Long Live The Work Wife. Just Don't Call Her That.

Nearly half of U.S. adults believe it’s inappropriate to have a work spouse.

by Charlotte Cowles
Originally Published: 

It’s unclear who coined the term “work wife,” but if the concept had a spokescouple, it would probably be Tina Fey and Amy Poehler circa 2015. At the time, their career highlights (Mean Girls, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” hosting the Golden Globes) were one and the same; “You’re the Tina to my Amy” mugs had become a popular gift. “We’ve worked together long enough that I feel like I own half of what Tina has,” joked Poehler, adding that they even have their own private language, like twin-speak. “We can talk about other people in front of them and they don’t really understand.”

Anyone who’s caught a colleague’s eye during a meeting and silently conveyed an inside joke can probably relate to the special alliance Poehler was describing. I certainly do. I spent my 20s forging deep bonds with cubicle-mates who knew my coffee order, my pet peeves, and exactly what to say when I needed a pep talk. One co-worker even accompanied me to a doctor’s appointment when I had a bad infection (gross, but I was grateful). At the time (the 2010s), we were all but expected to fuse our job with our identity, so work/life boundaries were non-existent and the platonic intimacy of a “work wife” was normal, even aspirational. Forged over late-night deadlines, trips to Chipotle, and mutual support and commiseration, many of these friendships are still part of my life today.

But workplaces have changed a lot since then; today, the term “work wife” seems dated and cheesy, a twee relic from the girlboss era of all-consuming hustle culture. A 2023 Newsweek poll showed that 45% of adults in the U.S. don’t think it’s appropriate to have a work spouse, while only 21% deemed it OK. “There’s been a shift towards stronger divisions between our personal and professional lives, partly in response to the intense blurring of boundaries that took place during the pandemic, when we were all Zooming into each other’s homes,” says Julianna Pillemer, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who studies interpersonal connections at work.

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Spouse-like work relationships are suffering from new logistical obstacles, too: More frequent job-hopping and the rise of remote work have made it harder to bond with colleagues. And even if you aren’t one of the roughly 30% to 50% of workers with remote flexibility, many jobs have become so digitized that in-person interactions are dwindling. In a 2022 Gallup poll of over 15 million workers, only 1 in 5 respondents reported having a best friend at work, a marked decline from 2019. All signs point to the question: Is the work wife a thing of the past?

Let’s hope not. Even as our workplaces have turned against close relationships, researchers have found that they’re more important than ever. In the Gallup poll, respondents who had a best friend at work were significantly more likely to be happy with their jobs, successful in their roles, and loyal to their employers. What’s more, the correlations between work friendships and overall well-being were even stronger in 2022 than in 2019. While these relationships require time, effort, and healthy boundaries, it’s clear that the pros far outweigh the cons.

Plus, it’s human to want to create trusting, impactful connections with people you spend a lot of time around, and that urge transcends ever-shifting cultural attitudes toward the workplace. “Work is where many people have the most opportunities for interaction, so it's only natural that you're going to form close relationships that go beyond what you might expect a typical, cordial working relationship to be,” Pillemer says.

So how do you reap the benefits of a work spouse in this new professional landscape? It takes some willingness to put yourself out there, says Mia Blume, a former designer at Pinterest who now runs her own company coaching creatives in leadership development. “These days, a lot of meetings feel more formal and transactional, especially on Zoom or video,” she explains. “If I want to talk to you, I have to set up a meeting on your calendar for a certain time, or I have to interrupt you via Slack or whatever your messaging platform is. And both feel like an intrusion.”

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To cut through that stiffness, Blume is experimenting with ways to create warmer, more convivial environments online. “We’ll have virtual studio time, where people can hop on [Zoom] when they want to, and DJ for each other, and chit-chat.” If offering to DJ for your colleagues seems too weird (understandable), she also encourages people to do one-on-one calls while going for a walk. Even if they aren’t physically together, there’s a collective quality to doing the same thing — taking a stroll — at the same time. At the very least, it allows more space for serendipity and friendly banter, which can be a mood-booster in itself. Engaging in small talk with colleagues not only makes people feel good; research has found that it can help you get promoted, too.

