Work Spouse SecretsDo These Work Relationships Cross a Line

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Work Spouse SecretsDo These Work Relationships Cross a Line

The average American spends 34.5 hours a week at work. That’s 1,725 hours every year if you bake in two weeks of vacation time. One thousand, seven hundred, and twenty-five hours of emails, board meetings, brainstorms, and occasionally punching out late if it means getting the job done on time. Given all the time you spend at work, deep bonds are bound to form. Sounds like having a super-close colleague – say, a work spouse – might be the perfect way to pass the time and ease workplace stress, doesn’t it?

Unlike an actual spouse, this type of partnership doesn’t require a diamond ring or a ceremony. A work husband or wife is defined as a colleague you have a strong friendship with, who is the gender you’re attracted to, and with whom you have a bond that resembles that of a married couple.

The concept might sound scandalous at first, but having such a close connection with a co-worker – or co-workers – is actually a crucial part of a healthy and thriving work life. However, given the unique, multifaceted nature of this type of relationship, we thought it merited a little digging.

We surveyed 1,001 full-time employees about whether they’ve ever had a work spouse and what that bond looks like, from frequent conversation topics to common fantasies – and whether those fantasies ever cross into reality.

Prevalence of Work Spouses

About half of women and over 44 percent of men in our study said they’d had a work spouse at some point in their careers, but a few industries bucked that trend by quite a bit. Nearly 63 percent of information services and data processing professionals said they had entertained a work spouse-like relationship with a colleague, as well as almost 61 percent of marketing employees and 58 percent of arts, entertainment, and recreation professionals.

Industry aside, though, one trend revealed itself to be nearly universal: The majority of respondents said their work spouse was on their level in terms of company hierarchy. This was true for almost 73 percent of entry-level employees, over 66 percent of mid-level employees, and around 52 percent of managers. However, some workers reached outside of their level to forge a work-spouse relationship. Nearly a third of managers with a work spouse said it was with someone who was a subordinate.

When dealing with mixed-role relationships, there are quite a few prominent HR risks that can complicate office dynamics, including perceived favoritism, conflicts of interest, outright violations of company policy, and, especially in the modern workplace, the potential for workplace sexual harassment. These risks aren’t limited to work spouses, however: Romantic feelings aside, even a simple boss-employee friendship that exists outside of the 9 to 5 can require carefully established boundaries that can very easily lead to a scrambled power dynamic.

Talking Points

Everyone loves a little workplace gossip now and then, and with so many people packed into a single space for five (or more) days a week, it is nearly impossible to avoid. For our respondents with work spouses, no discussion topic was off-limits.

Work-related subjects like colleagues, work problems, and projects were most commonly discussed between work wives and husbands. In comparison, fewer people – but a surprising number nonetheless – elected to discuss topics like marriage (almost 57 percent), problems at home (51 percent), and even their sex life (29 percent).

Blowing off steam and venting your stresses to a trusted listener is an extremely important part of maintaining a healthy emotional life, as well as forming deeper and more trustworthy relationships. But in the workplace, gossiping, in particular, can be a double-edged sword, leading to issues like divisiveness, hurt feelings, tarnished reputations, and even attrition if employees feel they are in an unhealthy work environment.

While midlevel employees were generally the quickest to discuss office-related topics like work issues and projects, entry-level workers chatted with their work spouse about their sex life and romantic relationships much more frequently than their higher-ups. Meanwhile, respondents in relationships were less likely to open up to their work spouse about their sex life than single people (although some did indeed choose to do so) but were more inclined to vent about relationship-related topics than their single counterparts.

When Worlds Collide

What’s in a handshake? For many respondents’ significant others, certain workplace “meet and greets” may be more loaded than they bargained for. **Over 62 percent of people reported having introduced their work spouse to their real-life partner: nearly 57 percent of men and almost 69 percent of women, respectively**.

In that same vein, men were also more likely to fudge the truth about their relationship with their work spouse. So what might they be hiding? In some extreme cases, work spouse relationships can lead to full-blown emotional affairs, a transgression considered to be even worse than physical cheating by some. Those with a less fulfilling home life are more at risk for this type of illicit relationship overall, so it’s important always to remember: The grass is greenest where you water it.

Is It Purely Platonic?

Attraction between work colleagues is often clandestine – and unavoidable. So when it came to our respondents’ office spouses, how much did physical attractiveness affect their friendship?

In the context of our survey, while less than 16 percent of men qualified their work spouse as “not at all attractive,” more than twice as many women said the same. Interestingly, relationship status had little impact on whether people found their work spouse attractive. Nearly 74 percent of people in relationships or married found their work spouse at least slightly attractive, and almost 71 percent of single people felt the same.

Physical attractiveness also seemed to play a part in how open people were about their work spouse relationships with their significant others. Those who had introduced their work spouse to their real spouse or partner were less likely to be attracted to their work wife or husband. Similarly, those who had never lied to their partner about their work spouse were significantly less likely to be attracted to their work spouse.

