The Work Spouse

The 50s were a better time. Women didn’t have real roles in the workplace and once the ring hit their finger they were out. Safely relegated to home in their position as an actual wife. Now, they overstay their welcome and brazenly make a real contribution to the team. All this collaboration leads to interpersonal connections, which, after 40 plus hours a week, morph into a relationship. A relationship that quickly becomes the much talked about faux marriage.

The work husband is a must-have accessory for the career-centric woman. He can relate to the plight of dealing with Karen in HR. He appreciates just how much work you put into the Fredrickson account because he was right there with you. He knows your coffee order and has it waiting on your desk at least once a week. He notices the new dress you treat yourself to once a month. He is your compadre, counterpart, other professional half. And it’s completely innocuous.

Or is it?

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In some cases it is. It’s nice to have a compatriot on days when work sucks, you nail a project or you’d absolutely kill for a cafe miel but can’t get away from your desk. I’ve had some great work spouses who I still call friends years after leaving the job behind. But, the boundaries were always clear with those.

When the lines get smudged, it can land you on some dangerous ground. And, not in a creepy evangelist “women and men can’t be friends because it leads to nasty deeds” way. But, in a “if you play naive for too long, you’re gonna find yourself making some real quick judgement calls in a compromised state” way.

The last time I had a work husband who didn’t turn out to be my real husband, I was single and, later, in a terribly unhappy relationship (which the work husband relationship underscored).

Him: oddly cocky coder who had begrudgingly given up on life in a band with the tattoos to prove it. Me: insecure copywriter who had given up any semblance of bad assery with the lack of tattoos to prove it.

He had carefully curated an enigmatic persona. Not quite committing to any number of characteristics, but feeding me a fun fact here to make me feel like I was privy to a little secret. One that bonded us in the trenches.

We were as close as you can get in these situations. He took care of the development tasks I needed handled in record time. Especially when it meant preventing an error I had made from going live. I had his back when coworkers complained about how irresponsible and lazy he was. We took coffee walks, enjoyed sushi Wednesdays, indulged in light flirting over the company IM. He stocked the K-cups I liked.  I took his advice when I decided weightlifting needed to be a thing I did.

    I imagined I’d look something like this. I didn’t.


I imagined I’d look something like this. I didn’t.

Coworkers teased. We poo pooed. All the typical work spouse stuff.

Until the light flirting turned to heavy flirting. Flirting that started to edge on inappropriate considering he had a wife and small child. (Why do people say that? Is it more inappropriate if there is a large child? Or no child?) A family who seemed to disappear into the ether every time I asked about them. I knew they existed, though. I had met his delightful wisp of a wife at the Christmas party.

Still I told myself it was all innocent work spouse stuff. I had no intention of moving in on his marriage. I should have shut down the borderline inappropriate compliments, but they were exactly what what I wanted/needed as I struggled through extended singlehood and then a relationship that undermined any iota of confidence I had. But, it felt good.

I came to rely on him for validation, support, a little levity in the workday and to make me feel pretty. Later I would rely on him to build my portfolio after I lost my job. That’s when the connection grew beyond the office walls. And then, when I lost, or eradicated rather, my shitty relationship, the need for validation grew stronger.

The whole debacle peaked and then began a downward slide when for some reason I decided to invite him into my home. I can’t precisely recall the purpose, but I promise there was no salacious intent behind it. I imagine it was tied to the completion of my portfolio. A few celebratory drinks later and we were hazily sitting on opposite ends of my loves eat (as if a love seat had opposite ends). There was a move and a sudden realization that I could no longer lie to myself about his intentions.

There was really nothing on my end that should have stopped me. I was single. Lonely. Unhappy. And attracted. But, I couldn’t do it. He had a wife. And a child. And this may have been his normal. A life of breaking his marital promise. But I couldn’t be a part of it. It just wasn’t me.

I rebuffed. He took it in stride with a seemingly “I’ll try again next week “mentality. But, a few weeks after my heavy flirting was downgraded into into friendly interaction, his aggressive advances turned into near silence. And then crickets. I quickly realized my purpose was little more than a distraction from a life he had never intended to sign up for (God I sound like a country song).

Ultimately, I’m glad it petered out. It saved me from future awkwardness and the guilt. Guilt that I had to pull back after an extended period of unsavory behavior. And guilt that I hadn’t pulled back sooner.

I don’t think I’ll have another work husband. For me it was an unhealthy way of filling needs that weren’t being met in the relationships I had (or didn’t have) outside of work. Another symptom of the insecurities of a 20-something who couldn’t figure life out. Also known as a 20-something.

Cover image via.