The Office Spouse
It starts innocently enough. Usually with coffee. Then the occasional lunch, during which you share a few laughs and a bit of gossip. Before you know it, you're shooting cellphone text messages back and forth to one another during meetings and childishly mocking the grease stain on the back of the company hotshot's pants in a secret code only the two of you understand. Sound familiar? Then you probably have an "office wife."
The term, traditionally reserved for old-fashioned secretaries, has a new, far richer meaning. The office wife (or "work husband") is no longer the person who keeps track of the boss's appointments and screens his phone calls. It's an equal. Your closest corporate confidant. The person who vows, no matter what, to have your back - from 9:00 to 5:00, at least. "It's a professional affair without the sex," says Dave, a 47-year-old public servant who requested anonymity to keep his relationship with his 28-year-old office wife secret from their co-workers. "Does it have to be with someone of the opposite sex? I think so. Is it sexual? I don't know. But it's comforting and I don't have the same types of emotional exchanges with male counterparts."
A good office spouse can read your mind and your mood - almost as well as your real husband or wife. It's someone who senses when you've been cornered by the office close-talker at a corporate function and need to be rescued, or knows when you could use a 10-minute breather to help forget about the boneheaded comment you just made at an all-staff meeting. It's the one person in the sea of cubicles you trust with the personal things in your life that don't come up naturally around the water cooler.
In fact, your office spouse likely knows a few things about you that your marriage spouse may not. It's inevitable, considering the amount of shared experience. He or she has been around for every office "had-to-be-there" moment - which, by the way, saves real spouses from having to listen to all your whining about office politics they know little, and usually care even less, about. The office spouse, on the other hand, gets it. "Sometimes I don't want to see anyone else during a day and yet turn to my office wife at lunch," says Dave. "She's someone who I can laugh, cry or get pissed off with about something at work."
Like regular dating, there is a feeling-out period - prospective office mates test each other's loyalty early on to make sure they've found "the one." Although a bit of flirting is permitted, the unwritten code of ethics that governs office marriages demands that never, under any circumstances (like, for example, after too much booze at the office Christmas bash) can sex enter the relationship. It's also offside to use the work spouse to make a real spouse jealous. "If your wife is the girl you can bring home to mom," wrote Tom Prince, the GQ columnist who first labelled this modern relationship last year, "your office wife is the woman you can bring home to your wife."
In fact, says David McKenzie, a Vancouver-based marriage counsellor and sex therapist, keeping married spouses out of your workplace relationship can prove dangerous. "It has to become a threesome eventually," he says. "Spending 11 hours a day at work where you confide in another person can threaten a marriage if you don't make your spouse a part of it sometimes."
Considering the increasing number of hours people are spending at the office, it shouldn't be a surprise that some look for a supportive relationship that resembles what they get at home. And the office happens to be the only place in North America where polygamy is encouraged. Steve, 30, had three office wives at his last job. "I had two lunch wives and one for smoke breaks," laughs the Toronto-based TV producer. "I didn't necessarily talk to each one of them about the same thing. But everyone needs to vent and each of my wives really understood me and what was going on with certain people at work."
But as with real marriages, there is always the risk of divorce. An office spouse may leave for a new job, be transferred to another department, or get fired. Although the friendship endures, the relationship can never be the same. "What's funny," says Steve, "is that when I started at my new job, I went hunting right away for the new girl."
Maclean's January 23, 2006