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'Til 5 p.m. Do Us Part: The 'Work Spouse' and Why You Need One

by Christine Jackson
March 7, 2017 | Work

Penelope Garcia and Derek Morgan. Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. These duos have something in common. They’re some of pop culture's favorite TV couples that aren’t really, well, couples at all.

These iconic non-couples never truly got together, but they didn’t need to. They’re each other’s work spouses, partners in a unique relationship that doesn’t quite fit into any other category. They made it work. And you probably could, too.

What is a 'work spouse'?

Chad McBride, a professor of communication studies at Creighton University who researches these unique relationships, and the College of Saint Mary's Karla Mason Bergen co-authored a study called “Work Spouses: Defining and Understanding a 'New' Relationship.”

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The definition they came up with is “a special, platonic friendship with a work colleague characterized by a close emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty, and respect.”

Essentially these relationships have all the love and support of a marriage, but without the sex. And while most media depictions of these relationships are heteronormative, they don't have to be. In fact, McBride and Bergen came across several pairs in their research who broke the mold.

“Most of what’s written about work spouses is male to female, but what we found is that about 15 percent of our participants weren’t a straight man and a straight woman,” McBride said. "It could be a gay man and a straight woman. We had two straight men who called each other work spouses. There were all different sorts of combinations of people.”

The history of the work spouse

Although the term “office wife” has been around since the 1930s, the modern definition, the one that places the “work spouses” in an equal partnership, has only been around for 30 years. “Work marriage,” “work wife” and “work husband” first appeared in a 1987 Atlantic article by David Owen in which he describes the close but platonic relationships that can exist between coworkers, even asserting that the relationship is in some ways better than an actual marriage.

work spouse pbs rewire

Owen’s article referenced a degree of subservience on the part of the woman in the relationship, but McBride said changes to these relationships over the years have mirrored changes in actual marriage dynamics.

“I think the term is relatively new because the workforce has changed in the last 20 to 30 years,” McBride said. “If we think back to the 'Mad Men' days, there was, all the time, speculation about the boss and his secretary and what was going on. The difference now is that the relationships are more on equal footing, and I think that reflects the way we think about marriage now, too.”

The term also expresses the closeness of a relationship that can’t fully be described by the lexicon that already exists. We have lots of ways to categorize family members, but short list of options that exist for friends, McBride said. Family members have roles (wife, husband, sister, etc.) that denote different levels of intimacy. With friends, we’re really only able to tack on modifiers, such as “best friend” or “work friend.”

“People understand the nature of the relationship more when you say ‘work spouse’ as opposed to ‘my best friend at work’ or ‘close friend at work,’” McBride said. “It doesn’t quite capture the uniqueness or specialness of the bond.”

So, while some people might find the term problematic (especially if they're already married), it’s the term we have until a good alternative is established.

A happy couple

Having such a close relationship at work sounds like it might distract you from getting your work done, but McBride said this isn’t the case.

work spouse pbs rewire

“There are big benefits to it,” McBride said. “We spend a lot of time, maybe a lot more time at work than we do at home, especially at white-collar jobs. These are people we spend a lot of time with."

Here are McBride's top three reasons for finding yourself a work spouse:

1. They can be an understanding ear

Having a work spouse gives you a close confidant a work. Sure, you could talk to a friend or your actual spouse about that one coworker who drives you crazy or that big project you’re working on. But someone outside your workplace isn’t going to know all the details and dynamics from the inside. Having someone close to you who understands what you’re going through saves you the energy of having to explain every little thing about your workplace.

2. They'll help you lighten up

McBride says humor, along with trust, is one of the main characteristics of work spouse relationships. We all need someone or something to lighten the mood during a long day, and your work husband or wife can be the one to provide that much-needed levity.

3. They can help you feel more successful

McBride’s and Bergen’s study found that people feel more successful when they have a work spouse. These couples can play to each other's strengths, especially if they are members of the same team or work in the same content area. Having a trusted partner who can help you divide and conquer a project or motivate you to do great work can be a huge strength in the workplace.

work spouse pbs rewire
Christine Jackson
Christine Jackson is a Missouri-based writer and editor who loves the arts but never seems to write about them. Her holy trinity includes the St. Louis Blues, David Bowie and whoever invented iced coffee. You can find her on Twitter sharing snarky quote tweets @cjax1694.
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