It's not an uncommon workplace scenario: You're sitting at your desk with your head buried deep in piles of work, but your brain is miles away from the task at hand. It could be a recent breakup, a sick parent, trouble with a friend or a different source of workplace anxiety altogether. Your coworker notices your distress from across the room, and immediately shoots over a reassuring Gchat: Everything's going to be OK.
In that moment, a special relationship is at work. This coworker understands the context of your professional stress, but is also privy to your personal worries, which makes her a uniquely insightful friend. That's because she's your work spouse.
And as a generation that's busting their butts at work, this special relationship of blended understanding has become more important than ever.
Built on a special bond: A work spouse is a coworker with whom you share a special, personal bond. In the office, they're "your person" — the one who just gets you.
"We're in a situation where, gosh, this person really understands what I'm going through," Debra Major, an Old Dominion University professor who studies organizational psychology, told Mic. "He or she gets it, because they're here sharing it with me."
Or as Chad McBride, a Creighton University communications professor whose current research focuses on work spouse relationships, told Mic, "You just sort of clicked."
The common context — the office — is the foundation, but the relationship goes beyond that. "There still has to be that thing that we might call chemistry, whether that's shared values, compatible personalities, shared interests," Major said. "Without that piece, the work situation alone isn't going to make this happen."
But while chemistry is key to the equation, it's usually a platonic one, free of any romantic spark. In this way, the term "work spouse" is a bit of a misnomer, one that Major herself doesn't particularly like (she prefers the term "special peer" or "peer mentor"). The bond isn't confined to male/female relationships, either.
The best kind of partnership: The unique context of work spouse relationships can actually make them easier to maintain than regular friendships or romances. There's no need to worry about carving out time to see one another or maintaining the quotidian aspects of a typical partnership, like deciding where to go for dinner or choosing how to divvy up chores.
"It's sort of like the relationship that's pared down to the relationship core," Major said. "The psychological components that we appreciate about being in a relationship with each other are there in a purer form."
And the best parts? "It's characterized by trust, reciprocity and support," McBride said.
The trust piece is crucial, considering professional satisfaction and success are at stake. "There are plenty of coworkers we have that we're sharing the same experience with, but we don't develop that sort of trust bond," Major told Mic. "I think the trust piece is part of what makes this relationship special."
This was the case for Eric*, who had a "work wife" in 2008 while employed at a New York-based travel company.
"There was a very high level of trust," he told Mic. "We constantly talked about stuff — 'Can I tell you something, this just happened,' kind of thing." It stemmed in part from a mutual unhappiness with the company, which was, as Eric put it, a mess. "We would have lunch almost every day together, commiserate together," he said. "[A work spouse is] just a true confidante and friend."
Andrew, an actor and singer, shared the same bond with a fellow actor when starring in a Broadway show.
"I think when you're backstage, you really doubt yourself, and I think having that one other person to be kind of the sounding board, and to take on your neuroses... forms a relationship unlike any other," he told Mic. "The second you get [offstage], all of your thoughts and vents are all going to come out. It builds a real foundation of trust."
The faces we count on every day: Because we rely on them so much, work spouses can get entangled in our "real" lives, for better or worse.
"If they develop a kind of exclusivity, that fosters jealousy or resentment among coworkers, or resentment and jealousy with one's true significant other," Major told Mic, the latter scenario being especially tricky if your work spouse matches up with your sexual orientation.
Our professional ambitions can also get wrapped up in the relationships. Molly, a New York-based journalist, recently endured her work spouse leaving the company entirely. "It made me question, why am I here? What are my intentions? Because she left, I wondered what my place was, because my place was always in relation to her. It was always through her," she told Mic.
But at the end of the day, having that constant support is invaluable for the imprint it makes on our working lives. After all, work comprises nearly 90,000 hours of our lives — the people who support us and act as our confidantes while we're there can impact our lives in the long-term more than we may realize.
"They are the matter or the material of the workplace," as Molly put it. "What is a workplace without the bodies in it? It's just a space. They make the workplace."
*Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.