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Interview with Dr. Jacqueline Olds: Work Spouses - Risky business?

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With more women entering the workplace, it's not surprising that many develop extraordinarily close ties with colleagues, both male and female. To learn more about these relationships, I spoke to psychiatrist Dr. Jacqueline Olds:

Irene: What is a work spouse?

Dr. Olds: A work spouse a person at work with whom you have a special relationship in which you share confidences, loyalties, experiences and a degree of honesty and openness.

Irene: How common are these relationships? Do men tend to have work spouses more than women or vice versa?

Dr. Olds: Most people either currently have or have had a work spouse in the past. Overall, 65% of people report having or having had a work spouse. Married people are more likely to report having or having had a work spouse than single people (67% vs. 59%).

By gender things are pretty close, 69% of married men report having or having had a work spouse compared with 63% of married women. When it comes to same-sex work spouses the difference is more striking, only 34% of married men report have or having had a same-sex work spouse while 67% or married women say they have or have had a same-sex work spouse.

Irene: Can you tell me a little bit about the communication patterns of work spouses?

Dr. Olds: The communication is like that between very close friends. Communication between work spouses may be characterized as the feeling on the part of each that they know each other so well that they can predict what the other might say.

Irene: How do these relationships evolve?

Dr. Olds: People start off feeling that they are grateful to have a good friend at work. As the relationship progresses, they may feel like the work-spouse is the one person at work with whom they can "truly be themselves."

Irene: What are the possible risks, personal and professional, of these relationships?

Dr. Olds: Because the work spouse may be a newer relationship than that of the real spouse, it might threaten the real spousal relationship for the following reasons:

1) We all crave a bit of novelty now and again even if we don't indulge this craving,

2) The work spouse relationship doesn't have a history of disappointments and triumphs the way a real spouse might with the issues of children and domestic life that are often so complex.

3) A person can fantasize that the work spouse relationship might be much better and easier than the "home spouse" because work life is often less emotionally complex than home life, and

4) The work spouse has the advantage of "the forbidden" since sexual relationships are not allowed in most work places.

Irene: What types of boundaries can avert these risks?

Dr. Olds: If you know that this tempting situation at work can be a threat to your marriage or partnership, you can be prepared to "step back" when the work spouse relationship starts getting too personal. This is especially true if the work spouse is sexually attractive to you.

Irene: Is a work spouse just another name for a close friend at work?

Dr. Olds: It certainly can be.

Irene: Do their friendships last? Did you collect any information about the duration of these relationships?

Dr. Olds: We did not as part of this survey but we did explore whether people had lost a work spouse and why. Most adults (66%) have lost a work spouse with the most common reason being a change of jobs (80%) followed by lay-off (27%).

After that the reasons for losing a work spouse drop off dramatically ¬ 4% say it was because they crossed the line, 3% said it was due to a promotion and 2% said they¹d become romantically involved with their work spouse.

Irene: Can you briefly tell me about the study from which this data is derived?

Dr. Olds: The research used to develop this study was based on the responses to an online blind panel in July, 2010 by 640 people in 14 major metropolitan centers in the US and Canada.


About Dr. Jacqueline Olds

Dr. Jacqueline Olds is a psychoanalyst and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She teaches child psychiatry at the McLean and Massachusetts General Hospitals. Together with her husband, fellow professor and psychoanalyst Richard Schwartz, Olds has written three books, Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life, Marriage in Motion and The Lonely American - Drifting Apart in the 21st Century.

More about the work spouse study:

Captivate created The Office Pulse Panel, consisting of more than 3500 white-collar professionals, to gain a deeper understanding of consumers in the workplace. The inaugural Office Pulse study highlighted the influence of co-workers, specifically the "work spouse." Captivate commissioned MarketTools to build and manage panelists across its footprint of more than 1,000 Class A office buildings.


Have you ever had a work spouse?