ambitious and career driven — spend a great deal of their time and energy at the office, [creating] a need for support, empathy, and a reality check from a trusted colleague in order to thrive, and some days just to survive," said Laura MacLeod, social worker and creator of From the Inside Out Project.
And many of us just don't want to bog down our domestic partners with all that annoying, stressful work stuff.
"Many workers don't want to discuss work issues at home with their domestic partners for a couple of reasons," said MacLeod. "They want to leave work at the office, and make a clean break when they come home. [It may require] too much explanation of details and info to get the domestic partner up to speed and at the end of the day, the domestic partner isn't [in the office], so can't really get it fully."
How to Make It Work
Much of the time, work spouses can have healthy, positive relationships.
Robert Campbell, an analyst at WithumSmith+Brown is a heterosexual married man who has "been with” his work spouse, a heterosexual woman in a serious relationship, for years.
"We go to clients together, do speeches together, and have been called 'the dynamic duo,’" said Campbell. "In fact, when our firm merged last year I had to fight a bit to make sure we shared the same office even though neither of us are in it much."
Now and then Campbell and his work spouse are the subject of office rumors and gossip, but neither lets it get to them. More importantly, Campbell has made a point of familiarizing his wife with his work spouse so that she too is comfortable with the platonic work arrangement.
"After my wife spent time with [my work spouse] she came to see her as a friend as well," said Campbell. "I don’t know if there is a secret or plan for those issues, as every situation is unique, [but] making my spouse comfortable with the relationship was just a matter of familiarity."
Campbell and his work spouse have taken care in setting clear boundaries — something that many can learn from. According to Captivate's poll, 7 percent of professionals said that they’ve “crossed the line” with a work spouse, and 7 percent said they hide their work spouse from their real spouse. In both cases it leaned more male than female.
"This year 13 percent of men said they crossed the line, up from 9 percent," said Marden. "Seven percent of all men say their wives are jealous of their work spouse, and 11 percent hide their relationships from their spouse. It was very different for women, with only 3 percent admitting to having crossed the line, and 5 percent saying they hide their work spouse from their real spouse."
Crossing the line may be easier than you think — and it doesn't have to be physical to cause upset at home. Tiffany Ewigleben of Beckett Industries learned the hard way.
"I had a work spouse relationship at my last job, and it almost ruined my marriage, even though my work spouse lived many states away and we have only 'met' in person 2 times," said Ewigleben."It was healthy, initially — nice to have someone to relate to and complain to about work stuff.”
Over the course of a few months, Ewigleben and her work spouse’s conversations became less and less about work, and in hindsight Ewigleben realizes the relationship was drifting into more emotionally intimate terrain — and that she was feeling resentment toward her husband, who soon discovered the less than totally platonic texts and emails between his wife and her colleague.
"My husband eventually saw text messages and emails and it was a long, difficult road to regain trust and really talk about the whole thing and the reasons behind it," said Ewigleben. "We are still working on it and it has been over a year. Even though there was no physical connection, [there was] emotional betrayal."
Set Clear Boundaries and Don't Talk Money
It's important to set clear boundaries with your work spouse from the start. This means not only laying down the rules around both physical and emotional intimacy (and informing your IRL partner if you have one). You should also agree to keep certain topics off limits.
"For starters, do not talk to your work spouse about intimate details of your domestic partner," said Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster. "Your work spouse is not your real spouse, so some topics really need to be off limits. Save those conversations for a close friend outside the office, therapist, or yoga class.”
You should also stay hush on discussions around salary, and resist talking trash about your boss or other employees, as even if you're certain you're on the same page, things can quickly change. This could doom your work spouse bliss.
"One person in the relationship may be promoted [and thus] no longer a peer, so this creates an unequal dynamic," said MacLeod. "Talking about the boss or co-workers can't happen in the same way any more, and jealousy may be a factor here, too. Work spouses may break up due to a breach of trust [where] one maybe slipped and shared something confidential with a boss, other co-worker, etc."