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WSJ Blog "The Juggle" - February 8, 2011

Do You Have a 'Work Spouse'?
By Sue Shellenbarger

Everybody needs a friend at work. But many people go beyond friendship to find an "office spouse" - a worker of the opposite sex who shares not only office gossip and job woes, but confidences, loyalties and a close emotional bond. How do you form such a relationship without hurting your actual spouse or dating partner?

I explored that question in today's "Work & Family" column. Nearly two-thirds of workers have, or have had, a "work spouse" - a close co-worker of the opposite sex who shares confidences, loyalties and experiences, according to a survey last July of 640 white-collar workers. Beyond talking about the office, more than half of these pairs discuss health issues or at-home problems, and 35% even talk about their sex lives, says the survey by Captivate Network, a digital-programming company.

The couples I interviewed say having a work husband or work wife can make going to the office a lot more fun. Sharing frustrations and stress over office politics and problems with bosses or co-workers eases stress.

But such relationships can easily cross the line into an emotional affair - a romance that hasn't become sexual yet, says Peggy Vaughan, San Diego, author of a recent book on preventing affairs and founder of a website on marital fidelity. In an online survey of 755 people, including 552 who had experience with extramarital affairs, "maintaining professional boundaries with co-workers" ranked third among factors important to preventing affairs, behind honesty with one's spouse and respect for marital vows, Vaughan says.

The couples I interviewed cited various strategies for keeping their out-of-office relationships healthy. All made sure their actual partners or spouses had met their office spouses and encouraged them to become friends. Some double-dated with their office spouse and his or her partner. They conducted their office relationships completely in the open, keeping the tone light and humorous. And they communicated nonstop with their actual spouses or partners about the office relationships. A sign of potential trouble for a marriage, Vaughan says, is when an office spouse becomes secretive about his or her work wife or husband.

Some couples say their relationships actually benefit when one partner has an office spouse. One man I interviewed, who had been dating his girlfriend for 10 years, says her office husband provided another male viewpoint. The two men often agree on many relationship issues, so "it makes my life easier," he says. Another man whose wife had an office husband said he liked and trusted the "other man," and was grateful for the emotional support the office husband provided his wife at work.

Readers, have you ever had an office husband or an office wife? If so, what were the benefits? Any drawbacks? Do you disapprove of such relationships at the office? What effect, if any, did having an office spouse have on your out-of-work relationships? How did others at the office view your relationship?

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