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Despite a spate of media attention in recent years and implications for both work and family relationships, communication scholars have yet to study work-spouse relationships. Since popular press sources have often focused on the nature of and propriety of such relationships, the purpose of this study was to empirically examine how work spouses characterized their relationships. We analyzed 269 participants’ open-ended responses to a survey, which yielded five categories: (a) characteristics of a work spouse, (b) conditions for the work-spouse relationship, (c) characteristics of the work-spouse relationship, (d) functions of work spouses, and (e) ways of managing the work-spouse relationship. From this analysis, we construct a definition of the relationship and chart a course of future research for communication scholars.
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Work Spouses: Defining and
Understanding a “New” Relationship
M. Chad McBridea & Karla Mason Bergenb
a Communication Studies Department, Creighton University
b College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Nebraska
Published online: 10 Jun 2015.
To cite this article: M. Chad McBride & Karla Mason Bergen (2015): Work Spouses: Defining and
Understanding a “New” Relationship, Communication Studies, DOI: 10.1080/10510974.2015.1029640
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10510974.2015.1029640
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Work Spouses: Defining and
Understanding a ‘‘New’’ Relationship
M. Chad McBride & Karla Mason Bergen
Despite a spate of media attention in recent years and implications for both work and
family relationships, communication scholars have yet to study work-spouse relation-
ships. Since popular press sources have often focused on the nature of and propriety of
such relationships, the purpose of this study was to empirically examine how work
spouses characterized their relationships. We analyzed 269 participants’ open-ended
responses to a survey, which yielded five categories: (a) characteristics of a work spouse,
(b) conditions for the work-spouse relationship, (c) characteristics of the work-spouse
relationship, (d) functions of work spouses, and (e) ways of managing the work-spouse
relationship. From this analysis, we construct a definition of the relationship and chart a
course of future research for communication scholars.
Keywords: Confidant; Coworker Relationships; Friendships; Social Support; Trust; Work
Spouse
The notion of ‘‘work-spouse’’ relationships has emerged as a popular topic in main-
stream media in news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, and
Women’s Health (e.g., Chun, 2012; Dold, 2012; Feintzeig, 2014), scripted television
(e.g., Grey’s Anatomy and Castle), and talk shows (e.g., Dr. Phil and The Steve Harvey
Show). While it is difficult to determine exactly when the term entered American
vocabulary, Noah (2004), in writing about the close relationship between President
G. W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, traced the first usage of the term to Owen’s
(1987)Atlantic essay. Since the time of Owen’s essay, we know the demands of work
M. Chad McBride, PhD, is Associate Professor and Chair of the Communication Studies Department at
Creighton University. Karla Mason Bergen, PhD, is Associate Professor and the Communication Program
Director, Director of General Education, and Coordinator of Women’s Studies at College of Saint Mary in
Omaha, Nebraska. Correspondence to: M. Chad McBride, Department of Communication Studies, Creighton
University, 2500 California Plaza, Omaha, NE 68178, USA. E-mail: cmcbride@creighton.edu
Communication Studies
Vol. 0, No. 0, pp. 1–22
ISSN 1051-0974 (print)/ISSN 1745-1035 (online) #2015 Central States Communication Association
DOI: 10.1080/10510974.2015.1029640
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have shifted and workers often spend more time at work than they do with their fam-
ilies (see Kirby, Wieland, & McBride, 2013), perhaps one of the reasons this kind of
relationship has emerged. It is important to study work-spouse relationships because
the literature has made clear that close supportive relationships are among the most
effective ways to mediate the conflict between work=home life (see Michel, Kotrba,
Mitchelson, Clark, & Baltes, 2011, for a meta-analysis). Because of these findings,
organizational scholars have examined many different types of relationships in the
workplace (e.g., subordinate-supervisor relationships, peer relationships, romantic
relationships; see Fritz, 2014), overlooking work-spouse relationships.
Most of what we do know about work-spouse relationships comes from popular
press sources. Although Vandewal (2007) explained that ‘‘A work spouse is a
co-worker with whom one has a close connection, but a wholly platonic relation-
ship ...modeled on a marriage relationship, with partners providing support for each
other for both work and non-work related issues’’ (para. 1), the general public seems
unconvinced. Reader responses to media writings over the past few years have
reflected heated disagreement on the nature and propriety of work-spouse relation-
ships. (See, for example, the public comment section following Dorsett, 2011.) The
ramifications of work spouses on the workplace and at home have also been debated
in the media. ‘‘Experts’’ in popular press articles have offered conflicting opinions on
whether a work spouse is beneficial or harmful to organizations and to real spouses
(e.g., Levine, 2010).
The number of these relationships indicate the potential impact on both the work-
place and the family. Estimates of the frequency of these relationships vary from 11%
of workers (Captivate Network, 2010)to65%of white-collar workers (Erwin, 2009).
There may be negative repercussions in the workplace; coworkers may feel jealous of
the special relationship and, if a work-spouse couple has a superior-subordinate
relationship, may perceive favoritism. Additionally, 20%of those who revealed they
had work spouses also revealed that their real spouses were jealous of the work spouse
(Erwin, 2009). Clark’s (2000) Work=Family Border Theory underscores how the lines
between work=personal life are blurred in today’s workplace, which could help
explain both the emergence of the term ‘‘work spouse’’ (a term that blurs work
and family relationships) and the work-spouse relationship itself, as workers rely
on workplace relationships to navigate the stresses of both the workplace and
personal life.
Additionally, this project continues a long line of communication studies that
explore and describe different relational types. Other relational scholars have used
participant voices to define established relationships, such as friendships (Reisman,
1981) and families (Baxter et al., 2009), and, since work spouses are potentially prob-
lematic within other work and home relationships, how this relationship is character-
ized is even more salient. Because this relationship crosses boundaries and the
understanding of it is fluid, having an empirically based definition and a clear
characterization becomes an important foundation before other aspects of this
relationship can be examined. Although researchers have not specifically studied
work spouses (with the one exception of Rosenbury, 2013), the term itself suggests
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a blending of a work and personal relationships. The popular discourse describing
work-spouse relationships as close, platonic relationships suggests that these relation-
ships embody some element of friendship, typically portrayed as being cross-sex. This
portrayal as heterosexual, opposite-sex couples is likely due to the spousal termin-
ology and our culture’s heteronormative bias; however, for the purposes of this pro-
ject, we do not assume that all work-spouse relationships are cross-sex between
heterosexuals. Thus, in what follows, we discuss research on three related types of
relationships that have been studied by communication scholars and are salient to
work spouses: (a) blended relationships, (b) workplace friendships, and (c) cross-sex
friendships. These areas provide a foundation for investigating the unique qualities of
work-spouse relationships.
A Blended Relationship
Work-spouse relationships are blended relationships—they do not fit neatly into any
existing relational category. Relationship research tends to divide relationships into dis-
crete categories (e.g., family, friends, romantic partners, coworkers), overlooking that
real-life relationships often overlap categories. This tendency is likely tied to the cul-
tural belief that family, friends, and romantic partners belong to the private sphere
and coworkers belong to the public sphere (Clark, 2000;Marks,1994). Sias (2009)
refers to this ideology of separate spheres as ‘‘the bifurcation of work and personal rela-
tionships’’ (p. 73). From a managerial perspective, the separation of work and personal
life is premised on the notion that coworker relationships might decrease employee
performance (Buzzanell & Dohrman, 2009). However, Buzzanell and Dohrman, as well
as Marks, argued that the nature of modern work life, placing coworkers in close prox-
imity for many hours, creates the conditions for coworkers forming friendships.
The potential for romantic relationships between coworkers (e.g., Cowan &
Horan, 2014), another blended relationship (Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Sias, 2009), is
likely one of the reasons there has been a longstanding cultural norm prescribing
work and personal life should be separate (Marks, 1994). Some negative perceptions
of work spouses may stem from the fact that coworkers or real spouses suspect that
cross-sex work spouses might be sexually involved (O’Meara, 1989; Rawlins, 2009).
