We’ve all been there. You’re deep in the trenches at work and just need a shoulder to cry on to make it through the day. So you confide in someone at work — rather than bringing it home to your actual romantic partner or spouse — and suddenly, you feel better. You feel heard. You get sympathy and good advice. It’s a beautiful friendship. Your confidant is your work spouse.
This is the person who you turn to in times of anxiety, the person who gets coffee with you, the person who tells you when you have spinach in your teeth. Together, you swap advice, alleviate stress, and may even help each other get ahead, all while building trust for eight or more hours a day. In some cases, that may be more of your waking hours than you’re spending with family or friends — which new research shows can spell trouble.
A new, informal survey shows that more white-collar workers than ever before are relying on co-workers for emotional support during the workday — perhaps not surprising, considering Americans work longer hours than anyone in the industrialized world and take less vacation.
Around 70% of business professionals said they currently have a work spouse now or have in the past, according to a recent Office Pulse survey by digital media company Captivate. That’s a big jump from compared to 65% in 2010 and 32% in 2006, the company said.
The scope of the intimate information we share at work also seems to be expanding. While 81% of respondents said they talk about work with their work spouses, and 41% of people said they never see a work spouse outside the office, there is the potential for things to get intense. Some conversations reportedly strayed to more touchy subjects like problems with spouses, money problems, and airing dirty laundry usually left at home.
The age gap
There’s a significant age difference in how people see work spouses, too.
Millennials reported being happier at the office because of a work spouse, with 73% of them saying so. Only 52% of baby boomers said a work spouse improved their lives at the office.
But with work remaining central to our identity development and people wanting to enjoy their careers, sharing more and more with a “work spouse” over the course of a 40-hour work week may pose a threat to one’s actual marriage, since much of who we believe we are at our core is often related to the work we do.
The gender of work spouses seemed to matter quite a bit and seems to mimic heterosexual romantic relationships, according to Captivate, which found that 94% of men report they’ve had a female work spouse, and 77% of women have had a male work spouse.
Crossing the line
This can create an element of danger back home. Although it’s possible to have a work spouse of the same gender, people can create “emotional infidelity” by sharing more intimate feelings with someone of the opposite gender at work than they did with partners at home, psychotherapist M. Gary Neuman told Business Insider.
That threat of infidelity seems to be small, but still too big to be dismissed. Around 7% of the professionals surveyed by Captivate said they “crossed the line” with a work spouse, although it wasn’t clear what exactly that meant. Another 7% of male professionals said their actual life partner was jealous of their work spouse, as opposed to 2% of female ones, and 11% of men and 5% of women keeping their work spouse a secret.
And there may be good reason: These increasingly close relationships at work are so full of trust that they can outlast most marriages. Around 47% of business professionals say they’ve never lost a work spouse — which is more people than stay married in some generations in the US.