She's the Cristina to your Meredith; he's the Jim to your Pam. You're confidants, friends, and partners, and you've managed your fair share of work crises together. You're each other's work spouses.
If you're spending 40 hours or more each week at work, it's only natural that you'll try to make connections with the people you work with. "For better or worse, work tends to take up the majority of our days if we add up all the hours," psychologist Amy Di Francia tells Woman's Day. "As humans we’re naturally going to seek connections."
Work wife, work husband, work spouse — call it what you want. These are the people who get you through the day, who encourage you to give your best at your job, and who make you laugh during lunchtime chats. And work spouse relationships can go much deeper than a simple break-room friendship.
What is a work spouse?
"The reason it’s called a 'work spouse' is because a lot of the same things go into the relationships," Samantha Ettus, a work-life balance expert, tells Woman's Day. "Trust is necessary, and working well together is, too." Work spouse relationships are all about open communication, problem-solving, and being there to support someone you work with.
So if you don't already have a work spouse, what exactly should you be looking for? "You want someone who’s trustworthy," Ettus says. "Not just in it for themselves, not the office gossip. Someone who’s gonna make your brand better and not drag you down with them."
It's also important to consider ambition. "You want to look for someone who has the same professional goals as you do," Ettus says. Preferably not the exact same goals, since that could lead to tension or jealousy, but if you're ambitious you should find a work spouse who's equally ambitious, and if you're looking to stay put in your current level you should find someone who's also happy to stay in their position.
It's important to know that if you do form a close working relationship with someone, you'll probably become tied to them in your colleagues' minds. "Whenever you tie yourself to someone closely in an organization, you’re tying yourself to their positives and negatives," Ettus says. So don't skip the courting period. Make sure you take the time to get to know someone enough that you'd be okay being tied to them and their reputation.
When it comes down to it, having a work spouse is all about helping to create an atmosphere at work that you thrive in and having someone who brings out the best in you. It's important to think about how you can maintain a work spouse relationship where you're getting better at your job and reaching your potential and you're giving your work spouse the encouragement and partnership to do the same.
Benefits of having a work spouse
"One of the main positives is a sense of community and camaraderie at work," Di Franci says. "There’s a lot of isolation in adulthood in general, and there can also be isolation at work. We’re spending eight or more hours a day at our place of employment, so it's about finding someone that meets that need for connection during the day when we’re spending time away from the people we chose to connect with: our partners, our friends, our family."
That feeling of friendship and companionship can make a huge difference, especially at a stressful job. Everyone has days when they're short on motivation to go into the office, and knowing that there's someone there who's in your corner can be the push you need to pick yourself up and head into work.
The benefits of having a work spouse go beyond simple friendship, though. Ideally, a work spouse is someone who you can collaborate with. Di Francia says having a work spouse can help you maximize your productivity. "We tend to bring out each others strengths, which can help each person advance in there careers as well."
And this boost in productivity and spark of collaboration can lead to feeling more confident at work, Di Francia says. "If we feel like we have someone in our corner, we feel less lonely and isolated and more confident in ourselves. If we have someone who values our work and sees us as a good employee, who would back us up if anyone asked about our work, that can make us feel more confident in ourselves to ask for more."
And asking for more is something that women especially can benefit from in a work spouse relationship. Men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise, according to We Forum, and having someone who values you as a productive worker and a friend can be the push you need to ask for one.
Beyond that, having a relationship where you can talk about tricky subjects such as money and benefits with your work spouse can be very beneficial in negotiating your compensation. "We’ve all learned that keeping financial info close to the vest, especially as women, can hurt us long term," Ettu says. "The more you understand about your own worth and value in the workplace financially, the better off you are as an advocate for yourself and making sure you're earning what you're worth."
Whether you need someone who understands the politics of your office to run by your talking points before your next negotiation meeting or you need a pep talk to advocate for yourself, a work spouse can encourage you to ask for what you're worth.
Complications of having a work spouse
Having a work spouse can be the positive light you need to encourage you in the workplace, but there can be some serious downfalls if things don't go well. If jealousy and competition start becoming problems for you and your work spouse, it could be time to reconsider your partnership. And as unfair as it is, the optics of your relationship can lead to some office-place rumors.
"We have to be realistic about the fact that office rumors swirl," Ettus says. "Typically when you have a male-female really close relationship you're at risk for starting gossip or rumors about the relationship. There’s always going to be skeptics."
Dealing with skeptics at work is one thing, but if your work spouse relationship is causing problems for your personal relationships outside of work, you might want to take a step back. "There’s potential for our romantic partners to be jealous or suspicious," Di Francia says. "And when they are feeling that way they can act out in ways that aren’t healthy for the relationship."
It's important to be clear and communicative about the parameters of your relationships, whether romantic or work-related. You want there to be no confusion as to whether your relationship is platonic or romantic with your work spouse, and you need to be able to make that clear to your romantic partner. Di Francia recommends checking in with your romantic partner to make sure they're comfortable with the closeness of your work spouse relationship. "If it’s something you feel like you have to hide, that's a red flag," she says.
How to have a healthy relationship with your work spouse
The foundations of a healthy work spouse relationship match the foundations of any healthy relationship, Di Francia says. Trust, communication, and friendship will ground your work spouse relationship and make it strong. Don't buy in to competition, pettiness, or negative communication patterns that are more closely linked to work enemies than work spouses.
"In any marriage, competition isn’t super healthy," Di Francia says. "You want to feel like you’re both helping each other realize your potential, and having a work marriage is no different. Your success is their success, and their success is yours. You want someone who’s genuinely happy for you when you achieve."
And if you want to take your work spouse relationship out of the office to start a full-blown friendship, start small. "The move from coworkers to friends can be a tricky one," says Di Francia. "It’s much less vulnerable to say 'hey, after work do you want to get drinks and talk about that proposal?' instead of saying 'Saturday night do you want to come to my house for dinner?' Start small and test the waters."
Keep in mind that it can be risky moving a workplace friendship out of the office, and that you're potentially going to complicate your relationship. But if you feel strongly that your work spouse has potential to be a great out-of-office friend, too, it could be a risk worth taking.
A great work spouse is a hard person to come by, and if you're able to find a person who pushes you to do your best, encourages you, and keeps things light and fun when projects get stressful, it's important to care for that relationship. "In any area of your life that you have support, it makes you better at that area," Ettus says.
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