Even between coworkers of the same sex, close friendships in the workplace may
be perceived as inappropriate if there is a hierarchal power difference between two
people (i.e., manager and subordinate employee; see, for example, Elsesser & Peplau,
2006).The longstanding managerial (and cultural) bias has been that personal
relationships are inappropriate in the workplace (Marks, 1994). The reality is that
workplace relationships of various types have probably always existed.
Clark (2000) addressed the notion of the overlap of personal=private life in Work=
Family Border Theory, which acknowledges the existence of separate spheres and the
overlap between them. She noted that ‘‘work and family life influence each other, and
so employers, societies, and individuals cannot ignore one sphere without potential
peril to the other’’ (p. 749). Clark proposed that the overlap between the two spheres
Defining Work Spouses 3
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is negotiated through the communication and actions of individuals who act as
‘‘border-crossers’’ and ‘‘border-keepers.’’ Clark’s theory seems borne out by the find-
ing that contemporary workers perceive permeable, rather than rigid, boundaries
between their work=personal life and deem relationships between coworkers accept-
able and desirable (Cowan & Hoffman, 2007) and the finding that such relationships
contribute to ‘‘satisfaction and good functioning at work and at home’’ (Clark, 2000,
p. 751). Many researchers have noted numerous benefits of workplace friendships,
summarized in the following section.
Benefits of Workplace Friendships
The study of interpersonal relationships in the workplace has been the subject of much
academic study in the past three decades (Fritz, 2014). Researchers have noted that
coworker relationships are particularly valuable for providing both instrumental and
emotional support to individuals in the workplace (Buzzanell & Dohrman, 2009;Sias,
2009) and can also help each other manage work=life and identity issues (Rumens,
2010a). Coworkers who provide ongoing mutual support create a basis for forming clo-
ser relationships (Sias & Cahill, 1998), given the large amount of time spent at work (Sias,
2009). The complexity of modern organizational life may also lend itself to workers seek-
ing close friends in the workplace to help them navigate the challenges of the workplace.
Scholars have documented numerous benefits of coworker friendships for organi-
zations. Riordan and Griffeth (1995) described ‘‘increased interaction, communi-
cation, trust, respect, cooperation, growth, development, support, energy and
security’’ (p. 142) may lead to a positive influence on the organization via employees’
attitudes and behaviors. In fact, having a ‘‘best friend’’ in the workplace has been
correlated with higher overall job satisfaction (Winstead, Derlega, Montgomery, &
Pilkington, 1995), which benefits the organization through enhanced worker perfor-
mance and lower turnover (Sias, 2009).
Thus, the research on interpersonal relationships in the workplace documents sub-
stantial benefits for both workers and employers, which may be salient to
work-spouse relationships. A third area of relational study, cross-sex friendships,
may provide insight into the real and perceived challenges of work-spouse relation-
ships, relevant to this project given that popular discourse nearly always presumes
work-spouse relationships are between men and women.
Cross-Sex Friendships
Perceptions of cross-sex friendships often rely on stereotypical beliefs that male=
female relationships are always influenced by the potential for sexual attraction
(Monsour, Harris, Kurzwell, & Beard, 1994). Although it should be acknowledged
that romantic relationships between coworkers do take place (Cowan & Horan,
2014), it is often the case that men and women are ‘‘just good friends’’ (Werking,
1997). Rawlins’ (1982), however, noted that cross-sex friendships must battle the
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perception that men and women cannot have a nonsexual relationship. Elsesser and
Peplau (2006) found three primary obstacles to cross-sex friendships in the work-
place: (a) fear that opposite-sex coworkers might misinterpret overtures of friendship
as romantic or sexual interest directed toward themselves; (b) fear that other cowor-
kers might misinterpret cross-sex friendships as romantic or sexual involvement; and
(c) fear that opposite sex coworkers might interpret overtures of friendship as sexual
harassment. These researchers argue these obstacles constitute a ‘‘glass partition,’’
which deprives women of valuable knowledge and support from working relation-
ships with male coworkers. However, we highlight these limitations to cross-sex
friendships are heteronormative and note that these same issues may arise in
same-sex homosexual friendships (e.g., Rumens, 2010b).
Exploring Work-Spouse Relationships
Given the important benefits of coworker relationships, the limited attention to
hybrid types of relationships in the workplace, and the perceived challenges of
cross-sex relationships, it becomes even more apparent that the work-spouse
relationship warrants the attention of relational and organizational communication
scholars. Defining and describing work-spouse relationships from the perspective
of people in the relationship is an important foundation to begin the study of a
relationship that has received little attention in scholarly research.
Although media has been fairly consistent in defining the ‘‘work-spouse’’ relationship,
as indicated earlier, the online discussions generated indicate mixed perceptions about
this kind of relationship. Rawlins (1982) asserted that a rhetorical challenge (i.e., the need
to persuade others that it is ‘‘just’’ a friendship) exists with cross-sex relationships
(Rawlins, 2009). Elsesser and Peplau’s (2006) findings that individuals reported avoiding
cross-sex relationships with coworkers due to fear these relationships might be misper-
ceived as romantic=sexual involvement seems to substantiate that rhetorical challenge.
Before relational and organizational communication researchers can study the dynamics
of work-spouse relationships, it is important to understand the characteristics of this type
of relationship. Because academic researchers have not previously studied this type of
relationship, qualitative methods with their exploratory and descriptive focus (Creswell,
2012) are most appropriate. To create a research-based definition of work-spouse rela-
tionships, we posed a single, broad research question so as to have findings emerge from
participant voices rather than presuming a particular set of results:
RQ: How do individuals in work-spouse relationships characterize the relationship?
Method
Our goal was to answer this research question with empirical data from a large num-
ber of persons who had experienced a work-spouse relationship. A widely distributed
Defining Work Spouses 5
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online survey seemed to be the best way to obtain data from geographically and
demographically diverse participants. In what follows, we describe those participants,
the survey design and procedures, and our data analysis methods.
Participants
The sample consisted of 276 participants who completed an online survey. These
participants self-identified as being in a work-spouse relationship or had been ident-
ified by others (coworkers, family, etc.) as having a work spouse. Since our goal was
to define and describe the work spouse relationship, it was important to gather data
from those who are actually in (and experience) this relationship as they have the best
understanding of what the relationship is and what it means to them. Seven parti-
cipants had an incomplete response to the targeted survey question; therefore, the
results presented here represent 269 individuals. See Table 1for full demographics
on participants, their work spouse, and their work-spouse relationship.
Design and Procedure
After receiving IRB approval, we posted the survey online and solicited participants
via our social networks. Since the survey was targeted to individuals who
self-identified as being in a work-spouse relationship, we also found stories about
work spouses online and posted the survey link in the comment section of these arti-
cles. As a result, participants came from 40 different states, Washington, DC, and five
other countries.
We obtained consent on the first page of the survey, which provided an overview
of the project, a brief description of how the work-spouse relationship had been
described in popular press (‘‘a close, platonic [nonromantic] friendship in the work-
place’’
1
), and the informed consent form. The survey consisted of demographic items
and open- and closed-ended items. For the purpose of creating a participant-based
definition of the work-spouse relationship, we focused our analysis for this article
on responses to the open-ended item, ‘‘What do you think are the important char-
acteristics of the work-spouse relationship?’’ and used four other questions to
cross-check our analysis of the characteristics described below.