Trying to replicate pre-pandemic work-spouse relationships probably isn’t going to work. Adrienne, 31, spent most of her 20s at a startup in New York where she had a tight-knit group of co-workers; she went to their weddings, got dinner with them after hours, and exchanged encouraging notes on tough days. When she got a new job in late 2019, she knew she’d miss them. But the pandemic made things far worse than she anticipated. “When the company went remote, I hadn’t been there long enough to form any meaningful friendships. And then it felt pretty impossible to become close with anyone,” she says.

In the months that followed, Adrienne says she felt adrift both emotionally and professionally. But when her employer began bringing people back to the office two days a week, she found her footing. “Since we've been going in, it's been so much easier to get to know people on a more personal level — just getting coffee with them and seeing them around. And I'm enjoying the job much more as a result,” she says. “It affects my day-to-day and overall well-being a lot.”

More than four years into her role, Adrienne now has a colleague who probably fits the Poehler-and-Fey model of a work wife, but she would never call her that. “She referred to me as her ‘work wife’ the other day, and I cringed a little,” says Adrienne, adding that the term feels too gendered and cutesy for the current climate. Perhaps it’s the terminology that needs to be re-examined, not the need for companionship.

Don’t jump on board with all their ideas in a meeting simply because you feel compelled to have their back; disagree or question them like you would with anyone else.

While work-spouse relationships can be overwhelmingly positive, they have downsides, too. “We’ve found that they can lead to distraction at work, for one thing,” says Pillemer. They also lead to uncertainty. “Like, ‘When we're talking, am I talking to you as a co-worker? Or am I talking to you as a friend?’ And that’s tricky.” Furthermore, a colleague who frequently complains about work can “infect” others with their discontent (a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion”).

Finally, closeness with a colleague can sometimes cause enmity or jealousy from others, especially when you’re friends with someone at a different professional level (Pillemer calls this a “cross-status friendship”). “If you're really close with your boss, do people assume that there's favoritism going on? If you get promoted, is that the reason why?” she says. “That’s not to say you shouldn’t have these relationships. They just need to be managed.”

That might look like making an effort to spend time with other colleagues, establishing structure around catch-ups with your work spouse (go get coffee, don’t just hang out at each other’s desks) and being self-aware of how your relationship comes across, says Pillemer. For instance, don’t jump on board with all their ideas in a meeting simply because you feel compelled to have their back; disagree or question them like you would with anyone else.

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A desire for work friendships also depends on your personality, says Pillemer. Some people are “integrators” who like to meld their work and non-work identities; these are people who would invite both work and non-work friends to their birthday party, for instance. Non-integrators, on the other hand, prefer to keep those areas of their lives separate.

Amelia, 29, is one such “integrator.” At her last job, she became so tight with a co-worker — let’s call her Jordan — that she was Jordan’s first call when she was struggling with an intense mental health issue. Amelia helped Jordan get treatment and quietly explained the situation to their managers when Jordan had to take time off. “I never considered it awkward or an overstep,” she says. “I was just glad to be there for her.”

Things got complicated later, though, when Jordan was promoted and became Amelia’s boss, landing a role that Amelia had been gunning for herself. Rather than letting it interfere with their relationship, however, Amelia started interviewing elsewhere. “I chose the friendship over the job,” she says. “And I’m glad I did — we’re still friends.”

They still work together sometimes, too. At Amelia’s new company, she has hired Jordan — now a freelance consultant — to work on a few projects. Which touches on another upside to loyal work friends: They can be your best cheerleaders, and even help your career advance. Maybe you wouldn’t call them your “work wife” in 2024, but a friend in your professional corner will almost always pay off.

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