The proper way to break up with your work wife

Have you ever wondered if it’s time to split from your work wife or husband? Maybe it’s the seven-year-itch; after working together for years and sharing private jokes and lunch leftovers, you’ve lost that loving feeling and wonder if it’s time for a break. Or maybe it’s more vitriolic. It could be the time he took credit for your work, or her inability to take criticism even when her job – and yours – is in jeopardy.

For some people, a work spouse is a close confidant and partner in crime. “My work husband grounded me,” said Trisha D. who chose not to reveal her full name for fear it might negatively impact her career. “And while I trusted him with my most important decisions, after a while I had a sneaking suspicion that he wasn’t just grounding me, he was intentionally grinding me down.” Trisha relied heavily on her work husband for help making important decisions. At a certain point, she started taking his advice over that of her actual husband. “It caused a huge rift in my personal life,” she said. At that point, Trisha knew it was time to break up with her former work spouse.

When he’s not lecturing, M. Chad McBride, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication Studies at Creighton University College of Arts & Sciences spends a good portion of his time examining the work spouse relationship. To that end, he’s conducted over 40 interviews with people who have broken up with work spouses and compares it to the breakups of a romantic relationship or friendship.

“One of the challenges in a work breakup is that if you break up with your real-life partner, you might still have to see them or speak to them occasionally to co-parent or make decisions,” McBride said. “As opposed to the work spouse where you have to work with the same co-worker every single day. It can actually be more difficult to break up with them.”

Before deciding to split up with your work wife you also need to realize that there might be fallout from the split throughout the office. McBride said, “You have to really think through and be careful what you say to that person and how you talk about each other to the coworkers and boss.” As with the break up of a marriage, you might have to talk through the story you both want to share with your work family. You might also have to agree not to badmouth each other, or even to present a unified front when asked about the breakup.

Trisha said that in her own work break up, she brought in a mediator, someone from the company HR department. She figured in that way she’d preempt any attempts by her former work spouse of undermining her publicly. Ultimately, Trisha thinks she made the right decision. “If people can use a mediator when getting divorced, why not at work?”

“Relationships ebb and flow, so it makes sense that sometimes you are more or less close over time,” McBride said. In that case, you end up spending less time together or each of you works on other projects. “It’s a different kind of breakup, less egregious” according to McBride.

But you should keep in mind, that just as in affairs of the heart, some breakups get ugly. And before you dump your office significant other, you should think long and hard about what happens if it all blows up. “In a major contentious breakup, one or both leave the company since it becomes just too hard to work when you’re having problems with a work spouse,” McBride said.

Still determined to break up with your work husband or wife?

  • McBride says to “Think through it as carefully as you would a real breakup,” since it’s not like a work friend where you might not have to see each other. How will you react when you see them every day?
  • Find the right way to break up: McBride said if there’s a situation where you can stop working on a project together, it’s a way to ease out of the relationship.
  • Choose the right time: If the office will be closed for a week, consider breaking up just before the holiday. That will give people time to naturally get over their inclination to pry.