Data Analysis
We report our results in a distributional structure via content analysis (Baxter & Bab-
bie, 2004); however, we initially created categories using Strauss and Corbin’s (1998)
constant comparative method, an inductive, emergent process. Both researchers read
through the first 100 responses to get an overall sense of the data. Each separate
characteristic listed by a respondent was considered one unit of data; if a respondent
listed the same characteristic multiple times, we only counted it once. (For example,
one participant wrote, ‘‘Trust, Trust, Trust’’ as her answer. We coded her response as
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Table 1 Work Spouse Demographics
Participants (N¼269) .Sex: 67.29%of participants were female
.Age: Range 20–65 years (M¼38.39, SD ¼10.27)
.Ethnicity:
White=Caucasian (85.44%)
Latino=a (5.97%)
African American=Black (3.36%)
Asian (1.49%)
Native American (0.37%)
Mixed heritage (2.24%)
Other (1.12%)
.Sexuality:
Straight or heterosexual (90.64%)
Lesbian (3.75%)
Gay (2.62%)
Bisexual (3.00%)
.Education:
Bachelor degree (38.66%)
Master degree (19.33%)
Terminal or Doctoral degree (16.73%)
High School degree (2.41%)
Some college (2.41%)
.Romantic Relationship Status:
Married or in a domestic partnership (67.95%)
Single (14.96%)
Serious, long-term romantic relationship (8.97%)
Casually dating (3.42%)
Living with a romantic partner (2.99%)
Other (1.71%)
Work Spouses .Sex: 60.26%of work spouses were male
.Age: Range 20–70 years (M¼38.54, SD ¼10.29)
.Ethnicity:
White=Caucasian (81.28%)
Latino=a (8.51%)
African American=Black (4.25%)
Mixed heritage (2.98%)
Asian (1.70%)
Other (1.27%)
.Sexuality:
Straight or heterosexual (94.50%)
Gay (3.39%),
Lesbian (1.27%)
Bisexual (0.86%)
(Continued )
Defining Work Spouses 7
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‘‘Trust’’ and only counted it once.) We examined each unit of data, labeling each with
a temporary category. As we progressed, we asked if the next unit of data was the same
or different than previous units, resulting in a coding scheme with 39 categories.
Each researcher independently used this coding scheme to categorize the data
from the next 50 responses yielding 151 units of data with a Cohen’s kappa of
0.88. We came to consensus on discrepancies and refined our coding scheme. The
first author then recoded the first 100 responses used in the initial analysis and the
rest of the 119 participants that had never been coded. In total, there were 816 units
of data coded. After the first author’s coding, the second author reviewed the cate-
gories to check for coder drift (Baxter & Babbie, 2004). Once we coded each unit
of data, we axial coded (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) the data-generated initial categories
into the broad categories and subcategories presented in the results.
To triangulate our findings, we examined the responses to four other open-ended
questions: (a) ‘‘What do you think makes this relationship similar to and different
Table 1 Continued
.Education:
Bachelor degree (36.71%)
Master degree (24.05%)
Terminal or Doctoral degree (15.61%)
Some high school (0.42%)
High School degree (2.95%)
Some college (20.25%)
Work-Spouse Relationship .Known each other <1 year and 30 years (M¼6.10, SD ¼5.67)
.Worked together between <1 year and 26 years (M¼5.12,
SD ¼4.55)
.Thought of themselves or been labeled as work spouses between
a few months to 29 years (M¼2.88, SD ¼3.52).
.Role within organization:
Peer relationship (equal status) with their work spouse
(79.59%)
Superior=subordinate relationship with their work spouse
(17.14%)
Did not report (3%)
.Sex and sexual orientation collectively:
Most (81.14%) participants’ work-spouse relationships held
the potential for mutual sexual attraction (e.g., straight
male=straight female; gay male=gay male)
Sex=sexual orientation of the remaining (19.86%) parti-
cipants’ work-spouse relationships held little potential for
mutual sexual attraction (e.g., straight male=straight male; les-
bian female=straight female).
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than other work relationships?’’ (b) ‘‘More specifically, what do you think makes this
relationship similar to and different than other friendships at work?’’ (c) ‘‘What do
you think makes this relationship similar to and different than a romantic relation-
ship?’’ and (d) ‘‘How would you characterize=describe the interactions with your
work spouse.’’ Although we initially planned to analyze and report the responses
to all five questions for this project, we found the themes that emerged organically
from the responses to the first open-ended question were duplicated in the responses
to the more direct questions. We did not, therefore, include the responses to these
four questions in our results for three reasons. First, we did not want to inflate the
distributional structure of any category. Second, in our results, we report on parti-
cipants who compared their work spouse to their real spouse in different ways when
asked generally about the characteristics of a work spouse, which speaks to the way
participants characterize their work-spouse relationship through talk. If we included
all of the data where participants were asked specifically to compare the two types of
relationships, we could not report our categories ‘‘Comparison to Real Spouse’’ or
‘‘Fulfills Role That Real Spouse Cannot’’ in the same way. Finally, these questions
do not directly answer our research question: ‘‘How do those in work-spouse rela-
tionships characterize the relationship?’’ The best data to answer this question are
participants’ open-ended responses to a general question. While the more direct
questions verify these responses, they are tangential to answering our research ques-
tion. However, we did do thematic coding of these additional four questions, which
served to triangulate and verify our findings (Baxter & Babbie, 2004).
Results
We did not presuppose any particular findings or way of framing the research ques-
tion, ‘‘How do individuals in work-spouse relationships characterize the relation-
ship?’’ Rather, the findings and themes were emergent in five broad categories.
Although the question asked participants specifically about characteristics of the
work-spouse relationship, we found that participants also wrote about characteristics
of a work spouse as well as conditions for, functions of, and ways of managing the
work-spouse relationship. Table 2provides an overview of each of these categories
with frequencies and percentage of participants who reported each.
Characteristics of a Work Spouse
First, participants wrote about characteristics that made someone a good work spouse.
These characteristics formed four subcategories: (a) good character, (b) humor,
(c) understanding organizational culture, and (d) predictable. While many different
adjectives were used, many described someone who had good character (e.g., caring,
understanding=empathetic, nonjudgmental=open-minded, good work ethic,
intelligent, ethical, and patient). Participants who wrote about these qualities mostly
just listed words as all or part of their response. However, sometimes we put synonyms
together into one category. For example, caring included references to kindness and
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Table 2 Result Categories and Subcategories
Characteristics of a Work Spouse
Good Character 55 20.44
Caring 16 5.95
Understanding=Empathetic 14 5.20
Nonjudgmental=Open-Mindedness 8 2.97
Work Ethic 6 2.23
Intelligent 6 2.23
Ethical Person 3 1.12
Patient 2 0.74
Humor 29 10.78
Understands Organizational Culture 6 2.23
Predictable 3 1.12
Conditions for a Work-Spouse Relationship
Similarity (homophily) 52 19.33
Equity (in positions=education) 10 3.72
Common Goals 8 2.97
Feelings about work=coworkers 8 2.97
Humor 6 2.23
Interests 5 1.86
Age=Background 4 1.49
Work Ethic 3 1.12
Intelligence 3 1.12
World View 2 0.74
Values 2 0.74
Personality 1 0.37
Compatibility 21 7.81
Complementarity 8 2.97
Availability=Physical Proximity 6 2.23
Characteristics of the Work-Spouse Relationship
Reciprocal Qualities 219 81.41
Trust 108 40.15
Loyalty 33 12.27
Honesty 41 15.24
Open to Criticism 5 1.86
Respect 28 10.41
Reciprocity 4 1.47
Connection 75 27.88
Emotional Bond 28 10.41
‘‘Know’’ Each Other 20 7.43
Comfort 11 4.09
Chemistry (nonsexual) 8 2.97
Shared Experience=History 8 2.97
(Continued )
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being considerate, and 3 respondents who were coded as writing about an ‘‘ethical’’
work spouse mentioned having good values or integrity. Similarly, respondents who
reported the last three subcategories (humor, knowledge of work culture, and predict-
ability) also used these exact words, or synonyms (e.g., ‘‘funny’’ for humor), in their
responses.
