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Dealing with the Work Spouse

They may not be on first-name terms with your mother, and they’re unlikely to care too much which color you should paint your bathroom, but a work spouse is about as close as you’ll get to someone without sharing a second name.

While this may not initially seem like too much of a potential problem – after all, it’s spreadsheets you’re sharing, not bed sheets – the relationship you develop with a workmate can seriously impact your civilian relationship.

First of all, let’s do the math. Take a typical day: you spend maybe eight hours sleeping and nine hours at work, which (not including a commute) leaves you no more than seven waking hours in which to attempt to communicate with your significant other. That’s less than the time you spend with your work spouse and that person doesn’t have to see you in your sweats.

Additionally, at work we have structure and form, a set of codes both written and unwritten by which we operate. Within that structure we’re generally on our best behavior, a combination of common decency and the restrictions of a by-the-books HR department, virtually guaranteeing sublimation of our darker sides.

So you’re looking good and behaving well – what’s not to love? You’re deliberately projecting an image that’s going to impress the boss, but you’re also likely to attract the attention of members of the opposite sex, and not just for your skills with PowerPoint. But how do you maintain a close working relationship without a co-worker misinterpreting your actions, and how do you reassure your partner that your work relationship is nothing more than professional?

Simply put, the answer lies with boundaries and priorities. Starting at work, it’s important to let colleagues know enough about your private life so that they don’t get the wrong idea about your availability – or lack of it. Spare them too many details – after all, it’s not called a private life for nothing – but let them know plainly and clearly that you have a partner. Something as simple as a framed picture of your loved one on your desk sets the tone without saying a word, and casual references to you and your partner’s life together – say, after a weekend break – is enough to let colleagues know you’re happily entwined with another.

By the same token, some things are best left unsaid, especially when things aren’t going so well at home. Every couple has arguments, and by sharing the details with your work spouse your actions are open to interpretation. He or she may feel that by talking about problems you’re having at home, the subtext is, “I’m dissatisfied with my partner, looking for someone else, and thought you might be interested.”

Even casual grumblings about your partner – from minor things like leaving off the top of the toothpaste tube to potentially more important ones like not getting what you do at work – can add up to an impression that you’re generally dissatisfied. Exacerbating the problem, if your work colleague is in any way attracted to you, he or she will actively look for chinks in your relationship’s armor, your gentle put-downs giving just the encouragement your colleague is seeking.

Back at home, the situation is reversed. Your partner knows you’ll be working in close proximity to others, and he or she may be looking for signs of a close connection there, sometimes subconsciously. So at home, while of course it’s acceptable to talk about your work colleagues, it’s wise to drop in details of their flaws. It’s up to you to find ways to tell them that, despite being a great work friend, they’re definitely not relationship material.

It’s also important to include your partner in your office life so he can develop some kind of relationship with your work spouse. Invite your partner to after-office events and try to meet at your workplace for occasional lunches. If your office has, say, a softball team, invite your partner to join in.

The more she sees you with your work spouse, the more comfortable she’ll feel… and the more your work friends will realize that your relationship priorities lie at home.