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How to Keep Work Friendships From Crossing the Line

Why having a "work wife" may hurt your overall performance and the best ways to maintain a professional relationship.

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Only about one-third of marriages survive infidelity, and two-thirds break up regardless of even the most heroic attempts to save them. When marriages end, everyone suffers — the children, both partners, extended families, and finances. One of the reasons that relationships fail is infidelity. While there are many reasons someone might cheat in the first place, a common one I have encountered in my many years of practice can start with a relationship at work. 

Work is the place you spend most of your waking hours. Work is the place you channel high emotions and feel passionately invested in both the good and the bad. Work content is something you spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about. This is why it is easier in some respects to feel emotionally bonded to particular people at work. You are likely working at similar goals, you get happy together when they work and sad or mad together when they don’t. You share the office gossip, you think about similar content and you are drawn to that content because you probably already had some similar interest. 

Sometimes all of this commonality leads to having one particular person at work that in many regards becomes a teammate. You may recognize particular strengths in the other person that are not yours and vice versa. You are able to enjoy really bouncing things off one another, helping one another, sharing ideas, doing things for one another because, in fact, it’s often true that two heads are better than one. It’s enjoyable to have a co-worker who has your back, with whom you can really talk, perhaps admire and be admired by. The terms “work wife” and “work husband” have come to mean this person who in some ways really seems like a spouse, but, of course, in other ways was certainly not a spouse at all.

When someone has difficulty at home, and is wishing they had someone they could talk to about it, to vent to, to complain to, to see things the way they do… they often enough do tell someone trusted at work. Unfortunately, while they are mulling over all the things they are angry about at home, the faults they see in their actual spouse, they are seeing NONE of that in their work spouse. Why? Because they don’t have to go home and live with their work spouse, everyone is on better behavior, showing their good side, not going through the daily grind of caring for children, balancing finances, cleaning the house, managing annoying family, and so on. 

It is an all too slippery a slope for you to start complaining for support to your work partner, to start seeing your work partner as comparatively better and more desirable, and to fall victim to the pseudo-closeness that is created by feeling you are being listened to and supported. This is now a high-risk situation. 

Add to this a business trip together, a drink after work, etc. and it is not difficult to cross the line. Even those that don’t cross the physical line, have already crossed the emotional line. They are already confiding in their work partner in a way that would truly hurt their spouse if they knew and they are already developing loving feelings toward this work partner in a way that has them channeling their emotional energy into the work relationship, stealing from the home relationship, and if they were honest with themselves would ring of betrayal.

Once you feel deeply attracted to and emotionally intimate with your work partner, you have a problem. It siphons your efforts at intimacy and building trust from your marriage into the work relationship. It creates painful longings at work and emotional distancing at home. 

Can you protect yourself, your marriage from developing such feelings? Yes, there are things to watch out for in a work partnership. Do not discuss your marital problems with your work partner, or at least any problem that your spouse would be bothered by if they were standing there during the conversation too. Do not flirt or make sexual innuendo towards your work partner. In general, behave with your work partner as though your spouse is with you both, anything you would never do in front of them, never do. Avoid private meetups that include alcohol, which is disinhibiting and can lead to the behavior you would otherwise keep in check. If you do decide to get dinner, invite your spouse along. Be honest with yourself — are you dressing to attract them? Acting seductively? Return to platonic. Make it clear you are with your spouse and if you are having trouble with your spouse, get help. Dipping into therapy to work on problems is a way to be heard and work to rectify the issues without risking the future.

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