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
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.
"The phenomenon of the office spouse is increasing," says Mark Oldman,
co-president of Vault.com, a workplace information web site. "Only recently has
it been acknowledged that you can have a relationship approaching the intimacy
you have with your significant other, but at a very different level."
Office spouses speak the same language: they get "inside jokes," understand
each other's frustration with the boss and internal bureaucracy, and can pick
up on work vibes, both good and bad.
"One sense we got from the survey was that there are certain things you can
share with an office spouse that are more difficult to share with a real
spouse, in part because of the practicality of it," says Oldman. "Talking about
a circumstance at work requires background and personal experience that a real
spouse just doesn't have."
So on occasion, an office spouse is more in tune with your life than a real
husband or wife, which is when things can get dicey.