The term work wife/husband or work spouse is thrown around lightly in pop culture.

It is referenced in television shows and memes. The Urban Dictionary defines a work spouse as “a significant other you work with, whom you connect, share and spend time with exclusively and intimately in the workplace. Both parties are mere acquaintances outside of the workplace and are completely unknown to each other’s true and respective domestic spouses.”  

How do you know if you have a work spouse? Some of the hallmarks of a relationship with a work spouse includes having inside jokes, feeling very comfortable and open and sharing intimate details of your life. In fact, they know you as well as your best friend or spouse might know you; they know your quirks, likes and dislikes. You feel like you are in tune with each other and connect on a deeper level.  

Having close work relationships isn't a bad thing. It's also not uncommon or inappropriate to experience a physical attraction toward a person, especially when you get to know them on a deeper level.

The problem clearly comes in with how you handle those attractions. Do you tell your real spouse about your work relationship or do you hide it? Do you fantasize about the person? Could it be that you have danced with or stepped into the realm of an emotional affair if not a physical affair with the person?  

It is all about the slippery slope.

People don’t necessarily engage in a work relationship with the intent of having it become an emotional affair. Yet, a work spouse is an appealing proposition for many reasons. It provides a built-in structure of emotional support when it comes to both professional and personal challenges and stressors. There is trust, cooperation and collaboration, which makes working on projects that much easier and enjoyable.

On the flip side, there can be some major unintended consequences to a work spouse relationship. Your relationship may be misinterpreted, be fodder for office gossip and ultimately reflect poorly on your level of professionalism. A significant rift in the relationship could greatly impact both your work and personal life since the person has been a major source of support. Depending on how your real spouse feels and thinks about your work spouse, it can cause significant relational distress and conflict.  

So how do you keep your work relationships in check?

The old adage, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket, certainly applies here. We all need emotional support but relying on one person for that support is a set-up for failure. Make sure you have multiple supports both at work and in your personal life. Also, set clear boundaries and separate out what are conversations to save for outside relationships versus those you can comfortably justify with work relationships.

Communication is also key with your real spouse. Be open and honest about your work relationships with your real spouse. Clarify what they would feel comfortable with you discussing with work relationships and what might feel like a violation if they found out about it. Check-in with yourself whether you feel like you need to lie about your work relationships to your real spouse.

Finally, always consider how your close relationship and interactions with a co-worker may impact your team or professional imagine.