The Truth About the Work Spouse Dynamic

Is it OK to have a work spouse?
on November 17, 2023
Read time: 10 mins
by Dr. Krista Jordan

With hybrid working making a return, everyone has different opinions on how the office dynamic should work! While we’ve all been stressing over the commute, there’s one ghost from office life that we may have all forgotten about. 

How do you feel about your partner being reunited with their work wife or work husband? Or, how do you think your partner would react if you got a work spouse of your own? This kind of close relationship has always been a touchy subject amongst couples, as there is often very little one can do to monitor this situation — meaning jealousy usually has the opportunity to rear her ugly head! 

To get to the bottom of this age-old debate, we’ve turned to the experts to unearth the truth behind the work-wife dynamic — toxic or tolerable? 

What is a work spouse? 

The term work spouses, also known as ‘work wife’ or ‘work husband’, refers to a close relationship with a co-worker (usually of the opposite sex), whereby this person is involved in your day-to-day life. 

Although this is a platonic relationship, it extends beyond a usual working relationship, to the point that your other co-workers might joke that you’re like a married couple! In many ways, the dynamic that grows over time can emulate a real marriage. 

This kind of camaraderie can make a huge difference to your overall job satisfaction, as these office friendships make work seem more fun! However, even though your office spouse is important to you, they shouldn’t become more important than your real spouse. 

“Work spouses don’t need to be treated as a special category of relationship,” says Dr. Krista Jordan, a psychotherapist at Choosing Therapy.

“They may impact our partnership more because of the amount of time our partner spends with this person, but they can be treated the same as relationships with neighbors, friends, or other community members in terms of how to handle them as a couple.” 

Now that the pandemic has come to a close, and people are returning to the office, issues with work spouses are again becoming more apparent. With this rising issue, research from Chad McBride and Karla Mason Bergen has sought to define this dynamic in more detail — to consider where lines should be drawn!

If your partner is spending this much time with their work spouse or office husband, it’s natural that it will have an impact on your romantic relationship. For example, you might feel excluded from this relationship as they’re spending long hours together, sharing inside jokes and snippets about their personal life.

This can feel like an intrusion into your relationship, especially if you don’t know this person that everyone is calling your partner’s ‘best friend’ or work marriage partner. 

Is it healthy to have a work spouse? 

Even if there is no sexual attraction or ulterior motive present, it can be tough to know how to draw the line between your work friends and your home life. If you get this work-life balance wrong, it can hurt both you and your significant other — with feelings of jealousy naturally coming into play. 

At the end of the day, your significant other should always remain your priority, with your work spouse completely separate from your relationship. 

“They are what we call "thirds" in the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT). Thirds are any additional person outside of your couple,” says Dr. Jordan. 

“Thirds need to be recognized as second-class citizens in your relationship. They should not have the same priority as your spouse or partner, period. That does not mean that they are not important to you or your partner, but it must be clear that they are not on the same level.” 

When you’re spending a lot of time with someone, it’s natural for a closer bond to form. However, if your work spouse becomes the first person you turn to for emotional support or advice — this dynamic could start to damage your romantic relationship. 

“In a monogamous relationship, there is no room for a third within the romantic bond,” says Dr. Jordan. 

“As long as the partners treat the work "spouse" according to this guideline there should be no problem.” 

Even though you may be close friends with your work wife or husband, this kind of platonic friendship shouldn’t be prioritized over your significant other. If you’re constantly mentioning how important your work wife is to you, then it will naturally rub your partner up the wrong way — and vice versa! 

“As long as the priorities are clear to both romantic partners these "thirds" can be included socially and at work without any danger of the romantic bond being negatively impacted,” says Dr. Jordan. 

“This prioritization of the spouse applies to both people. Each partner needs to treat the spouse as the most important person in their life. Both partners should know that they can exercise this status at any time, but they should both be reasonable about playing that trump card. The relationship needs to be the top priority, but both partners also need to treat each other with fairness.”

