Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I worked at a music magazine. I was in my twenties and having a blast. I tagged along while Redman and Method Man filmed How High. I watched Common work on Like Water for Chocolate at the legendary Electric Lady Studios in NYC. I interviewed every member of Wu-Tang Clan at a photoshoot. It was the good ol’ days.
But being a staff writer had its challenges. It was competitive and everything moved at breakneck speed. (Nothing like an awards show interrupted by Suge Knight wearing a Dead Man Walking T-shirt with Snoop’s face on it to make you realize work could involve a stampede!)
Because my assignments were always last minute, it was helpful to have people on staff that I was cool with back at the office.
Across the hall from my office was my boy D. D and I were platonic friends; he wasn’t my type at all — and vice versa. I thought he was fusty and stodgy. He thought I was reckless and unpredictable. We were both right.
Either way, D held me down at work. He often advocated for me to write certain stories, which was a big deal as I was only one of two women on staff and she and I both had to fight for respect.
The idea of labeling someone a work spouse — as opposed to just a co-worker or a friend — elevates them to a higher level of intimacy.
D gave me advice about guys. (I was going through a phase of dating an assortment of fuckboys.) He told me I needed to be more discerning. I gave him advice about women. I thought he was a little too serious and a tad bit judgemental. D and I had lunch together more often than not. If anyone in the office was looking for him, they came to me.
I remember one time an assistant came to my office and asked where D was.
“He had a dentist appointment,” I said. (Which was a lie. He was hungover and trying to get to work.)
“Should I order lunch for him?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, not looking up. “Turkey burger with everything — but no cheese. No fries. Ginger ale. If they don’t have ginger ale, just get water.”
I looked up slowly after I realized how well I knew his order. The assistant scribbled it down and then looked up at me.
“Are you two — ”
“Ew. No,” I said. “I’m just his office girlfriend.”
So here I am, 20 years later, telling you that your partner should not have an office spouse. And you shouldn’t have one either.
My editor on this story says that it’s pretty much a mental health strategy these days to have someone functioning as an office spouse. You need someone outside of home to vent to, to support, and get support. I agree.
But you know what that’s called? It’s called a friend.
What’s the difference between a work spouse and a regular friend? Is it just the nomenclature?
Here’s what I believe: The idea of labeling someone a work spouse — as opposed to just a co-worker or a friend — elevates them to a higher level of intimacy. And that’s dangerous. There’s an emotional connection when you call someone your work spouse. It could (and should!) be strictly platonic. But we’re all grown-ups here; we know how humans operate. We give out titles for a reason. Wife. Husband. Friend. Best Friend. Godmother. Maid of Honor. Best Man. Titles are meant to elevate your relationship, to let others know where you stand with this person. It makes this person special.
Most people laugh off the term. “Oh, there’s my work spouse, late again. I should’ve made you breakfast this morning. Hardy-har-har.” But every time you say it, you cement the relationship, whether you want to believe so or not.
Think about this: What if the person you currently call your work spouse decides they need another work spouse. So now, they bring morning coffee to you and their second work spouse. And then they add another. Imagine your work spouse has five other work spouses. Would you be okay with that? No, you wouldn’t, because you want your work spouse to mirror an actual marriage. And for most of us, married in real life or not, that means it’s just the two of us.
I’m a freelancer and I work at several publications. I only have a work spouse at one. That’s sort of a cheat — especially in 2020, because we both work from home and don’t see each other in an actual office. Also, an office spouse is generally a relationship that’s understood by the rest of the office. This is a private office marriage.
But still, I hit him up with tech stuff I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t understand. I let my hair down a bit when we chat. I ask him about stuff that’s not strictly work-related and sometimes he makes me spit take my coffee out with his views on, well, literally anything.
We have things in common, from our generation to our career trajectory to our mutual friends. And he understands what it means if I’m struggling to meet a deadline and can give me the tools I need to make it to the finish line.
Y’know, like a husband.
Would he be my office husband if we worked in an in-person office? Hell no. But you know what he would be? My friend. I’d totally have lunch with him in real life. Maybe a pre-work coffee or even an after-work drink. The way I do with friends.
Calling him anything with the word spouse in it, though? Referring to him that way with co-workers? Kee-keeing about how he’s essentially the replacement of an actual husband? Pass.
I’m 47 years old. I’ve been in the workforce in some capacity for 30 years. I have seen a lot of work spouse relationships, including my own. I don’t know of many that didn’t end in — ahem.
Let’s go back to the 1990s. Remember D? My first office spouse? You know how it ended? Take a wild guess.
Yep. We ended up dating, got married: babies, houses, dogs, the whole bit. We’re not together anymore. And now, we’re back to being the platonic friends we started out as back in the day.
So go have your office spouse. But don’t lie to yourself: The reasons they work as your office spouse are the same reasons they’d work as your spouse. Period.