The concept of a work spouse is nothing new, but it recently has garnered new attention as people become more interested in questioning why someone might want a work wife/work husband and if a work spouse is “healthy” for a relationship. Like many preferences and dynamics within relationships, it’s up to each couple to decide what boundaries work best for their unique relationship and prescriptive relationship rules simply don’t work for everyone. It’s worth examining the role of an office wife/office husband and looking at the broader social implications these labels might come with.
What Does it Mean to Have a Work Wife or Work Husband?
The term work spouse, whether it’s a work wife or work husband, is a person someone engages with at work who often meets some sort of relational need, most commonly emotional support. There is typically no physical contact within these relationships, but some argue that work spouses are a form of emotional cheating as someone is viewing another person as a pseudo-spouse when they have a real spouse back at home.
Why would someone be motivated to see someone they work with as a pseudo-partner if there is nothing romantic attached to it and if they have a partner they return to at the end of the day when they leave work? One theory is that having a work spouse taps into a fantasy someone might have, whether it’s the allure of a clandestine “romance” even if it’s not acted upon. It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone wants to or will cheat on their real partner back at home, but it could be an indicator that something is missing from the primary relationship, that someone is seeking out through relationships with others.
Is Having a Work Spouse Problematic?
The answer of whether a work wives and work husbands are problematic for a relationship really depends on the rules and boundaries a couple sets with each other. If a couple feels unthreatened and accepting of their partner viewing someone as a work spouse, than everyone is on the same page and the risk for cheating in low, as long as the partner doesn’t cross any boundaries. For others, they may feel uncomfortable with their partner referring to someone as a work spouse which can create issues such as lack of trust and emotional unsafety.
A facet of a “work marriage” that is worth unpacking is the connection it has to heteronormative messaging that men and women are incapable of being friends because there will inevitably be sexual tension. People of all genders have the ability to have platonic relationships with whomever, even if those relationships are with people they find attractive. To say that men and women coworkers can’t just be friends at work so they have to be a work spouse can come across as objectifying as people should be able to have non-sexual relationships with the opposite sex, even if some level of attraction is present.
Another consideration is that someone could see a work spouse as an escape from their real relationship. For example, if someone goes home at the end of the day and their partner asks them to help out with the chores around the house, if that person resents that their partner is asking them for help, they may view their partner in a negative light and see their work spouse as a person who “won’t nag them.” This plays back into the fantasy of the work spouse because even if that person started a relationship with the work spouse, they’d likely eventually have to face the reality of sustaining a relationship (in this case contributing to chores) and come to resent them at some point, just like in a real marriage.
Protecting the Primary Relationship
A work spouse doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem, but it has the potential to if relational lines are crossed. If it becomes a problem for your relationship, working with a couple’s therapist can help partners identify what might be needed to strengthen connection and trust with each other.