Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Do You Have a Workplace Spouse?

The pros and cons of close opposite-sex relationships at work.

Do you see a person daily with whom you share important goals, interests, and values—often in close contact, and often when you’re trying to maintain your appearance? Is that person your spouse or partner? If your answer to the first question is Yes, but to the second is No, you may be one of the millions of adults involved, knowingly or unknowingly, in a workplace romance of one kind or another.

A common theme of TVs and movies, the extreme flirting (or more) of couples who work at the same hospital, police station, law firm, or other office is a scenario we’ve come to accept, if not expect. Although many adults work together in close quarters or under intense circumstances without ever falling in love or even being tempted, many come close enough to the fictional portrayals of workplace romances to attract the stern attention of human-resource professionals.

Maridav/Shutterstock
Fairfield University’s Lisa Mainiero and co-author Kevin Jones of Indiana University and Purdue University, write in two separate articles (2013a and 2013b) about the perhaps precipitous downsides to the “Workplace Romance 2.0," in which the innocent sharing between coworkers who admire and support each other can descend down the slippery slope into romance or sexual harassment.

Social media only increases the risk. If you’re Facebook friends with the people at your workplace, you might inadvertently upload information about yourself that portrays you in a less than a professional light. You might not even remember that the woman who works down the hall is in your social media circle until you (or someone else) has already posted compromising photos of you at a bar or party. This is just one of the many reasons that it’s good to avoid such photos in the first place, but even if you’ve been careful, it only takes one instance for your private life to be overshared with your work colleagues. The lines between your personal and professional lives become even more blurred as the result of your having exposed your social and perhaps sexual side.

Managing Romance at Work

In the days before social media, actual workplace romances were perhaps less complicated, Mainiero and Jones argue. What employees did on their own time didn't so readily became fodder for workplace scrutiny. Also complicating the picture now is the fact that workplace harassment is so much more widely recognized than in the past, as is gender-based discrimination. In such a climate, how is a workplace couple in love to handle their feelings toward each other? Whether they’re employee-supervisor, or just co-workers potentially vying for the same promotions or benefits, the fact that their love affair can become the basis for a lawsuit can create problems for all involved.

Legal and ethical issues aside, what are the psychological components of a romantic workplace relationship? Surveys of workplace romantic attractions, though not based on nationally representative samples, suggest that as many as two-thirds of all workers have experienced one. Perhaps as many as 20 percent of workers admit to having had a relationship with a superior, although fewer admit to an affair with someone they supervised.

There can be advantages to having a work spouse. Mainiero and Jones cite other studies delineating the following:

  1. They are sincere, motivated by love, and companionate or involving deep feelings of friendship; they rarely take the form of brief flings.
  2. People in work-related relationships perform better at work and feel more connected to their organization.
  3. The partners try to make favorable impressions, which leads to better performance and higher ratings by their supervisors.
  4. There’s a spillover effect in which the worker’s positive emotional reactions to their romance impact their feelings about their jobs.

These benefits are countered by several disadvantages:

  1. Fear that an unethical relationship may be harmful to the careers of others.
  2. Workers may use a relationship with a supervisor to get ahead in their own careers.
  3. Conflicts of interest can occur, particularly when a supervisor has to make decisions about an employee with whom he or she is having an affair.
  4. Favoritism toward one employee, whether by a boss or fellow worker, can lead to feelings of envy in others, and lead workers to feel alienated from their place of employment.

Some of the advantages to having a work romance, clearly, can quickly become its worst disadvantages. Those positive feelings you have toward your workplace due to the feelings you have toward your lover can go south once the relationship ends. The fact that you’re still stuck together each and every work day (depending on the workplace) can lead you to become jealous and possessive of other workplace relationships that your partner has or wishes to have. If your work spouse becomes your ex-work spouse, you won’t be able to escape as easily as you could if you didn’t share the same workplace. Other complications can arise because forces outside of your control can determine what happens to your relationship. People get promoted, relocated, or fired, causing the relationship to end before it’s run its course.

Platonic Relationships Raise Red Flags as Well

What does it mean to have a platonic “work spouse,” and can having one help or hinder the relationship that you or the other person has with your actual spouse or partner?

Completely separate from these pros and cons of workplace romances are the havoc they can wreak on feelings of the people in your life at home. As you sit down to dinner to discuss the day’s events, your actual spouse or partner is forced to confront the closeness and accessibility that your work spouse has to you. Even if you don’t see the telltale signs of being in love with the work spouse, your partner may be able to spot them without any difficulty at all. Should the intimacy you have with your work spouse reach high enough proportions, your actual spouse or partner may issue an ultimatum of it’s “him (or her) or me,” forcing you either to leave your job or your family.

These issues are heightened, of course, when the work marriage is truly a “romance” with a sexual component. But even lacking that layer, can a close relationship with a work spouse ever be truly platonic? If so, what's the harm of having a partner on the job in whom to confide your worries, who truly understands your work life from the inside out, and who will give you objective and potentially useful advice?

As the papers by Mainiero and Jones suggest, even a platonic workplace relationship, one that is completely innocent, needs to be thought through. Plunging blindly ahead into even nonsexual intimacy can create jealousy or suspicion among coworkers who don’t realize that there’s nothing actually going behind closed doors. Potentially harming your actual spouse or partner becomes the other real and present danger.

If you’re bound and determined (or already in) a workplace romance, you might consider taking these steps to ensure that it doesn’t end in heartache, job loss, or both:

Don’t try to hide your relationship (unless there would be dire consequences). The more you try to cover up your feelings for each other, the more your web of secrecy will create gossip and distrust. Reveal to your boss and co-workers that you are in a relationship, unless these are prohibited at your workplace or there's infidelity involved. The cover-up might be more of a problem, as in so many scandals, as the actual behavior.

If there would be dire consequences, be discreet. Try as you might to end the relationship, you can’t. Still, don’t flaunt your feelings around others in the workplace. As viewers of Grey’s Anatomy surely know, someone is bound to open up the door to the supply room closet as soon as you decide to use it for a tête-à-tête.

Even if there’s nothing to hide, be discreet anyway. You and your workplace spouse might be best friends, but there’s no reason to make everyone else feel out of the loop. By maintaining boundaries, you’ll also ensure that awkward moments don’t develop that could ruin that friendship such as your being deprived—or benefited by—a promotion or raise, especially if your workplace spouse is a supervisor.

Don’t lie about, but don’t flaunt, your workplace relationship at home. If yours is indeed a platonic relationship, you can still make your partner at home jealous of the intimacy you share with your workplace spouse. You don’t have to cover it up, but you also don’t need to keep hammering the point home that this person understands you better than anyone else because you share the same workplace environment.

In summary, the dynamics of mixing love and work have their benefits and risks, whether legal or not. At the end of the day, when you go home to your non-work spouse or partner, it’s the quality of this relationship that will make the most difference to your long-term fulfillment.


Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014


References

Mainiero, L. A., & Jones, K. J. (2013a). Workplace romance 2.0: Developing a communication ethics model to address potential sexual harassment from inappropriate social media contacts between coworkers. Journal Of Business Ethics, 114(2), 367-379. doi:10.1007/s10551-012-1349-8

Mainiero, L. A., & Jones, K. J. (2013b). Sexual harassment versus workplace romance: Social media spillover and textual harassment in the workplace. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 27(3), 187-203. doi:10.5465/amp.2012.0031

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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