Do You Have a Workplace “Spouse”?

More than friends?

Building close relationships are inevitable—even necessary—in the workplace, where collaboration and mutual respect are important for success. Like it or not, the workplace is also often where we spend more of our waking hours than just about anywhere else, and we spend more time with coworkers than we do with our spouses or partners. Moreover, when you find a colleague with whom you work especially well—someone who is the yin to your professional yang—it is natural for you to become more than just coworkers: you are allies and friends. Pop psychology has even invented a new term for it: “the work spouse.”

You don’t have to be a therapist to know that becoming close to a colleague can potentially lead to becoming more than just friends. One needs to be aware of the danger signs, especially if they’re already in a committed relationship (with someone outside the office, that is). To be clear, it is possible to work closely with a person of the opposite sex without crossing the line into intimacy or a full-blown affair. The key is setting boundaries and sticking to them.
Setting boundaries

The first rule is never to rely exclusively on the other party to maintain professional boundaries. Too often, people fall into inappropriate relationships with coworkers and later claim they never saw it coming. In truth, the signs were most likely there all along: he/she leans in a little too close to show you something on the computer screen; increasingly offers to walk you to the car when you’ve been working late; asks if you care to stop for a drink at the pub across the street to continue brainstorming on a big project. If these things happen on a regular basis, it is honestly a bit naïve to continue assuming he or she “doesn’t see me in that way.” And if they are not sticking to professional boundaries, then it is imperative that you take the lead in doing so.

If you do pick up signs of flirtatious behavior, it’s best to address it directly, even if it feels a little uncomfortable. You can say something like, “Greg, this feels really awkward, because I really value our working relationship and I might very well be wrong. But sometimes I feel like our work relationship is getting a little too cozy, and I want to make sure neither of us gets the wrong idea.” This gives your colleague a clear message while allowing him or her to save face.

Meanwhile, you can and should avoid situations that invite blurred lines. Avoid allowing work-related parties—or worse, business trips—to become ways of carrying your office camaraderie over into new settings. Instead, use these as chances for you to get to know your other coworkers for a change. More importantly, if drinks are being served, alcohol, which lowers your inhibitions, is the last thing you want to introduce into your relationship with your “work spouse.”

Finally, though it might seem counter-intuitive, avoid running to your partner at the first inkling that a close work relationship might be moving into dangerous territory. Again, your first line of defense should be a firm “Thanks but no thanks,” which will usually suffice. If it does not, you probably have a real harassment problem on your hands that needs to be addressed through a supervisor. But short of that, a full confession to your partner that a coworker is getting too close for comfort really accomplishes nothing other than creating unnecessary jealousy—unless that’s what you want, in which case you may have relationship problems tat you need to address in a more direct way than reminding your partner that he or she is not the only one out ther who finds you attractive.

Instead, have the confidence to draw and enforce workplace boundaries on your own. Doing so will help you maintain healthy self-respect, positive working relationships with colleagues and it’s a skill that will serve your relationship well in many contexts for years to come.

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel the need to establish boundaries with a “work spouse”, but you are having difficulty doing so, the insight of an unbiased, trained professional may be of help. The Relationship Center of Orange County offers individual counseling, as well as couples therapy, which might be just what you need to boost your courage and find the right words to do so. Call us today at 949-393-8662 to schedule your appointment, or book using our online calendar. We’re here to help!

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