Conditions for a Work-Spouse Relationship
Participants also described conditions leading to the development of a work-spouse
relationship, including (a) similarities, (b) compatibility, (c) complementarity, and
(d) availability=physical proximity. Subcategories did not describe an individual
Table 2 Continued
Comparisons to Other Relationship Types 81 30.11
Working Relationships 27 10.04
Friendship 23 8.55
Platonic 21 7.81
Comparison to Real Spouse 10 3.72
Ways of Communicating 40 14.87
Communication 22 8.18
‘‘Communication’’ 8 2.97
Good Communication 9 3.35
Frequent Communication 4 1.48
Unique Communication 1 0.37
Listening 13 4.83
Bicker=Conflict 2 0.74
Flirting=Physical Attraction 2 0.74
Gossip 1 0.371
Functions of Work Spouses
Confidant 70 26.02
Support 51 18.96
General Support 40 14.87
Advice 8 2.97
Emotional Support 3 1.12
Spending Time Together 18 6.69
‘‘Push’’ or Motivate 11 4.09
Fun 11 4.09
Makes Work ‘‘Better’’ 8 2.97
Fulfills Role a ‘‘Real’’ Spouse Cannot 6 2.23
Ways of Managing Work-Spouse Relationship
Blurred Boundaries 32 11.90
Clear Boundaries 14 5.20
Defining Work Spouses 11
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person=work spouse or the work-spouse relationship itself. Rather, they described the
conditions necessary for the work-spouse relationship to develop. The major subca-
tegory was similarity between work spouses. Participants wrote about the importance
of similarity in various ways (education levels, goals, interests, backgrounds, values,
personalities, etc.). A few of these similarities mirror work-spouse characteristics, but
the difference is that participants specifically emphasized similarity between work
spouses rather than an individual characteristic. For example, while several people
mentioned ‘‘intelligence’’ as an important characteristic (which was coded as intelli-
gence as part of the first major category), 3 people specifically mentioned the impor-
tance of having similar intelligence levels. One participant wrote, ‘‘smart, but not
smarter than me.’’ While intelligence (or ‘‘smart’’-ness) was an important character-
istic to this participant, more important was a similarity in intelligence. This same
coding rule applied to both humor and work ethic. It was the similarity of
characteristics that provided the condition for the relationship to develop.
The second (compatibility) and third (complementarity) subcategories also speak to
conditions that allow work spouses to work well together. While a few respondents
used the specific term ‘‘compatibility,’’ more described their relationship as such
by using phrases that described a ‘‘good working relationship’’ or ‘‘being able to
get along after working on a project closely.’’ However, others described their
relationship as complementary. For example, one participant wrote about the ‘‘will-
ingness to complement each other’s strengths=weaknesses.’’ Here, it was differences
between the work spouses that created conditions for the relationship.
Finally, the last condition necessary for a work-spouse relationship was
availability=physical proximity. Several participants wrote about the importance of
being physically close so that the functions of a work spouse could be performed
more easily. However, when this physical closeness did not exist due to organiza-
tional structure, general availability was a necessary condition for the work-spouse
relationship to develop.
Characteristics of the Work-Spouse Relationship
The largest category that emerged from these data regarded different ways of charac-
terizing or describing the work-spouse relationship itself, including (a) reciprocal
qualities, (b) connection, (c) comparisons to other relationship types, and (d) ways
of communicating. Reciprocal qualities were referenced by over 80%of respondents
and included characteristics such as trust, loyalty, honesty, and respect. While trust-
worthy, loyal, or honest could describe an individual, these participants used these
words to describe the reciprocal nature within their relationship. It was not necessar-
ily that the work spouse was trustworthy, but that they could ‘‘trust each other’’ to be
‘‘discreet’’ with work and personal issues. Some participants wrote about how this
trust ‘‘developed over time,’’ which highlights a relational aspect of this reciprocal
expectation. This mutual trust was so important that 40%of respondents mentioned
it (more than any other category or subcategory). Loyalty, however, was also a
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common mutual quality in these relationships. Again, many participants wrote about
the importance of being loyal to each other, but many others used descriptive phrases
such as ‘‘having each other’s backs,’’ ‘‘willing to go out on a limb,’’ or ‘‘knowing you
can always count on each other.’’
The next two characteristics in the reciprocal qualities subcategory, honesty and
ability to take criticism, were two sides of the same issue. Participants wrote about
the importance of having a work spouse who had ‘‘candor’’ or was ‘‘completely hon-
est’’ on both work and personal issues. However, participants also wrote about the
importance of being open to criticism. In other words, they expected a reciprocal
relationship between honesty and ability to take criticism; they expected their work
spouse to be honest with them and to be open to feedback when they were honest
with their work spouse. Participants also mentioned respect. Like trust, loyalty,
and honesty, respect was not unidirectional. One work spouse did not just respect
the other, rather, there was mutual respect of their abilities, needs, etc. Finally, while
in all of the above examples participants described ways that their relationship was
reciprocal, others simply stated that their relationship was reciprocal without giving
any details.
The second subcategory centered around connection where participants often
described their emotional bond in different ways, including ‘‘emotional involve-
ment,’’ ‘‘unconditional love,’’ ‘‘agape or ‘brotherly’ love,’’ and ‘‘a deep caring for each
other.’’ Others described their connection based on mutual knowledge, writing
‘‘knowing how [the other person] thinks, tackles problems and issues, and emotional
hot buttons,’’ ‘‘knowing things about each other that others don’t know,’’ or ‘‘being
able to read the signs [the work spouse gives].’’ Still others described their connection
in terms of comfort or chemistry, but participants who mentioned chemistry empha-
sized that it was nonsexual. Rather, they wrote about the ‘‘uniqueness’’ of their con-
nection because of the ‘‘good interpersonal interplay’’ or because they ‘‘communicate
differently with each other [than with other coworkers].’’ Finally, some described
their connection as based on shared history or experiences, such as time spent
together, shared events at work, or commonalities in their personal lives (‘‘starting
families about the same time’’).
The third subcategory of characteristics of the work-spouse relationship compared
and contrasted the work-spouse relationship to other established relationships, including
(a) working relationships, (b) friendships, and (c) romantic spouses. This was a dis-
cursive move participants used in their writing. First, participants compared the
work-spouse relationship to other work relationships and, in doing so, made the
relationship seem unique. For example, participants used terms such as ‘‘collabora-
tive’’ or ‘‘cooperation’’ when describing their working relationship or their work
spouse as ‘‘having someone to bounce ideas off of and discuss work related issues
in depth.’’ However, others emphasized that what made this relationship unique
was that the work spouse was ‘‘the person I turn to first.’’ Still others used teamwork
language (‘‘we’re a team’’). While working in teams in the workplace is not wholly
unique, using this language to describe the work-spouse relationship was one way
the respondents characterized the relationship.
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Second, participants described their work-spouse relationship in terms of friend-
ships. Sometimes participants simply used the word ‘‘friend’’ or ‘‘friendship,’’ but,
other times, they qualified it with descriptors such as ‘‘solid,’’ ‘‘best,’’ or ‘‘close’’
friendship. Others spoke of friendship being the ‘‘base of the relationship’’ or simply
compared it to friendships in saying, ‘‘it is the same things that other friendships are
based on’’ and then listed several qualities. Nearly all of the times friendship was
mentioned, participants added the ‘‘platonic’’ descriptor. For example, one partici-
pant noted it is ‘‘a good friendship, but with no sexual interest’’ and another wrote,
‘‘the most important characteristic ...is that it is completely platonic.’’ By adding the
platonic descriptor when talking about it as a friendship, participants highlighted its
nonsexual nature.
