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For Better or For Worse

©Anne Bæk Pedersen/istockphoto.com

It’s as much a part of today’s office culture as mediocre coffee and birthday cupcakes from the nearest deli—and a whole lot more fun and useful for maintaining sanity. I’m talking about the work spouse, that person who is a sometime confidant, habitual significant partner and occasional partner in crime. (I’m not talking about office trysts; work-spouse relationships should be strictly platonic. Think Liz and Jack on “30 Rock.”) Whether we’re married or have a significant other or not, most of us have had a work spouse at some point.

And that’s especially true among those of us who work in advertising (and marketing, sales and HR, according to Captivate Networks, whose 2010 survey on the subject says that, overall, 65 percent of people have had a work spouse). I wonder if it’s because so many of us in the ad world are so gregarious, or because the nature of our work is so collaborative.

It’s not limited to marketing communications professionals, of course. In fact, an OfficeMax survey recently found that half of all respondents said they have a significant other at work. I’m surprised it was only 50 percent; maybe the others just aren’t admitting to it.

My childhood friend Joyce, formerly of Westport, admitted it to me on Facebook recently: “I had a work husband when I was at Microsoft. We would look out for each other, bring each other coffee, knowledge share, have lunch… but when he left the company, we never communicated again.”

Happily married writer Colin Sokolowski is so proud of his relationship with his work wife, or at least he sees enough humor in it, to blog about it on his enjoyable website, the Accidental Adult. About his also-married work wife, he writes:

A work wife, or work husband for that matter, is someone who provides a completely harmless, entirely platonic relationship that helps keep you sane 40+ hours a week, while also providing for your many workplace needs. In my case, these needs typically include:

  • CHEEZ-ITs at 10 a.m., breakfast of champions.
  • Gum at 10:30 a.m.
  • Help manipulating Excel spreadsheets. (Math sucks.)
  • Wardrobe advice (Are my white ankle-high socks geeky, or should I just go sockless for the rest of the day?)
  • Commiseration and cheap therapy when work gets ugly.
  • Postage stamps.
  • Change for the Coke machine.

Yes, Holly fulfills all of these needs for me. And she does it without attaching those messy, ridiculous demands often placed on traditional marriages. Pressures like remembering to leave your spouse with a full tank of gas or properly soaking and scraping your chili-caked bowl in the sink before throwing it into the dishwasher. Instead of writing me unnecessary little notes like, “Don’t forget it’s your turn to drive to dance tonight,” Holly writes me helpful notes like, “Here’s how much of your budget you’ve already spent. You owe me one billable hour for figuring this out.”

Presumably, they got their actual spouses’ approval before he posted it.

It’s only natural that we’d form close bonds with people we spend most of our waking lives with, often in stressful situations. If you brainstorm with someone, take risks together, navigate office politics or simply exchange pleasantries every day, you’re bound to form connections. A little bit of bantering can be a way to blow off steam. Plus, it’s nice to have someone to commiserate with about a difficult boss or demanding client. If this concept seems alien to you, you’re not alone. Work marriages don’t make complete sense to people who work in very local enterprise, or to those who have spent most of their lives as sole practitioners. When I first introduced my life partner, Jim, to someone who had been my work husband for several years, he didn’t understand. Now he probably thinks, "better him than me." Especially if it means sitting adjacent to me from New York to Mumbai while I complain about the temperature or being tired, or blather incessantly about the stuff of work, which interests Jim not a wit. Similarly, no work spouse I’ve ever had could care less about my current hassles in finding a school for Jim’s youngest son.

Workplace and career consultants theorize that the recession has led more people to look for work spouses, as new business realities have created larger workloads and increased desires to voice our frustrations to co-workers. And then there are all the new tools we have to do so: Twitter, Facebook, IM and the like.

Some people I know think that if your relationship with your work spouse is handled correctly, it can even help your relationship with your life partner. A New York writer I know was thrilled when her husband took up with a work wife—whom he told her all about, which is key—because he started coming home less stressed. Having had someone to vent with during the day, he was free in the evening to talk about other things and have more fun.

Or as relationship expert Joey Garcia told Huffington Post blogger Judy Farah in a post earlier this year: “A work husband/work wife is someone who has the same kind of passion or passionate concerns for my career. They’re going to help me in my career and selflessly offer me the naked truth about my behavior at work; about strategies, about my capability on a project.”

How can anyone in business today argue with that?

Marian SalzmanMarian Salzman
CEO, Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, North America and ER Life PR

Named one of the world’s top five trendspotters, Marian Salzman, CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, an entrepreneurial agency network now ranked ninth in the world, was PRWeek’s 2011 PR Professional of the Year, among other top honors. Before heading @erwwpr, she was CMO at Porter Novelli, CMO at JWT Worldwide and CSO at Euro RSCG Worldwide. Among her most famous consumer campaigns are the launch of the metrosexual to create a marketplace for SAB Miller’s Peroni, Pepsi’s “It’s Like This,” and “It’s America Online.” She co-founded Cyberdialogue—the world’s first online market research company—in 1992. (Marian was named to New York magazine’s first “Cyber 60” list, in 1995, the same year she was honored by Crain’s New York Business as a “40 Under 40”; the following year, Fast Company said she was keeper of one of the best job titles on the planet: Director, Department of the Future.) Marian resides in Stamford.

Twitter: @erwwpr

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