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Monday, November 26, 2007

I was a working wife

...Still am, actually. I was a working single woman in between marriages, too, for what that's worth. But that's not really what I'm talking about. I'm talking about being a "work wife," an "office spouse" - a role that seems most likely to develop in medium-to-large workplaces that aren't heavily dominated by one gender or the other.

I was part of an office marriage for a few years, and sometimes I miss it.

Elizabeth at Career and Kids recently posted a query about "work spouses," and, like her, I've been encountering the idea quite a bit in my recent reading, so it's gotten me thinking about it.

I met the man who became my "office spouse" over four years ago, not long after I started my current job. He worked in another department and wasn't actually in the same office, but our jobs required us to communicate with each other regularly, and a couple of projects we worked on together early in our relationship gave us a chance to get to know each other. We found we worked very well as a team, and understood each other professionally. Since we were also among the few people in the agency who actually did the kind of work we did, we were able to help each other; and since we were in different offices, we could vent to each other relatively freely.

But it was the fact that we also hit it off personally that made this relationship different from just being effective co-workers. We were the same age, so we had common frames of reference, and we had similar perspectives on a lot of things. We enjoyed talking about all sorts of non-work-related things and sharing our stories, and we learned both work and life skills from each other.

There are certain boundaries that must be observed in these relationships, but ours was really never in much danger of crossing them, since we knew that we didn't have some of the risk factors. I was still quite freshly single when we met, after having been married almost half my life, but he was a family guy; his family consisted of his long-term partner and their three adopted children. I can safely say that he was probably the first man I developed a close and trusting relationship with post-divorce, and today I'd say we're like siblings, but I'm not sure our friendship would have developed the way it did if I hadn't known that girls weren't his thing, which made him "safe." If your office-spouse relationship has inherent limits like that, even if you do socialize outside of work, I'm inclined to feel that your other outside-of-work relationships have little to fear from it.

My office marriage broke up almost two years ago, when my "husband" got another job, and now we face the normal challenges of maintaining a friendship when people have busy lives that don't include daily encounters as part of the routine - you know how it is, we don't talk to or see each other nearly as much as we'd like. No one has taken his place in my work life, and if someone has take mine in his, he's been nice enough not to tell me.

Even though my office-marriage experience was a good one, I'm inclined to think that it's an area that should be approached with caution. If your relationship has limits such as incompatible sexual orientation, there are certain complications you're just not likely to encounter. If you and your office spouse are both single and "available" outside the office, and you're both so inclined, you might find yourselves moving into the sort of relationship explored in the new book Office Mate, and that's got its own set of complications to navigate ("love contracts," anyone? Thanks to Deborah Siegel of Girl With Pen for the tip-off) - although, for most adults, work probably is the most likely place for meeting a potential dating partner, so it may well be worth the challenges. However, if one or both of the office spouses are married or partnered to other people outside the office - and sexual orientation is not an obstacle - boundaries are crucial. Non-work relationships, unfortunately, don't always act as "inherent limits." (Unfortunately, I know this personally from someone else's office relationship.Have I mentioned that I was married before?) A couple of months ago, Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project blog offered a few tips on how to avoid an office affair, and that's something that anyone who's part of an "office marriage" needs to be very mindful about.

One other thing to be mindful about concerning these relationships is that they really need to be between peers - your office spouse really needs to be someone who is neither your assistant, your subordinate, or your boss. My boss has jokingly called me his "office wife" a few times, and that's OK as a joke, but in real life, that's totally not happening.

An "office spouse" isn't necessary, but it can enhance your life at the place where you probably spend more time than you do with your family anyway. I don't think it's something to be sought out in itself, but under the right conditions, these relationships can be beneficial; but then again, office "platonic friends" relationships can be very positive as well, and less potentially complicated.

4 comments:

  1. Great post!

    The whole "office wife" thing is fascinating. Maybe mostly because it's a phenomenon we thought would become a thing of the past. (You know, when executives had a secretary who was as devoted as a wife.)

    I can't wait to read some of the sources you linked to.

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  2. It's funny, but when I was working on this, I remember thinking "I wonder when Working Girl is going to pick up this topic?" I would definitely be interested in your take on it.

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  3. I can see the advantages of being in the same line of work or working in the same office as your spouse, but I can also see how it could be complicated. My husband and I are not in the line of work--nor in the same field-- and so I cannot relate from personal experience, but I have observed office marriages within my own agency.

    More often than not in my agency, a married couple is not allowed to work in the same office. Dating coworkers isn't forbidden, but it is frowned upon. I know a couple of people who do date coworkers and it's kept pretty quiet. When those relationships break up, it can get pretty messy. I know of one marriage that broke up because one of my coworkers had an affair with another coworker.

    One of the worst cases I have come across was when one part of the married couple felt like he had to quit his job and leave the agency after 15 years because his wife had promoted to a relatively high position. Because of agency regulations, she cannot supervise him in any way--directly or indirectly. She was so high up, that his options for moving up himself or anywhere in general were very limited. It wasn't worth it for him to stay.

    I do not know if I would want my husband to be my office husband. While he would love it, I prefer it the way it is. Haha

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  4. Literary Feline - Work with my actual husband? No thank you. I think we're better off in separate businesses. :-) It's not too likely, though, since like you and your husband, we're in different fields. Theoretically we could work for the same company, but I don't see it happening - and that's OK.

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