Finally, participants also compared their relationship to real spouses. In this
subcategory, participants wrote more descriptively. Participants compared a list of
characteristics to a real spouse generally or their actual romantic partner specifically.
For example, participants wrote, ‘‘the same things that make a good traditional spou-
sal relationship,’’ ‘‘my work spouse has a lot of the same characteristics of my
husband, and we’ve been together 20 years,’’ ‘‘the ability to back each other up
and listen, the same as a real spouse relationship,’’ and ‘‘someone you feel comfort-
able to treat you as you do your spouse without the intimate part of the relationship.’’
The final subcategory focused on ways of communicating. Many participants simply
wrote the word ‘‘communication’’ or ‘‘listener’’ while others described the communi-
cation further as either ‘‘good,’’ ‘‘frequent,’’ or ‘‘unique.’’ We also found a few
descriptors of more specific communication acts. This first centered around ‘‘bicker-
ing’’ or commenting on conflict management. One participant described ‘‘fighting’’
about bigger issues but that ‘‘it was all good at the end.’’ Two responses reflected
more problematic issues in the workplace and within work-spouse relationships:
Two participants reported romantic feelings or flirting behaviors and one participant
mentioned gossip as an important characteristic of work-spouse relationships.
Functions of Work Spouses
The fourth major category described the functions of work spouses, or the things they
do for each other, including (a) confidant, (b) support, (c) spending time together,
(d) ‘‘push’’ or motivate, (e) fun, (f) make work ‘‘better,’’ and (g) fulfills role a real
spouse cannot. Over one quarter of participants mentioned the work spouse as some-
one who was a confidant for them for work and=or personal issues. Sometimes the
actual word confidant was used, but other times people described the function such
as ‘‘you can talk to about anything’’ and ‘‘you can confide your insecurities.’’ Many
participants specifically mentioned the need to have a person to ‘‘vent’’ about
their frustrations at work, and some mentioned the privacy aspects of a confidant:
‘‘confide in each other the things they would rather not make public.’’
Others wrote about the support functions that work spouses performed. Most often,
this was written about in a general sense: ‘‘[T]he person who supports you when things
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seem to be heading south,’’ ‘‘generally supportive of each other,’’ and ‘‘helping solve
problems.’’ Others wrote about specific support functions like asking for advice
(‘‘get valuable advice from one another’’) and emotional support (‘‘He can calm me
down when I am upset’’). Another function dealt with work spouses pushing and=or
motivating each other in the workplace. Several participants mentioned ‘‘pushing’’ each
other ‘‘to the next level’’ while others described ‘‘challenging’’ or ‘‘encouraging’’ each
other to do more=better at work. Still others talked about it as ‘‘mentoring’’ or were
even more descriptive: ‘‘willingness to bust her balls when she needs it.’
The next two functions that emerged were closely related. First, participants wrote,
in a variety of ways, about having fun with each other at work. For example: ‘‘cele-
brat[ing] the little victories that often go unnoticed by the higher ups’’; ‘‘we
get along and keep it professional but can totally kick back and have fun during
breaks and things’’; and ‘‘anytime it is fun to be at work and when you want to come
to work, that is usually what [work spouses] bring to the table.’’ While having fun
would arguably make the workplace better, when people wrote about this function,
it was about more than having fun. They would say things like providing ‘‘stress
relief’’ or ‘‘making work bearable when it sucks.’’ They ‘‘made the job environment
better’’ by ‘‘navigating the practical and impractical of the workplace,’’ and another
explained, ‘‘[W]hat brought [us] together was the fact that neither of us was thrilled
with our jobs but neither of us were in a position where we could afford to walk
away. We just made the best of it.’’
Finally, participants reported that their work spouse fulfills a role a real spouse can-
not. While some participants compared their work spouse to their real spouse in
positive ways, in this category, they wrote about how their work spouse did things
for them that their real spouse could or would not, primarily being a confidant about
work-related issues. One explained this function by stating: ‘‘it’s just a fact that I’m at
work 8–10 hours a day and only see my wife (awake) for about 5–6.’’ As a result,
others wrote ‘‘with real spouses it can be hard to discuss work since they don’t know
all of your co-workers’’ or ‘‘working together creates an understanding that the
spouse at home does not have.’’ While these are not necessarily critiques of their real
spouse, work spouses fulfill a role a real spouse cannot because the real spouse does
not understand the organizational culture=relationships in the same way as the work
spouse.
Ways of Managing the Work-Spouse Relationship
The last category centered around the notion of boundaries in managing the
work-spouse relationship. First, participants wrote specifically about boundaries:
‘‘the most important characteristic is ‘boundaries’ ...working relationships should
never cross the lines into romantic relationships’’ and ‘‘respect of appropriate bound-
aries—just because we are office husband=wife does not mean I am interested in any-
thing romantic.’’ While these exemplars highlight the platonic nature of the
relationship, others talked about the importance of boundaries in a more general
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sense. One wrote, work spouses need to ‘‘realize physical and emotional boundaries’’
and others highlight professionalism issues such as ‘‘that the two keep their relation-
ship as professional as possible.’’ While participants were close to their work spouse,
they wrote about the importance of maintaining boundaries between the personal
and professional.
While several participants wrote about the importance of having boundaries
between platonic friendship=romantic relationship and personal=professional realms,
others wrote about blurring the personal and professional. The difference in this cate-
gory is that participants did not use the specific word ‘‘boundary’’ but described blur-
ring the personal=professional. One put it pointedly, ‘‘there is an integration of
work-related and personal discussion to the extent that they’re almost impossible
to untangle,’’ while another did not necessarily find the interplay of personal=
professional problematic when he wrote about the ‘‘ability to easily switch between
professional and personal matters.’’ Sometimes these boundaries were blurred by
functions that they performed such as confidant (‘‘sharing really private stories from
our past’’) and support (‘‘knowing enough about each other’s personal lives to help
each other through work-life balance decisions’’). Others stated the relationship itself
was not bound by work: ‘‘[W]e have a friendship that extends outside of work’’ or
‘‘we are also friends outside of work and our life mates are friends as well.’’ In
sum, work spouses seemingly managed their relationship by either setting clear
boundaries or appreciating blurred boundaries of work=home.
Discussion
Based our analysis of these data, we propose a definition of the work-spouse relation-
ship as a special, platonic friendship with a work colleague characterized by a close
emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty,
and respect. This empirical definition provides an important foundation for future
researchers to study this salient relationship. It is clear from our findings that part-
icipants highly value these relationships, and that relationships of this nature may
directly impact how participants manage conflict between work and home life. The
personal (‘‘spouse’’) language in the work place could confuse the actual nature of
this relationship, which is why establishing this definition (along with more advanced
understanding of the characteristics) is important before further research can be done
to understand how the work-spouse relationship may either ameliorate or exacerbate
work-life conflict and how work spouses actually manage this relationship in the
workplace and at home.
These findings indicate that these relationships often extend beyond the work-
place, and, while they are frequently made up of cross-sex pairs, they are not exclus-
ively so. In addition, the majority of work-spouse relationships are peer relationships;
they are primarily between relative equals in the workplace rather than between
superiors=subordinates. Beyond creating a research-based definition from a large
number of participants in work-spouse relationships, this initial study provides a
great deal of insight into the unique nature of work-spouse relationships and
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provides a springboard for relational and organizational communication scholars
to investigate the dynamics of these relationships and their impact on processes
within the workplace (e.g., organizational decision making, socialization, in-group=
out-group communication).
