Office Wife? Time for a Split

CBS MoneyWatch

Do you have an office wife or office husband? An office divorce might not be a bad idea.

Julie Eyerman and Brad Mislow tried to end their relationship. For 10 years, the advertising-agency creative duo acted almost like a married couple. They shared an office, finished each other’s sentences, and had plenty of laughs. The partnership was happy and fruitful, except for one period in which they thought they might work better separately.

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“We tried to break up, but my boss said, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ He was really blunt: ‘Work it out. Divorce denied,’” says Mislow, a senior copywriter. “We were like, ‘OK, I guess we’re stuck.’” 

While the whole idea of work “marriages” might sound a little creepy to the uninitiated, they are surprisingly common — a third of respondents to a February Vault.com survey reported being part of a platonic office couple. And the Wall Street Journal recently covered the topic as if it was a much a part of corporate culture as conference calls and performance reviews. It’s also not new: Slate identified Condoleezza Rice as George W. Bush’s office wife, and even traced the phenomenon back to the Mary Tyler Moore show.

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As Eyerman and Mislow found, such partnerships can be rewarding. But if you make a wrong turn, they can just as easily cause career or personal trouble. If so much as a whiff of romance enters your relationship with an office spouse, it has become inappropriate and you should distance yourself from that person before it spins out of control. “You need to be open with your real spouse, so they’re comfortable that this is a business relationship” says Peter Post, a director of the Emily Post Institute and author of The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success. “The minute that you cross the line of subterfuge, now you’ve got a problem.”

But even if the relationship is emphatically platonic, it can cause problems. Office spouses can appear to subordinates, bosses and clients as overly cozy or overly combative. They can get bogged down in the minutiae of each other’s day or come to depend too much on each other. And really, aren’t your energies better spent elsewhere during office hours? The likes of Meg Whitman, Lou Gerstner, and Jamie Dimon didn’t reach the pinnacles of the business world by “marrying” the person in the next cubicle.

“There is a danger if you become too entwined,” says Stanley Bing, a sometime columnist for MoneyWatch’s sister site, BNET.com, and author of Bingsop’s Fables: Little Morals for Big Business.

Rumored Affairs

The biggest pitfall, Bing says, is when the pseudo-marriage becomes “a ménage à deux, where the unit doesn’t allow other people inside.”

“Spouses” who make coworkers feel excluded often find themselves the subject of are-they-having-an-affair gossip. They eventually may be shunned by the rest of the herd, and therefore not privy to valuable water-cooler information. As a Vault.com survey respondent said of a former “married” boss, “It was very uncomfortable because you knew info you told one person automatically was told to the other, just like in a spousal relationship.”

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Too much bickering can also be a problem. In the 1990s, one Silicon Valley CEO took on a business partner at his small e-commerce company and ended up in a bad office marriage. (The CEO declined to be identified; the partner has since been let go.) Both men are heterosexual, but their frequent, public spats sounded decidedly marital to their stressed-out employees. “Like an old married couple arguing. That was the reference that people used for us many, many, many times,” says the CEO. “They just wanted us to tell them what to do.”

To be fair, a lighthearted workplace union can be a plus at companies that encourage socializing. (Some workers believe the decline in individual offices and rise of open bullpens has actually fueled the office-spouse trend.) “In an agency culture, relationships help feed the work,” says Jacqueline Brini, director of marketing intelligence at marketing firm Story Worldwide in South Norwalk, Conn. “If I like somebody I’m working with, I don’t mind staying late to make that deadline.”

Brini finds having an office spouse so integral to her work that when one of hers leaves the company, she quickly finds a replacement. Her new “wife” of just a few weeks was handpicked in part by her last “husband.” Brini says, “He wrote a job description of all the criteria she had to meet: Have lunch once a week; one happy hour a week; you must be in Jacqueline’s office by 9:35 with a little shout-out.” So far things seem to be working.

But in more conservative workplaces where such partnerships aren’t the norm, office spouses must manage their coworkers’ perceptions. “Be sure the world around you understands the relationship,” says Post. “If the way you interact leads other people to believe that there is more to this than a business relationship, then you have a problem.” That means behave professionally, avoid overly friendly physical contact, and include other people in your conversations.

Separation Anxiety

Keep in mind, too, that once you establish yourself as a duo, you may find it hard to cope without each other. Advertising partners Eyerman and Mislow did work it out after their proposed separation. Then, in 2009, he was part of a companywide layoff and she was left to fly solo. Says Eyerman, an associate creative director: “We worked as a team, we ate lunch together every day, there was always someone to pal around with — it’s a negative when that support system is taken away from you.” (The two have adapted, Mislow has a new job, and they still check in with each other frequently.)

The best solution of all may be to adopt Stanley Bing’s strategy of healthy workplace promiscuity. Sure, it’s nice to have a person in the company to rely on. But it’s better to have more than one. “Then they’re not your spouse; they’re your valued allies,” Bing says. “Allies who watch each other’s backs — this is the stuff of which careers are made.”

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