How to divorce your office spouse

A work spouse can be great — but what happens when the marriage goes sour?

Soon after Lara, a business consultant in her 30s, moved to Hong Kong several years ago, she befriended a male co-worker who seemed like someone she could trust in this new, über-cutthroat work environment. The two got along well, worked together on projects and sometimes went out after work. “He was a good sounding board for ideas, and a keen listener,” she says, “We were on the same wavelength.” She describes him as her first office husband.

As she grew comfortable in the city, however, Lara began expanding her social network to include other expats at her firm. Her work husband grew jealous of her new acquaintances and made it clear he wasn’t willing to share. “He became interested in me in a ‘more than just a friend’ way, so whenever I was invited out, he would make snide remarks about it,” she says. “After a while, that became tiring, and I just started to socialize with him less often.”

Their relationship was further strained when her work spouse was promoted and used his seniority to make her life difficult. “He started to pull rank on me,” she says. Eventually, she’d had enough of both her emotionally abusive work spouse and Hong Kong. She left the firm and the country to pursue a different career path, and did not keep in touch. “What I’ve learned from that,” she says, “is that while you can, at most times, become close without any feelings developing, you can’t control what is happening with the other person.” As in a lot of cases, Lara’s once functional office marriage ended in a nasty office divorce.

“Office spouse” is common modern parlance for the chummy, platonic relationship that develops between a male and a female co-worker who take their breaks together, confide in each other, and rely on one another for emotional support and workplace companionship. Often, one or both has a real spouse at home. Informal surveys done on career-building websites show that anywhere between 10% and 50% of employees report being involved in an “office marriage” at some point in their career. With long days, short lunches and big projects due, a work spouse can be a great source of encouragement, helping you stay positive when things get stressful. Some studies even suggest they increase productivity.

Penelope Trunk, the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, argues that one of the advantages of the work spouse relationship is its no-strings-attached vibe — it offers the closeness and support of a marriage, with out any sexual ties, commitment, or other relationship baggage. She herself has had a work spouse who was also her business partner, and she describes it as a rewarding experience.

But as with any close, personal relationship, emotions can get involved. Kimberly Moffit, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and life coach, says that while some work spouses make a powerful and dynamic team, the subtle complexities of workplace interactions make developing a close bond with a work husband or wife dangerous territory, especially when career-related jealousy or sexual interest becomes an issue. Over time, even the most nurturing associations can become toxic to a career, affecting the equilibrium of the work environment and, potentially, the company’s bottom line.

This conflict may start with a struggle for power, for a promotion, or be caused by backlash from the rest of their team. In some cases, a real-life spouse feels threatened. Frequently, in Moffit’s experience, these platonic relationships are soured when sex gets in the way. The question then becomes, when things go rotten in an office marriage — and quitting or changing positions is not an option — is it possible to break it off without any mess?

The fact is, while the term “office wife” has seen a revival, these sorts of fraught relationships between men and women have always been present in the workplace. The expression “office wife” is rumoured to have surfaced in the late 1920s as a way for a man to refer to his particularly helpful secretary, who would sometimes perform small personal chores and errands. In fact, a film called The Office Wife was made in 1930 depicting these complicated relationships. It didn’t end well.

In recent decades, the term has evolved to account for women gaining more traction in the workplace. “Work spouse” has come to suggest a more equal partnership between the sexes, much like the role of a wife has shifted at home. Still, Moffit says that the work spouse dynamic she deals with most often in clients tends to resemble the original definition. “It’s the alpha male with the assistant that’s [like] a wife or even a mother figure,” she says.

Even Trunk admits, upon further reflection, that this dynamic was borne out in her office marriage, and that it caused conflict in the relationship. “He was older than me,” she says of her work spouse. “And because of the chemistry between us, a lot of people thought that I was just his little tart that he dragged around.” Sometimes Trunk was asked by clients to leave meeting rooms because they didn’t know she was a partner, and they made assumptions about the kind of relationship she had with her colleague. Once, instead of defending her, the work spouse encouraged her to leave. He just wanted to get the deal done. “It was a little bit of a problem,” she says. The two have since parted ways, although amicably.

A failed office marriage doesn’t necessarily have to result in conflict, or even separation, though. Moffit thinks that much of Lara’s discord in Hong Kong, for example, could have been avoided by confronting the situation earlier, rather than just trying to distance herself. “You have to be honest in any relationship, and a work spouse does become a real relationship,” she says. “Tell them the relationship is something you don’t feel comfortable continuing. Just make sure the other person understands where you’re coming from.” Never drag others in the office into your mess, Moffit says. If you try to avoid your work spouse, or ask the boss for a separate project, you will just hurt the person’s feelings, and embarrass all involved. It will be easier to maintain a decent working relationship if your former office spouse isn’t harbouring anger, so after speaking your mind, be as friendly as you would be to any other co-worker.

Part of what will determine the health of your office marriage is how you interact with the person before things get ugly. Colleagues should always ask themselves whether they would act or speak differently if their real-life spouse were next to them. Also, they should gauge how often, when they’re outside the workplace, they think about their work spouse. (When you find yourself making comparisons between your work spouse and the spouse who sleeps in your bed, it’s never a good sign.)

It’s also important to know your rights if you’re going to develop a work spouse relationship, say Moffit. She thinks that Lara should have called her HR department the minute her co-worker started making rude remarks in public, and especially when he tried to use his seniority against her. “That’s an abuse of power and the relationship. If the person persists, you need to feel safe and that your job isn’t in jeopardy because somebody else isn’t happy with you,” says Moffit.

Not all work spouses are headed for an office divorce, but presuming their success rate isn’t any better than real marriages, about 40% of them will end. Many will end badly. Still, it’s easy to understand how these seemingly innocent workplace relationships continue to develop, especially in a working world where people spend, on average, about 45 minutes longer at the office daily than they did 25 years ago. People crave companionship, and that can be dangerous. “We tell ourselves that office spouse relationships can be professional, and feelings will remain mutual and platonic,” says Lara, “However, long working hours and having less time at home, coupled with being involved in the same projects as your work spouse, can all become too intimate emotionally. It can all become too close for comfort.”