Work wives, work husbands and work spouses are terms referring to a platonic, close workplace friend of the gender an office worker is usually attracted to, according to a new survey from Simply Hired, and the term has stuck around for some time. It makes sense why this has been so prevalent, as we’re lonelier at the office, or even “ghosting” coworkers we once were close with. And having a close friend is one of the best unofficial parts of the company culture so many corporations try to build. But the blurred line also can lead to office romance or other boundary confusion, cause for concern in the #MeToo era. So why should you have a work wife?
What is the help of a work spouse?
Work spouses are part of the American work culture. Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest’s special working relationship has even inspired a new show called, yes, “Work Wife.” We usually make a friend into a work spouse over time. We commiserate and plan together, and naturally start talking about our shared likes and dislikes, of policy, maybe of a manager or even the cafeteria options. It’s a natural progression in the US, where we spend more time at work than at home. And studies show we benefit from having close friends at the office; they even help us have greater job satisfaction, including with our “work husband.”
What is the hurt of a work spouse?
Half of the women and 44% of men report having an office spouse at some point, and half of those people are romantically attracted to their “spouse” in the workplace, according to a study from SHRM. Certain people, like those at the bottom of the corporate ladder, are more likely to date their coworkers. But nearly a third of managers with a work spouse said it was with someone who was a subordinate. It affects everyone.
Indeed, SimplyHired’s survey found 84% of men and 61% of women reported romantic attraction to their work spouse.
“If you work with someone daily, watching each other’s backs, helping each other with the problems of life, I wouldn’t say a romantic relationship is inevitable, but it sure is highly probable. Many people never expect it to happen, and it ruins their lives,” said expert clinical psychologist Willard Harley Jr., the author of “His Needs, Her Needs.”
What are the main issues?
Issues arise not around dating, but the definition of labeling someone a work spouse and how that can interfere with work, or personal life with an actual spouse. Studies show labeling something with the term it is usually used to refer to makes us associate it and began developing thoughts around that, as well as expectations for how we feel.
So when is the line crossed and should we dump the label or just keep calm about it? Getting lunch, laughing, or even complaining at work are all healthy activities to do with an office friend. Some research suggests flirting is even helpful for workplace banter. But when our cubicle buddy becomes someone we confide in for all our secrets or is the main person from whom we get our needs for respect or admiration, the line can easily be crossed. All genders alike are not usually as strong as they think they are against flirting becoming an affair.
Is #MeToo affecting friendships?
Another fallout is the backlash against special relationships with women. Men in the workplace trust women less now, a third said in a 2017 study in the wake of #MeToo that they would not interact with a woman in a one-on-one situation, and 16% said they would be less likely to hire an attractive woman. The effects of backlash might hurt the helpful benefits of close work relationships, especially with members of the opposite sex.
A woman who feels her male work buddy is being appropriate is also unlikely to report it, even now. So the relationship of calling someone by the term you use for your most loved one might not make sense in an era of trying for civil basic accountability.
What are the possible solutions to fixing the work spouse relationship?
A 2019 study on work relationships said people feel it is appropriate to refer to their closest peer as a work spouse since they see them more than their actual spouse. Often they refer to each other as the pet name before they do to coworkers or family. Their mode of communication changes, which might be helpful. A suggestion said that work spouses remove that label when talking to anyone but each other. Additionally, terms such as, “like a brother,” often used when discussing a work husband, might be more appropriate, and scholars are investigating how using that label might be better for our label perceptions.
Paul Feig, Director of Bridesmaids said, “…once you have the groundwork for thinking of girls as equals, you can’t just shift that,” in an interview with Quartz.
Establishing a work friend or sibling over a spouse?
So here’s the path. We can simply stop calling folks that we share a stapler with our “spouse,” and work on just trying to communicate as peers. In addition, men and women can work together to have clear boundaries and lift one another up, for promotions or business trip opportunities, or even hiring a well-qualified woman a superior might find attractive. Because the office is like a family, and if a family is cohesive it works well together. Maybe having a work friend, maybe a “work sister” or “work buddy” might help everyone, without the sticky label of a spouse.