secret. No, it's not your husband. 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., Ph.D., 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," he says.
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.
While you wouldn't dream of cheating on your loved one, 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 percent 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. "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 percent 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."
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:
While an office spouse might be a great friend, a strong support system, and a shoulder to cry on, it can be risky. So ask yourself, is an office spouse worth it?
"If your spouse has an affair, it will be the worst experience of your life," says Harley. "You want to take extraordinary precautions to make sure it doesn't happen to you, because nothing will compare to it. So look at the conditions that make an affair possible: most affairs take place on the job, and among really close friends at work."
It's a risk-benefit scenario, so if your marriage is important to you, you might want to give serious consideration to keeping your office relationships professional.
"The idea of an office spouse is a huge danger — you would not want your husband to have an office spouse," says Harley.
Although an office spouse poses a threat, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the relationship can remain platonic.
"We are considering a survey about whether or not these relationships turn into affairs," says Oldman. "It's a phenomenon to look at because it makes sense that an affair would be the next step. Still, that's not always the case, and a healthy office spouse situation is between people who would never let it get there — who understand the line and stay far from it."
By Heather Hatfield
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
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