The Perks and Perils of Having a Workplace “Spouse”

It’s one thing to be married to your career, but to a co-worker? Having a work “spouse” has its perks – and its perils.

Do you have an office “spouse?” If so, you’re in good company: in a 2011 survey on Vault.com, almost one out of every three respondents admitted to being “hitched” to a colleague, as part of a working relationship that goes beyond mere professional collegiality, but stops somewhere short of personal intimacy. Regis Philban and Kelly Ripa from Live with Regis and Kelly offer a case in point.

To some extent, office “marriages” are understandable. It’s natural for people who spend long hours together, working in close quarters, to form unique bonds with one another. Who can’t use a trusted ally and confidante in the office? Someone we can safely vent our complaints about other co-workers or bosses to, share an inside joke with, and just be ourselves around? Someone who finishes your sentences, and will be there for you through the good times and the bad, in sickness and in health, etc., etc.?

Office marriages offer the intimacy and chumminess of the other kind, with few of the complications and commitments. (Needless to say, spousal relationships have their own advantages as well!) Some studies even suggest that having an office spouse can enhance your productivity and job satisfaction. But work marriages have their perils, too. Before you say, “I do,” you may want to consider some of the potential dangers and downsides of having a workplace spouse.

Your co-workers may be talking and office politics stirred
Your workplace “marriage” might be strictly platonic; indeed, both you and your office “spouse” may be happily spoken for, or simply have no romantic interest in one another. But your co-workers and managers could very well see things differently. Even a perfectly innocent gesture or comment – a smile, a hug, a compliment – from either one of you could set off the rumour mill, arousing suspicions about the nature of your relationship. Office politics are often aggravating enough as they are; a workplace marriage may invite more unwanted scrutiny and attention than it’s worth.

Office marriages offer the intimacy and chumminess of the other kind, with few of the complications and commitments.

Water cooler speculation aside, a workplace marriage can hurt your standing with co-workers in other ways. Some of your colleagues, for example, might be envious of the close bond that you and your office spouse enjoy. Or they may suspect that you’ll share everything that’s disclosed to you with your “hubby” or “wife,” and start holding out on you. The backlash from your colleagues could potentially limit the amount of work or the types of projects you’re given, especially if others feel they can’t bring you aboard without including your work spouse.

Things can get complicated
By definition, office marriages are non-romantic. But even a faux marriage requires work. As with any close, emotional relationship, your workplace marriage can be a source of major stress and strain. As any married couple will tell you, spouses will inevitably fight with one another. Work spouses are no different; we only really argue, after all, with our closest friends. But it’s one thing to have a spat at home – it’s another to have one in your office. Inviting that kind of drama into your immediate work environment can be risky.

The best office marriages are, as you might expect, those in which the parties have established strict and clear boundaries, so that the relationship never gets too close for comfort (an issue for some work spouses). But even then, things can still get messy between spouses. For example, what if both you and your work hubby/wife find yourselves gunning for the same promotion within your organization? To be sure, jealousy and rivalry are inherent to most working relationships; but office marriages can intensify these kinds of hard feelings to another level.

And remember: the only thing worse than a strained office marriage is an awkward office “divorce.” There are few statistics on the success and longevity of work marriages, but if they’re anything like real marriages, yours probably has at least a 50/50 chance of ending with you and your spouse going your separate ways. Except – you won’t actually go your separate ways. Unless you’re prepared to quit or transfer to another office, you and your “ex” are likely stuck with one another, in the event that the “marriage” doesn’t last.

It may be holding you back professionally
Workplace cliquishness tends to be bad for office morale. But it can also be harmful for your progress within a company. The same goes for your office marriage. If you spend most of your at-work time socializing with a single person, or even several people, you may be perceived as being exclusionary towards others in different roles or departments. Being too cozy with one colleague or crowd can hinder your ability to climb the corporate ladder, and you could find yourself staring at the wrong end of a promotion or other opportunity for advancement. (That’s especially true if you’re in a managerial position – in which case you need to be schmoozing with everyone on your team!)

Perhaps the only thing worse than a strained office marriage is an awkward office “divorce.”

The best way to garner a positive workplace reputation is to build relationships throughout your organization. Avoiding cliques and posses, and demonstrating that you’re interested in getting to know your co-workers across departments and levels of employment – from the bottom up – will open doors for you. If your office spouse is keeping you from pursuing other networking opportunities, you may need to reconsider the relationship.

Work marriages have their pros and cons. Having a pseudo-spouse at the office can boost your morale, raise your productivity and efficiency, provide emotional support, and help you to enjoy your job more. But office marriages also require you to tread very carefully, so as not to alienate either your other colleagues – or your “spouse,” for that matter – and stall your professional growth and progress. As with everything, balance is key. Finding an appropriate medium between the camaraderie and mutual support you share, on the one hand, and the professionalism and objectivity your position requires, on the other. It’s a delicate line to tow, but with enough self-awareness and a sense of humour, you can enjoy a happy and fulfilling workplace “marriage.”

Are the perks of being in an office “marriage” worth the potential fallout? What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Let us know what you think! At Clarity Recruitment, we’re always interested in hearing from accounting and finance professionals like yourselves, who are ready for new, exciting opportunities that can take their careers to the next level. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@clarityrecruits) and connect with us on Facebook for more great tips and advice!