Time to Divorce Your Work Spouse?

Deteriorating workplace morale is part of the widespread fallout from the recession. With consumers spending less, companies have been forced to run leaner and meaner, and this tightening of the belt has translated into less staff members doing more work.

To get by, those who survived the cuts have had to circle the wagons and rely on each other to keep their companies and careers alive. As a result, many of our close relationships have become more work-centered than ever before.

The “work spouse” relationship has been gaining attention over the last couple of years, often conjuring up images of your favorite local news anchor duo or the classic TV partners like Elliot and Olivia on Law & Order.

In a recent interview with Psychology Today, Dr. Jacqueline Olds, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, defined the work spouse as “a person at work with whom you have a special relationship in which you share confidences, loyalties, experiences, and a degree of honesty and openness.”     

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I last worked in a day-to-day conventional office environment. However, I certainly have observed the phenomenon when working in client organizations.  Here are some things to think about when it comes to the benefits and dangers of work spouse relationships.

Benefits: The classic Bill Withers tune Lean on Me rings just as true today as it did in the 70s and 80s; we all need someone to lean on in good times and in bad. Support networks are a positive mechanism for coping with both personal and professional challenges, and work spouses can provide that needed support. Work spouses can act as a sounding board to test ideas and can provide necessary critical feedback that only a close personal confidante can provide.

From a productivity perspective, good teamwork requires a high level of interdependence and shared thinking. Just as great quarterback/wide receiver duos are always on the same page, work spouses share an intellectual connectedness that allows them to operate with great efficiency. This can be an asset when under the gun of tight deadlines or high-profile projects.    

Dangers: Office politics can be messy and when you throw the work spouse wrench into the mix things can only get messier. Work spouse relationships can have an air of exclusivity--signaling political alliances that may influence decision making, promotions, bonuses, etc… It’s important to manage these perceptions to avoid creating unnecessary battle lines at the office.

When it comes to crossing the line with work spouses, a 2010 survey conducted by Captivate Network found that the vast majority of married men and women (85% and 87% respectively) have never stepped over the platonic boundary of their relationship with their work spouse.

However, even if this boundary is respected, work spouse relationships can still conflict with actual married spousal relationships. Emotional ties can be very powerful creating jealousy and resentment when there is a perception that one’s work spouse is privy to personal information that the actual spouse does not have access to.

Humans are social creatures driven to mingle and although the nature of that mingling is different for all of us, it does play a major part of both our personal and professional lives. All relationships, whether work spouse or otherwise, require care and feeding. It’s important that we pay attention to these special relationships and manage boundaries, so as to maintain a healthy balance.

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership.Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook