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The Office Spouse: Rules of Engagement

You’re married, but you’ve got a close relationship with a co-worker -- otherwise known as your office spouse. Is it possible to keep it platonic, or is an affair in your future?
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

He knows your birthday, your favorite food, worst fear, and deepest, darkest secret. No, it's not your husband, the man you promised to love and cherish until the day you die. It's your office spouse -- a phrase coined to describe the new relationship phenomenon that's developed as Americans work longer, harder, and in closer proximity with colleagues of the opposite sex.

"An office spouse meets emotional needs, going beyond the requirements of the job," says Willard F. Harley Jr., PhD, author of His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage. "If you are in a bind, here is a co-worker -- someone of the opposite sex -- who will care for you, who you can depend on, and who you can confide in."

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Maintaining a healthy and nonsexual relationship with an office spouse can be tricky and sometimes detrimental to your real marriage. From walking a thin line between friendship and adultery, to avoiding a workplace husband or wife altogether, to keeping it strictly platonic, experts give WebMD the rules of engagement when it comes to the office spouse.

The Office Spouse Phenomenon

While you wouldn't dream of cheating on your loved one to whom you are legally bound, you do work closely with someone of the opposite sex all day long, Monday through Friday, in many cases upwards of 60, 70, or even 80 hours a week. You do lunch, you talk about your life and family, and you stick together through the good times and the bad, in sickness and in health. You share your thoughts, hopes, and ambitious dreams -- there's an intimacy between you ... yet you're not intimate.

"It has to do with proximity," says Harley, president of Marriage Builders, a marriage counseling organization and web site. "It is easy to care about someone of the opposite sex who is working next to you for eight hours or more a day."

The concept of an office spouse is new but not necessarily uncommon. A survey conducted by Vault.com, a media company for career information, found that 32% of 693 respondents from a variety of industries reported having an office husband or wife.

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