They are one of the first people you see in the morning, your lunchtime companion and gossip buddy. The person you send funny tweets to and tell about your car troubles. They remember your birthday and your real spouse’s birthday.
They are work spouses.
But these habits don’t necessarily define a work spouse, at least not according to Dr. Chad McBride, a communication professor at Creighton University doing research on work spouses. He defined a work spouse in a 2015 study as a “special, platonic friendship with a work colleague characterized by a close emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty and respect.”
“I thought, ‘This is really interesting; why are people using the word and language in the workplace to describe what is a close best friend?’” McBride said.
The study found difficulty in determining when the title “work spouse” was coined, but found the earliest usage in The Atlantic in 1987. McBride said he thinks the word was recently popularized by the close relationship between former U.S. President George W. Bush and his National Security Advisor, and later Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
Though there are examples of same-sex work spouses on TV such as Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins from NBC’s Parks and Recreation, McBride said media portrayals of work spouses are often members of a different sex.
“I think that especially in the news and the popular media, the reason that work spouses are often talked about as opposite-sex straight people is because that’s just how we view marriage,” McBride said. “That term ‘work spouse’ reifies that heteronormative aspect of marriage.”
McBride asked individuals who identified as being in a work spouse relationship what defined their relationship. More than 80 percent of participants said reciprocal qualities such as trust, honesty and loyalty characterized their spouse.
Work spouses act as companions, to whom individuals can vent about other coworkers or talk about their day.
“Trust was by far the number-one quality of the work spouse relationship, and the reason is one of the big functions of the work spouse relationship is self-disclosure and having a confidant,” McBride said. “If you don’t have trust in this relationship that’s based so much on sharing, then it’s scary.”
Having a work spouse to confide in reduces stress according to Dr. William Chopik an assistant professor of psychology at MSU. Chopik examines relationships and how they contribute to individual well-being over time.
“We tell them things and they share things with us, but they also give us support and guidance in general,” Chopik said. “They motivate us and they keep work light, at least the good work spouse relationships.”
In interviews for his research, McBride said some individuals in work spouse relationships who also had real-life spouses said they had both parties meet to keep up trust with both sides. Chopik said the lines between work life and home life can become blurred and that’s a positive. Issues at home are discussed at work and vice versa, incorporating the positives into work life is fulfilling.
Workplace friendships specifically provide a social network of support for individuals, according to MSU associate professor of organizational psychology Dr. Chu-Hsiang Chang. Work spouses fulfill a basic need for connection, that humans as social animals crave.
“I see the work spouse relationship as an extension beyond general friendship,” Chang said in an email. “Having meaningful, high-quality relationships at work can not only contribute to individuals’ well-being, but also benefit their knowledge, structure and potentially work performance.”
But these relationships aren’t all fun and games. They require more than just office pranks and shared annoyance with coworkers.
“Like any other interpersonal relationships, workplace friendships require individuals’ active involvement and participation to develop and flourish,” Chang said. “So individuals must be willing to contribute efforts and time to develop and maintain friendships.
“Having a ‘divorce’ at work can be a traumatic experience. But overall, I would say that the potential benefits outweigh the drawbacks.”
Work spouses can create similar heartache as real spouses, but according to Chopik, they offer the same opportunity for profound human connection.
“When people are their most miserable and they want to quit, it’s because they don’t have good support systems at work,” Chopik said. “It reduces burnout, reduces turnover, it makes people happier. Having at least one really good best friend, like a work spouse, is a really powerful for people.”