The Pros and Cons of a “Work Spouse”

man and woman smiling in office setting

Do you have one particular friend you’re close to at the office—someone you turn to for advice, inside jokes, and strength to get through the day? This close office friendship is often referred to as a “work spouse” partnership. It’s pretty common, especially for folks who have been working for a while at the same organization. Almost half of the people surveyed in a Simply Hired study said they had a work spouse at some point in their career.

This bond can provide invaluable moral and professional support, giving both your careers a boost. But overreliance on a single colleague comes with some risks as well. Like any relationship, a close work friendship requires communication, give and take, and clear boundaries.

The benefits

First and foremost, a work spouse is someone you know you can trust. They’ll help you out if you’re swamped or need a listening ear, and ideally you’ll do the same for them.

The ability to be honest with someone who knows your strengths and weaknesses—someone who will tell you if you should go for that promotion, start an initiative, or address an ongoing problem—can be great for professional growth. And a co-worker who cares about you as a friend and human being will encourage you to prioritize self-care when times get tough.

Having a “safe” go-to person in the office also helps manage stress and reduces the possibility of burnout. In the often busy and demanding social impact world, this friend can be a lifesaver.

Mutual employee support is ultimately good for the organization. When you have a rapport with a colleague, you’re likely to put more effort into your work, enjoy yourself more, and stay at the organization longer. Not to mention, two minds are better than one; if you and your friend work well together, you can harness the power of collaboration to put big ideas into practice.

The risks

It’s possible for a partnership to get close enough that you end up excluding others, whether you mean to or not. If the two of you are in the same department, do you consult other department members when you make decisions? Or do you simply come to a consensus together? Are you unconsciously promoting your work spouse’s brainstorming ideas out of loyalty? Or are you giving everyone else’s ideas a fair shake? Do you cover for your friend if they make a mistake without providing the same second chance to others?

Favoritism can be hard to recognize when you’re the favorite (or the one supporting them). So take a step back and make sure you’re treating everyone equally.

And though you have each other’s backs in the office, ultimately you and your work spouse are different people, most likely with different professional goals. One of you might leave the organization eventually. If you can’t imagine working anywhere without the other person, you may have lost sight of what’s best for you as an individual.

There’s also the possibility that one of you will be promoted to a supervisory role. This will create an unequal power dynamic, especially if one friend is now directly reporting to the other. Your colleagues may rightly be concerned about favoritism, and your friendship could change in ways you didn’t expect.

Respecting boundaries

The “work spouse” dynamic gets its nickname because its intimacy and trust can resemble a romantic relationship. And these two partnerships do resemble each other in some ways. The best ones are grounded in mutual respect, bringing out the best in each person.

But a professional friendship has a different set of boundaries to negotiate. It can be helpful to determine your own goals from the relationship. Are you happy to have a sympathetic co-worker, or do you want a close friend? Do you tend to lean on one another for support during hard times, and are you both comfortable with this pattern? It’s possible one person doesn’t always have the emotional bandwidth to help the other one, especially at a demanding job. Consider reaching out to professional resources if you’re facing burnout or depression—or pointing the other person towards these resources if they’re struggling.

Think of your work “bestie” as part of a broader support network. They shouldn’t be the only person you rely on in the office. Ideally you both will get to know other colleagues, cultivating a team atmosphere. When workplace problems arise, make sure you’re doing more than gossiping between yourselves. Involve human resources if necessary, or open up an office-wide dialogue about how to make things better.

And both of you should be honest about the support you can and can’t provide. For instance, if you want to spend time together outside of work, make sure both parties are on board.

As plans and careers change, your relationship will change with them. Though you may have a lot in common, you probably have separate short- and long-term job goals. It’s possible your friendship will become more casual over time, or one or both of you will move on from the organization. Whatever the case, make sure you maintain your ability to thrive as a solo unit while appreciating the help of your colleague. 

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How have your close work friendships impacted you? Tweet at us to let us know.

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Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.
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