Although our participants drew comparisons between work spouses and friend-
ships, other work relationships, and real-life spouses, the work-spouse relationship
is not simply a hybrid of these but possesses its own unique qualities. First, even
though work-spouse relationships are not ordinary work friendships, they share some
commonalities. For example, Reisman (1981) found people described friends first
and foremost as someone they could talk to and trust and, second, as someone to
whom they could go for support. The most frequently reported characteristic of
work-spouse relationships in the present study was trust. The functions of
self-disclosure and social support were also found to be key characteristics mentioned
by our respondents. In addition, many participants used the word ‘‘friendship’’ to
describe the work-spouse relationship. Clearly, work spouses are friends in the work-
place. We add that respondents frequently characterized them as platonic, although
this additive may seem redundant on the surface. Friendships, by definition (as
opposed to romantic relationships), are platonic (Rawlins, 1982). However, we know
from the literature and cultural discourse that there are perceived problems with
cross-sex friends staying platonic (Dorsett, 2011; Elsesser & Peplau, 2006), perhaps,
explaining why participants further emphasized the platonic nature of their relation-
ship. Lingering questions about the (non)sexual nature of the work-spouse relation-
ship could be problematic for supervisors and coworkers of the work spouses and
very likely problematic for their real-life spouses. Since work-spouse relationships
are arguably a nontraditional type of relationship, they are discourse-dependent
(Galvin, 2006) in that those in the relationship must do communication work on
behalf of the relationship to persuade others outside the relationship of the legitimacy
of the relationship. We argue that the repeated mention of the word ‘‘platonic’’ is this
type of communication work in the context of work-spouse relationships. Scholars
have not yet used Galvin’s notion of discourse-dependence in the organizational con-
text. Now that we have an empirical conceptualization of the relationship, future
researchers could investigate this and other discursive strategies used by those in
work-spouse relationships.
Some of the characteristics discussed by our participants as important qualities for
a work spouse would be the same characteristics of any friend, but others are unique
to work-spouse relationships. For example, we might want any friend to have good
character or to have a good sense of humor. However, for a work spouse to be able to
perform the functions of this relationship, having a good understanding of the orga-
nizational culture is necessary. While one could talk to his=her real spouse or other
friends about frustrations at work, the fact that the work spouse knows the organiza-
tional culture makes that person a better confidant and support system when wanting
to vent about work issues, which we know to be important in managing work-life
conflict (see Kirby et al., 2013). Future research could investigate work-spouse
relationships within specific organizational cultures, perhaps examining whether
Defining Work Spouses 17
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specific organizational characteristics are related to specific functions fulfilled by
work spouses.
Our findings indicate work spouses share the characteristics and functions of close
friends. Our findings are consistent with Sias and Cahill (1998) who wrote that ‘‘clo-
ser [work] friendships provide emotional support, interdependence, and
self-affirmation’’ (p. 276). Our participants’ descriptions also reflect Parks and
Floyd’s (1996) findings that self-disclosure and ‘‘the provision of help and support’’
(p. 92) are the first and second most frequently cited characteristics of closeness.
Other frequently mentioned characteristics found by Parks and Floyd (‘‘shared
interests and activities,’’ a dimension of similarity, ‘‘comfort and ease of interaction,’’
‘‘trust,’’ ‘‘acceptance,’’ ‘‘understanding,’’ and ‘‘respect’’) are characteristics
mentioned by our participants. Thus, work-spouse relationships exhibit the charac-
teristics of close relationships.
One of the primary conditions cited by our participants for the development of a
work-spouse relationship was similarity. Similarity, often called homophily in
relationship research, is considered one of the primary antecedents for establishing
relationships and a key tenet of Attraction Theory (Byrne, 1997). If the partners have
similar views of the workplace, it gives them common ground to start a work-spouse
relationship and provides a context to perform the functions (specifically confidant
and support) of work spouses. Sias and Cahill (1998) found coworkers who became
‘‘almost best’’ friends reported increased intimacy, feeling freer to discuss negative
aspects of work and personal issues, something that also characterized our respon-
dents. However, in our study, similarity as a condition for the relationship was not
just similarity in workplace attitudes; our findings extend the understanding of the
role similarity plays in work relationships. Congruent with other scholars’ findings
about the components of interpersonal attraction (Blass & Schwarcz, 1982), our find-
ings highlight the importance of proximity (within a workplace) and complementar-
ity in developing a work-spouse relationship. We also note that physical appearance,
often considered a component of interpersonal attraction, was not mentioned in our
data, underscoring the platonic nature of work spouses.
Our analysis suggests that work spouses share many similarities with Kram and
Isabella’s (1985) special peer relationship, a close friendship that emerged in their
study of mentoring relationships. Our participants describe their work spouses as
relationships that have progressed from simply being coworkers to close or best
friends with an emotional bond similar to Kram and Isabella’s participants whom
they categorized special peers. They characterized special peers, the rarest type of
coworker relationship in their data, as the ‘‘equivalent of [a] best friend,’’ having a
‘‘strong sense of bonding,’’ engaging in a high level of self-disclosure, and providing
a broad range of support (1985, p. 120). However, not all of our participants were in
peer relationships (nearly 20%were in superior-subordinate relationships) so we are
reluctant to characterize work spouses as simply a type of special peer relationship.
There are two other differences between our participants and Kram and Isabella’s
(1985) special peers. First, Kram and Isabella discussed the primary function of
special peers as mutual mentoring, a means of career development. Our participants,
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however, clearly viewed their work-spouse relationships as a very close friendship with
a coworker characterized by mutual social support in both work-related and
nonwork-related concerns. Second, whereas the work-spouse relationships described
by our participants are primarily cross-sex, the special peer relationships described by
Kram and Isabella appear to have been largely same-sex relationships (80%of the pairs
they studied were same-sex coworkers). As their study was 35 years ago, there were
likely fewer opportunities for women to develop special peer relationships with
men in the workplace. Either the phenomenon of cross-sex friendships in the work-
place has grown, has become more readily discussed culturally, or both. Thus, while
work-spouse relationships share many characteristics with Kram and Isabella’s special
peer relationship, there are differences: Work spouses are not always peers, are often
cross-sex pairs, and are seemingly as much personal as work relationships. Thus, we
argue that work-spouse relationships are not simply a type of special peer relationship.
We use Work=Family Border Theory (Clark, 2000) to explain the emergence of the
term work spouse and work-spouse relationships in the workplace. Consistent with
this theory, the difficulty of navigating the boundaries of being both coworkers
and close friends are reflected in participants’ comments about the need to maintain
clear boundaries with work spouses (‘‘border keepers’’) or not (‘‘border crossers’’).
The popular press survey indicating that actual spouses may view their partners’
work-spouse relationships in a negative light (e.g., Erwin, 2009) suggests yet another
avenue of research for scholarly inquiry. In Clark’s terms, some spouses may function
as ‘‘border-keepers,’’ and, though the work-spouse relationship may make work bet-
ter for the work spouses, real-life spouses may not be so enthusiastic and the effects
on family life are unknown.
Since the boundary between discussing work and personal matters seems to have
blurred given the amount of self-disclosure characteristic of work-spouse relation-
ships, it is our sense that the ‘‘clear boundaries’’ may have more to do with cross-sex
friendships. The challenge of presenting the work-spouse relationship to others as a
close, yet platonic, relationship—Rawlins’ rhetorical challenge—seems to remain. In
spite of these challenges, participants’ responses indicate that their relationships are
valuable resources for both work and personal life. As Clark (2000) and others (see
Kirby et al., 2013) pointed out, it is impossible to keep the two separate, and, in fact,
integrating them may lead to an individual’s satisfaction with both work and life out-
side work. In the words of several of our respondents, having a work spouse ‘‘makes
work better.’’
As with any study, there are limitations to this project. Our method of using an
online survey with open-ended questions allowed us to poll a large and diverse sam-
ple of people in work-spouse relationships, but the data we received from their writ-
ten responses were not as rich as if we would have collected qualitative data in a
different format (e.g., semi-structured interviews). While these data did allow us to
get a sense of the breadth of the ways that the work-spouse relationship are charac-
terized and talked about, which is an important and necessary first step, we have not
yet explored how these relationships are constructed within the workplace or home
nor how they are communicatively managed. Finally, while our sample was large and
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from diverse locales, it was predominantly Caucasian, white collar, and well educated.
