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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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The Office Spouse Phenomenon continued...

"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.

Crossing the Line  

"The question is, how do affairs start," says Harley. "They start as friendships, as kind of a buddy. The person is drawn to you because of your honesty and openness."

Over the course of his career, Harley explains that thousands of people have come to him who have developed this kind of relationship at the office and had it turn into an affair.

"This is one of the reasons why I caution everyone from developing an office spouse relationship," Harley tells WebMD.

Vault's 2006 office romance survey also suggests reason to worry: 50% of respondents had known a married co-worker who engaged in an affair with someone else at the office.

"I'm not opposed to males and females working together," says Harley. "But it's a thin line between an office spouse and an affair."

Office Spouse Rules    

If you have an office spouse, staying on the right side of the line is a must, for both your marriage and your career. Here are the rules of engagement:

  • "Don't share personal information at work, especially information about your marriage," says Harley. "If someone else starts to share their information with you, let them know you are not interested. It's very hard to do, but don't let it get personal. If someone does share personal information with you, tell your spouse about it so you're not creating your own world at work that your spouse isn't aware of."
  • If you do get personal, be careful how you categorize your marriage. "If you are not getting along with your husband, and there is someone at the office who does care for you, and you tell them that, then you're off and running," says Harley. "If you say, 'I am crazy about my husband and we love each other so much,' the other person is less likely to invest time or emotion into the relationship."
  • "Don't be alone with a person of the opposite sex separate from your job," says Harley. "For example, don't carpool one-on-one, don't engage in recreational activities after work, or if you have to travel for work with one person, bring your spouse. Romantic relationships develop out of recreational activities and intimate conversations -- those are the two major hooks."
  • "Don't drink with your office spouse," says Jenn Berman, PhD, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif., who specializes in marriages and families. "There's a strict no alcohol rule with the office spouse, because when you drink the lines get blurred."
  • "Introduce your real spouse to your office spouse," Berman tells WebMD. "Go out to dinner with your office spouse and his or her significant other, and yours. Make your real spouse included in the relationship so it doesn't feel exclusive."
  • "Avoid constantly talking about your office spouse at home," says Berman. "Your real spouse should know about your office spouse, but don't overdo it."

According to the Vault.com news release about its romance survey, one survey respondent said, "If I talk about my 'work husband' too much and in a somewhat too positive light, my real husband starts to get suspicious and a little jealous; mind you, nothing is going on, we probably have 'mini-crushes' on each other, but no more."

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