Now, let’s make one thing clear: Having a crush on someone else while in a committed relationship is completely normal and largely harmless. We’re only human, after all. Typically, it’s only when things escalate into an emotional affair that an ego-boosting, attractiveness-affirming crush becomes a fundamental threat to an existing relationship.

Fantasy vs. Reality

The most common experience our respondents shared with their work spouse was helping each other out with work-related projects. Eating lunch one on one, another fairly innocuous activity, was the second-most common.

However, nearly half of our male respondents admitted they had fantasized about hooking up with their work spouse (as did approximately 26 percent of women), which prompts the question: How big is the chasm between what people are doing versus what they wish they could do?

It’s a tale as old as time: Things are a little rocky at home, the tedium of marriage has started to set in, and when an attractive co-worker showing interest is thrown into the mix, people start inching toward behaviors that border on “unfaithful.” At this point, the importance of communicating with your real-life spouse and reinforcing trust within the relationship is at an all-time high.

For men, single male respondents were the most likely to desire sex with their work spouse, while men in a relationship were the most likely to want nothing at all out of the relationship (however, sex was a close second). The largest portion of both single and committed women said they wanted nothing from their work spouse relationship and were much less likely to desire sex, romance, or even a kiss than their male counterparts overall.

Aside from the intoxicating dump of ego-boost chemicals that are born out of budding flirtation, the simple concept of “vicinity attraction” is likely at the root of many boundary-blurring feelings for one’s work spouse. Depending on the size of your office or team, it can be slim pickings when it comes to attractive colleagues – so in the absence of other options, our brain ends up latching onto people we might not have found as appealing in another context outside of work.

Doing the Deed

Nearly 19 percent of men and over 14 percent of women with work spouses decided to consummate their “office marriage”. Interestingly enough, the majority of respondents who ended up having sex with their work spouse reported they did so either at their own home or at the other person’s home – a logical choice for singles, but a much dicier one for those in a relationship. Nearly 35 percent did the deed on a work trip, and over 11 percent decided to get frisky at a company party.

These are, of course, tricky waters to navigate. Being romantically involved with a co-worker is a situation that must be treated delicately: Explicit mutual consent, open and fluid communication, and addressing work-related risks like tarnished reputations, favoritism, and damaged careers are absolute musts.

While it is often recommended to avoid office romance like the plague for reasons that range from blurred personal boundaries to fueling the gossip mill, the largest portion of respondents from both genders expressed no regret about sleeping with their work spouse (over 39 percent of women, and over 42 percent of men). However, nearly 50 percent of those in relationships said their actual significant other found out about the affair with their work spouse, and another 46 percent of those with work spouses said their colleagues caught wind of the encounter.

To avoid souring relationships with other colleagues as you navigate a budding workplace romance, it’s best to follow a few simple guidelines: Always make sure you’re respecting company policies regarding dating, keep things professional and businesslike while at the office, and keep co-workers on an information diet to avoid rumors and gossip.

Conclusion

Given how much time we spend at the office, having a colleague who is close enough to be considered a work spouse can actually add a lot of value to the at-work experience. Forging positive relationships with co-workers, as long as they stay within policy-respecting (and existing-relationship-friendly) boundaries is essential to keeping things drama-free both at work and home.

Using very broad strokes, our respondents’ work spouses were generally people they found somewhat attractive and with whom they discussed work projects and other colleagues and often assisted with work-related projects. However, the darker underbelly of people’s work spouse relationships included discussing intimate topics like issues at home and their sex lives, and in some instances, included sexual fantasies that escalated into real-life sex.

If you ask us, you should simply love your job no matter how close you are to any given co-worker. Head on over to Simply Hired to start your job search on the right foot if you’re on the hunt for a new position, or to find your dream employee if you’re a hiring manager. Visit us at Simplyhired.com today to make your workplace the best place.

Methodology

For this study, we surveyed 1,001 people with full-time employment who shared a workplace with people from the same or a different company. 54.4% were men, 45.5% were women, and 0.1% were nonbinary. The average age was 35.5 with a range of 18 to 74 and a standard deviation of 10.

For our survey, we defined a work spouse as a colleague with whom you have a strong friendship, who is of the gender you’re attracted to, and your bond is similar to that of a married couple. 471 workers in the survey reported having had a work spouse.

Of those with a work spouse, 76.5% were in a marriage, engagement, or other relationship. 23.5% were single.

Industries with fewer than 26 respondents were grouped into “other.”

The survey was conducted using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

Limitations

All of the information reported in our analysis was dependent on self-reported data, which means there are inherent issues, including exaggeration, forgetfulness, minimization, and more. Additionally, none of our findings have been weighted or statistically tested.

Sources

Fair Use Statement

Are you crushing on this article? Feel free to share it for noncommercial use with friends, family, and colleagues – yes, even your work spouse – as long as you link back to this page so that your entourage can enjoy the full story.