These demographics may or may not accurately represent those in work-spouse rela-
tionships; these were data from an open, online survey and we did not target any spe-
cific demographic groups; however, future researchers should seek more diverse
participants.
Another future direction would be to investigate how work spouses negotiate
boundary issues. Sias (2009) suggested that coworker=friends who have difficulty
navigating the boundaries between being coworkers and being friends may not
remain friends. Based on Sias’ research with peer workplace friendships, one might
speculate that a work spouse ‘‘break up’’ causes stress for both the former work
spouses and the work climate in general. Also, what impact might work-spouse rela-
tionships have on other work relationships? How might work-spouse relationships
impact workplace competition and jealousy with other coworkers?
Finally, we also need to examine why people in the workplace choose to use this
term at all. While this relationship is a unique friendship (not all cross-sex friends
would be labeled work spouses), why is the ‘‘spouse’’ marker used to describe close
friends in the workplace? The use of the term ‘‘spouse’’ seems to reinforce the com-
mon notion that men and women cannot be ‘‘just’’ friends. Further, it may be seen as
problematic that home=family language is used to describe a work relationship,
especially since work spouses seem to be another example of a discourse dependent
relationship. Future researchers need to examine these language choices in the
workplace and the possible gender implications of the use of this term.
In sum, this project provides the first systematic, empirical study of work-spouse
relationships. As well as adding a new context to the academic literature on relation-
ships, we provide many new directions for other interpersonal, family, and organiza-
tional scholars to study including the impact of work spouses on other workplace
relationships and organizational processes, relationships with real-life spouses, and
work-life conflict. This study highlights the discursive choices surrounding the term
‘‘work spouse’’ and how individuals talk about these relationships. Thus, the present
study investigating the unique qualities of work-spouse relationships sets the stage for
a whole new program of research.
Acknowledgments
The authors would like to thank Drs. Renee Houston, Erika Kirby, Rebecca Meisen-
bach, Robyn Remke, and Sheri Shuler for reading and providing feedback on various
versions of this article.
Note
[1] While we recognize it may seem problematic to broadly define the work-spouse relationship,
in our survey development and participant recruiting, we learned that some people confused
the term ‘‘work spouse’’ with actual romantic partners in the workplace. From our findings, it
is clear that our definition did not limit participants’ conceptualizations of their relationship as
their words presented in the results are much more robust than previous lay or popular culture
20 M. C. McBride & K. M. Bergen
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definitions. Although the use of the word ‘‘platonic’’ could potentially have biased some
participants, we did have 2 participants who admitted to affairs with their work spouses.
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... Given shared experiences in the workplace, work spouses provide support for work-related and personal life stressors. Thus, work spouses are viewed as positively impacting work and personal life (McBride & Bergen, 2015). In alignment with work/life border theory (Clark, 2000), work-spouse relationships are at the intersection of work and life domains (McBride & Bergen, 2015). ...
... Thus, work spouses are viewed as positively impacting work and personal life (McBride & Bergen, 2015). In alignment with work/life border theory (Clark, 2000), work-spouse relationships are at the intersection of work and life domains (McBride & Bergen, 2015). Boundaries are important, as there is a high level of permeability involved in developing work-spouse relationships (Dodgson, 2018;Kline, 2019;Miller-Ott, 2019). ...
... This conceptual ambiguity leads to a second question: Is a work spouse simply a best friend at work? McBride and Bergen (2015) surmised that their "findings indicate work spouses share the characteristics and functions of close friends" (p. 18). ...
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Given the vast amount of time people spend communicating at work, relationships naturally develop. In addition, friends or romantic partners sometimes become coworkers. These interpersonal relationships involve work and life dimensions. We refer to them as personal workplace relationships: voluntary, informal, mutual, and consensual relationships between two members of the same organization that are marked by a strong emotional component and the partners’ knowing and communicating with each other as whole, unique persons. In this review, we summarize research examining these relationships. Specifically, studies of workplace peers, workplace friendships, and workplace romances are reviewed. In doing so, we highlight key research and theoretical perspectives from various disciplines. The review concludes with a discussion and recommendations for future research.
... Besides benefits, there may also be drawbacks from relying on coworkers for work-family support. Recent research on work spouses (i.e., relationships among coworkers that go beyond friendships without being romantic in nature; McBride & Bergen, 2015;Whitman & Mandeville, 2021) highlights that partners at home can get jealous and upset about such close work-based relationships. Thus, although coworkers represent a viable and effective source for work-family support, due to the personal nature of work-family issues and depending on the degree of intimacy between colleagues, future research could examine the potential of "work spouses" to promote workfamily conflict with actual spouses. ...
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Integrating the work-family facilitation model with the integrated model of human energy, we advance a process perspective involving both members of a couple (i.e., actor and partner). We examine the effects of coworker work-family support at work onto actor work-family support provision at home (i.e., work-to-family facilitation) as well as the consequences of partner work-family support receipt at home for partner work-related creativity through a resource gain spiral process at work (i.e., positive affect, flow, and need satisfaction at work; family-to-work facilitation). We further test whether actor compassionate love moderates the dynamic mechanisms that connect coworker work-family support to partner's creativity. Results of two experience-sampling studies support our model. We find that on weeks with higher coworker work-family support, couples report greater work-family support provision and receipt, which leads to resource gain spirals at work and higher work-related creativity for partners. Furthermore, actor compassionate love strengthens the positive work-home dynamics that follow from coworker work-family support and promote partner's work-related creativity. We critically discuss our findings and reflect on practical interventions, which may encourage greater work-family support provision at work and at home.
... They know how others in the workplace will engage with the focal individual and may be able to relate in a unique way to the situation in which the focal individuals find themselves. In some ways, this may be similar to the "work spouse" relationship emerging in recent research [70], though likely less intense. Participants indicated they received emotional support readily and often from their confidants after they shared their health information. ...
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The purpose of this study was to learn about the process of disclosing health information to a coworker friend using the lens of Communication Privacy Management Theory. The study explores emerging themes regarding health information disclosure and predicts associations between privacy, social support, risk, stigma, and the willingness to disclose health information to a friend at work. Employees were asked to recall a time they shared health information with a coworker friend and report about the interaction via open-ended items and scales on a survey. The study found that as emotional support, instrumental support, perceived risk, and stigma of the information increased, so did the tendency to disclose to a coworker friend. Increased privacy of the information was associated with a decrease in the tendency to disclose. A thematic analysis of the open-ended results also revealed that employees shared information associated with personal on-going health problems to seek support, to relate to their coworker friends, and to maintain their friendship. The findings also indicated that employees were likely to receive social support from their coworker friends even if they were not seeking it.
... trust of co-workers) are core factors motivating individuals to reveal or conceal private information at work, one form of ATB communication. In the private life domain, employees may not feel the need to engage in ATB communication and talk about work problems if there is a close friend at work who can help to deal with work problems (McBride & Bergen, 2015). ...
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Communicating work issues at home and home issues at work, also known as across-the-border (ATB) communication, is a part of everyday work and family interaction. This study focuses on the concept of ATB communication, using Work/Family Border Theory, according to which the boundaries between work and private life are seen as negotiated and shaped through social interactions and practices. We argue that through ATB communication, and especially by focusing on what is shared and how, employees can manage boundaries and achieve work-life balance. Altogether, 32 informants, comprising journalists (N = 16) and their relational others (N = 16), were interviewed to investigate the role of ATB communication in employees’ work-life boundary management. The findings show that ATB communication entails discussions about responsibilities in different life domains and a search for support in demanding or complex work or private life situations. One feature of boundary management involves refraining from ATB communication in order to achieve a balance between work and life. The study extends existing knowledge of boundary management as a communicative process and offers important practical implications by highlighting the role of interpersonal relationships in boundary management practices and the quality of ATB communication in these relationships.