This means that there has to be a mutual understanding that these friendships are key to a healthy work environment and trust that your partner will know how to put the correct boundaries in place during the workday. 

What boundaries should you set in a work-spouse relationship?

Boundaries may seem like a harsh concept, but they’re the key to successful relationships. 

“Actually, there need to be boundaries in ALL relationships,” says Dr. Jordan. 

“Boundaries get a bad reputation because in fact people generally don't like being told "no". However if you try to have a relationship in which neither party gets to assert boundaries, it will fail pretty quickly.” 

When it comes to setting boundaries with your work wife or husband, there are several things to consider. Since you’re in a working environment, it can be difficult to know how to broach the situation without making things awkward — especially since you’re surrounded by colleagues. 

However, if you don’t make the effort to put these boundaries in place, it’s easy for the relationship to transgress beyond a platonic friendship. 

“Work spouses are a situation that needs very clear and shared boundaries within the romantic couple, because without those an inappropriate relationship can develop,” says Dr. Jordan. 

“Both romantic partners must agree to the "do's" and "don'ts" of the situation. These may vary from couple to couple. For instance, one couple may feel that dinners with work spouses are OK, and another couple may feel that is too intimate and not allow that.” 

While office banter is totally normal, you shouldn’t be flirting with your work spouse, because this goes beyond the boundaries of a normal working relationship. No matter the close dynamic that exists, you wouldn’t want to do anything that you’d be afraid to tell your spouse about! Nor should you be prioritizing their feelings above your real-life spouse. 

“The actual boundaries don't matter so much as that both romantic partners agree on them and feel good about them,” says Dr. Jordan. 

“Sometimes this takes negotiation, because one person's idea of inappropriate behavior may not match the other person's. In cases like this, a couples therapist can help to navigate those conversations and construct agreements to keep everyone feeling safe and happy.”

Even though you might consider your work wife or husband as a close friend, you have to remember that you’re still in a professional environment. Even if you’re not in a romantic relationship, certain boundaries should be adhered to so that a healthy working relationship can grow.  

How do you handle jealousy over your partner’s work wife or work husband? 

If your partner has developed a close relationship with their co-worker, it naturally raises some alarm bells and stirs some feelings of jealousy. While a little bit of jealousy can be healthy in a relationship, it can be difficult to know how to handle this situation productively. 

No matter the situation, you’re perfectly justified in raising these concerns with your partner, and how they react can tell you a lot about your relationship overall. 

“First of all, you cannot legislate feelings. So telling someone that they have no "right" to feel a certain way is a surefire way to be seen as insensitive and unempathetic,” says Dr. Jordan. 

“You can tell someone that their feeling confuses you, or you don't understand it, but you really should never tell anyone that they don't have a right to feel a certain thing. We all have a right to all of our emotions, including jealousy.” 

So if you try and discuss how this working relationship is impacting you, your partner should be receptive to these conversations — as you should be their priority. 

“As far as jealousy with work spouses, this is certainly a situation that is ripe for that if proper boundaries are not maintained,” says Dr. Jordan. 

“If a couple has not done a good job talking about the "rules of engagement" around these relationships someone is likely going to get jealous.” 

Therefore, it all comes back to boundaries around these close friendships. This applies to other platonic friendships outside of work spouses specifically, as no outside relationship should be allowed to have this negative impact! 

“Sometimes we aren't sure what kind of boundaries we need early on, and that's OK. You can renegotiate them as things progress,” says Dr. Jordan. 

“Relationships are dynamic and we often need to shift expectations and rules as situations move forward. Healthy couples can do this without anyone feeling that their freedom is being infringed upon because they realize that the sacrifices we make for partnership (not being able to do whatever we want, whenever we want) far outweigh the benefits. So you have to have these conversations and iron out what each other feels is fair and then be willing to revisit and renegotiate as needed.” 

Overall, work spouses don’t have to negatively impact your romantic relationship — if you don’t allow them to! 

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