Chapter
Sam is a transgender individual navigating work and life. Linda, a colleague of Sam's, is an older employee who knows her way around their workplace, Living Life, an organization focused on assisting (dis)abled individuals with a range of life skills. When Linda discovers Sam's gender identity, Linda withdraws and changes the way she interacts with Sam. John attempts to understand both perspectives but is not given enough information to act in one way or the other. The case is explored using transgender standpoint epistemology, social penetration theory, expectancy violations theory, and transgender standpoint epistemology.
Chapter
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Book
Congratulations to William K. Rawlins, winner of the David R. Maines Narrative Research Award for The Compass of Friendship to be presented at NCA 2009 during the Ethnography Division Business Meeting“The book is a valuable addition to the literature on friendship. Faculty who teach relationship development will find useful material for themselves and their students. Relationship researchers will find dozens of possible studies in these pages. Finally, any thoughtful person interested in relationship quality could profit from reading this interesting treatment of one of life's most valuable attributes—our friends.” - Phil Backlund, University of DenverExploring how friends use dialogue and storytelling to construct identities, deal with differences, make choices, and build inclusive communities, The Compass of Friendship examines communication dialectically across private, personal friendships as well as public, political friendships. Author William K. Rawlins uses compelling examples and cases from literature, films, dialogue and storytelling between actual friends, student discussions of cross-sex friendships, and interviews with interracial friends. Throughout the book, he invites readers to consider such questions as: What are the possibilities for enduring, close friendships between men and women? How far can friendship's practices extend into public life to facilitate social justice? What are the predicaments and promises of friendships that bridge racial boundaries? How useful and realistic are the ideals and activities of friendship for serving the well-lived lives of individuals, groups, and larger collectives?Key FeaturesIncorporates undergraduate students' debates about cross-sex friendships. Discussions draw on popular culture and lived experiences to re-examine gendered identities, sexual orientations, and narratives of romance and the well-lived lifeInvestigates the possibilities of cross-race friendships between blacks and whites in light of personal, sociocultural, and historical issues. Using short stories, autobiographies, and interviews with a male and a female pair of friends, he book probes the capacities of friendship to address our similarities and differences in enriching waysDevelops an original theoretical synthesis of work concerning dialogue and narrative. A chapter featuring an afternoon conversation between two longtime friends illustrates storytelling and dialogue as vitally interwoven communicative activities that shape friends' identitiesExplores friendship's ethical and political potentials. Classic and contemporary views clarify friendship's ethical guidance in our lives, as Rawlins demonstrates how learning about others in a spirit of equal respect can involve us in political participationCelebrates hopeful private and public communication by friends. The book provides students a useful model they can use in evaluating the ethical qualities of their relationships/friendships and helps them to think differently about their possibilities for participating meaningfully in politicsThe Compass of Friendship is appropriate for use in courses in Advanced Interpersonal Communication, Friendship Communication, Communication in Interpersonal Relationships, Relational Communication, Social and Personal Relationships, Dialogue and Communication, Social Identities and Communication Ethics.
Book
“Organizing Relationships makes a contribution to the discipline in its treatment of this area from multiple perspectives, in its deliberate engagement/suggestions of future research directions, and its functional purpose of bringing together extant research on this important topic in a coherent and organized way. It adds cumulatively to our knowledge of organizational communication and relationships, it fits within the horizon of the established parameters of our field while opening new areas for engagement, and, moreover, it is a very interesting read. It will, no doubt, become a touchstone for the field of organizational communication.” —Janie Hardin Fritz, Duquesne University “This book represents an important step to a relational approach to organizational behavior (communication) by pulling together many different areas/types of relationships. It will be a ‘must’ book to anyone who teaches relationships in organization or broadly relational/applied organizational communication.” —Jaesub Lee, University of Houston The first book in the field to provide a comprehensive, interdisciplinary treatment of workplace relationships, Organizing Relationships: Traditional and Emerging Perspectives on Workplace Relationships explores both negative and positive workplace relationships, including supervisor–subordinate relationships, peer relationships, workplace friendships, romantic workplace relationships, and customer–client relationships. Author Patricia M. Silas, a recognized scholar in the field, examines workplace relationships from multiple theoretical perspectives, including postpositivism, social construction theory, critical theory, and structuration theory. She helps readers understand the unique influences of the workplace on relationship processes and dynamics. Key Features Examines the role of workplace relationships as information-sharing, resource-distributing, decision-making, and support systems and highlights their importance to both organizational and individual well-being Includes cases in each chapter that demonstrate the usefulness of approaching real-world workplace problems and issues from multiple perspectives Helps readers broaden and enrich the ways they think about workplace relationships and their roles in organizational processes Provides an innovative agenda for future research Organizing Relationships is appropriate for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in Workplace Relationships, Relational Communication, Applied Interpersonal Communication, Organizational Communication, Communication Management, Operations/Human Resource Management, Organizational Psychology, and Organizational Sociology.
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The study of workplace relationships is now well established. Although initially conducted with quantitative methods, when the qualitative turn in organizational communication intersected with increased recognition of the value of qualitative/interpretive methods for understanding interpersonal relationships, research on work relationships began to move in a similar direction, resulting in an increasingly rich knowledge base. This article traces the rise of qualitative research on workplace relationships, highlighting exemplary studies and identifying resources that can guide continued qualitative research on workplace relationships.
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Nonplatonic workplace romances (WR) are common in contemporary organizations. Academic research, although sparse, has pointed to both positive and negative outcomes associated with these relationships. Less attention has been placed on others (i.e., coworkers) perceptions of WR. Prior studies have acknowledged the lack of research examining how coworkers learn of WR. Using qualitative methods, we uncovered two themes concerning how coworkers described WR disclosures and their subsequent reactions, 1) a personal disclosure paired with a positive reaction and 2) an impersonal disclosure paired with a negative reaction. Coworkers' reactions to workplace romances were also influenced by several other factors including the actors involved in the romance, the coworkers' personal views on workplace romances, and the culture of the organization/business unit. These findings are discussed along with theoretical and practical implications.
Article
The study examines the relationship between quality of a friendship at work and job satisfaction. Faculty and staff (N = 722) at two universities completed measures of the qualities of their best friendship at work and of job satisfaction. Multiple regressions for faculty and staff and for subjects whose best friend was a peer, supervisor or subordinate revealed that the quality of one's best friendship in the workplace is predictive of job satisfaction. A negative aspect of friendship, maintenance difficulty, was related to lower satisfaction for staff (but not faculty) and for workers whose best friend at work was a peer or supervisor. Wishing to spend free time with a best friend at work (voluntary interdependence) and an exchange orientation toward the friend were also negatively related to aspects of job satisfaction. The relationships between feelings about one's best friend at work and feelings about one's job are discussed.
Article
Challenging the heteronormative bias in the current literature on men’s workplace friendships, this article uses qualitative interview data to explore how gay men understand and experience workplace friendships involving other gay and heterosexual men. Developing a Foucauldian approach, this study suggests that gay men’s experiences and perspectives on workplace friendships can supplant negative stereotypes of men’s friendships, by understanding them as relational sites for developing empowering organizational gay sexualities and genders. From a Foucauldian theoretical orientation, we can examine how gay men can(not) avoid falling into the trap of treating gender and sexuality in dichotomous and heterosexist terms, allowing them and their male work friends to explore new possibilities for workplace friendships that are more gender and sexually complex than is currently assumed. This article advocates future research on this matter as it could potentially enrich extant critical scholarship that has often bathed organizational masculinities in a negative light.