A man and woman who are colleagues and have become friends so close they call each other their 'work spouse' laugh and chat together

When a Colleague Becomes a Close Friend: Effects on Mental Well-being

The term ‘work spouse’ describes when colleagues become such close friends their unique, platonic relationship mirrors many aspects of a marital partnership, without the romantic element. 


The ‘work spouse’ relationship is characterized by mutual trust, deep understanding, emotional support, and frequent interaction. While such connections can enhance job satisfaction and performance, they can also present unique challenges and impact mental health as well as personal and professional dynamics.


Understanding how to navigate this relationship effectively is crucial for maintaining a healthy and positive work environment and home life.


What ‘work spouse’ means

A “work spouse” is a co-worker of any gender with whom one shares a close, platonic relationship. Research shows that time together is one of the determinants of closeness, and many of us spend more of our waking hours at the office than at home. These circumstances can generate deep insights and bonds with co-workers, who often see each face challenges and enjoy success firsthand.


A ‘work spouse’ often becomes the go-to person for support, advice, and even gentle criticism.


The relationship typically involves frequent communication, emotional intimacy, and a deep level of trust akin to what might be found in a personal relationship. 


Work spouses often have similar interests, understand each other’s professional and personal lives, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, goals and past experiences, making them invaluable allies in the office.


Pros and cons of when colleagues become close friends

Like any close relationship, the dynamic between work spouses has the potential to affect mental health in good and negative ways.


Positive aspects:

  • Stress relief: Having a work spouse can significantly alleviate workplace stress. This relationship provides a safe space to vent frustrations and share personal or professional concerns, reducing feelings of isolation and anxiety.
  • Increased job satisfaction: The emotional support provided by a colleague-turned-close-friend can enhance overall job satisfaction. The camaraderie and mutual encouragement often make daily tasks more enjoyable and rewarding.
  • Improved productivity: Work spouses can boost each other’s productivity through mutual motivation and accountability, ensuring both parties stay focused and perform well.
  • Strong romantic bonds at home: Research suggests that having a strong, close friendship at work correlates with having a strong, supportive relationship with a romantic partner at home.

Potential challenges:

  • Resentment from colleagues: Relationships this close can sometimes lead to jealousy or misunderstandings with other colleagues who may feel excluded or threatened by the close bond. 
  • Jealousy and misunderstandings with partners: Such a deep relationship at the workplace – where many of us spend most of our time – can impact  romantic relationships at home, as partners may feel insecure, threatened, or envious of the closeness. This may increase conflict with loved ones and take a toll on mental health.
  • Blurring of professional boundaries: The deep familiarity and comfort can sometimes lead to the blurring of professional boundaries, which might affect decision-making or professional conduct.

Well-being in a work-spouse relationship

Setting boundaries with a work spouse is essential to maintaining a healthy, professional relationship that benefits both parties without encroaching on personal or organizational norms.


Here are a few examples of what kind of boundaries might be helpful with a colleague who has become a close friend, and how you can set them.


Communication boundaries

  • Example: Suppose your work spouse tends to share very personal details about their life, and you find it overwhelming or inappropriate. You could say, “I really value our chats and your trust, but I find it hard to discuss such personal topics during work hours. Let’s keep our conversations more work-focused, or maybe we can limit more personal discussions to lunch breaks or after hours.”

Time boundaries

  • Example: If your work spouse has a habit of dropping by your desk often, eating into your productive time, you might need to set a clear boundary. You could approach this by saying, “I always enjoy our catch-up sessions, but I’ve been quite swamped with tasks lately. Could we schedule a specific time during the day, like a coffee break in the afternoon, to chat? This helps me manage my time better and stay on top of my workload.”

Collaboration boundaries

  • Example: Perhaps your work spouse frequently asks for help on their projects, assuming you’ll always pitch in. This could be addressed by saying, “I’m glad to help when I can, but I need to prioritize my own projects right now. Let’s plan in advance if you think you’ll need my input on something, so I can balance it with my own tasks effectively.”

Personal boundaries

  • Example: Perhaps your work spouse is going through a difficult time in their romantic relationship and complaining about their actual spouse or partner to you, which can undermine that relationship. You can preserve the friendship but set a clear boundary by saying, “I really feel for you right now; it’s not easy to juggle work and a difficult relationship at home. I’m happy to help you with anything you’re struggling with at the office, but I’m not the right person to help you with struggles at home.”

Ensuring a healthy close colleague-friendship

To ensure that your work spouse relationship remains beneficial and does not adversely affect your mental health or that of others in the workplace, consider the following tips:


Maintain professionalism: Always remember that the workplace setting requires a level of professionalism. It’s important to keep personal conversations and jokes appropriate and to respect each other’s space and privacy. Ensure that your friendship does not interfere with your responsibilities or decision-making processes at work.


Don’t refer to each other as a ‘work spouse’: The words we use can affect how we think about things – and how we think about things can affect our behaviour. One way to ensure the relationship with a work spouse remains healthy is simply to not refer to the person as a ‘spouse.’ Choosing words like ‘close friend’ or ‘close teammate’ can help avoid any unintentional expectations or aspects of a romantic relationship creeping into the friendship.


Set clear boundaries: Discuss and agree on boundaries concerning how much you share about your personal lives and the extent of support you can offer each other at work. This helps prevent any one party from becoming too reliant on the other for emotional support, which can be draining.


Communicate openly: Effective communication is key in any relationship. Be honest about what works and what doesn’t in your work spouse dynamic. If certain aspects of the relationship are making you uncomfortable, bring them up in a respectful and constructive manner.


Include others: While it’s great to have a close ally at work, ensure that this relationship does not lead to exclusion. Make an effort to engage with other colleagues and foster an inclusive environment. This helps prevent misunderstandings and feelings of resentment.


Monitor the impact: Regularly assess how the relationship is affecting your work and personal life. If you find that the dynamic is causing stress or affecting your performance, it might be time to reevaluate the boundaries or the nature of the relationship.


When a work spouse relationship turns toxic

Recognizing when a work spouse relationship is turning toxic is crucial for maintaining professional integrity and personal well-being.


Signs of a toxic dynamic can include feelings of obligation or discomfort that overshadow the originally supportive nature of the relationship. 


If you find yourself dreading interactions, feeling pressured to share more than you are comfortable with, or noticing that your work spouse is overly dependent on you for emotional support, it may indicate toxicity. Other red flags include jealousy, possessiveness, or resentment when interacting with other colleagues, and any negative impact on your work performance or other professional relationships.


If the relationship starts to feel more like a burden than a benefit, it’s essential to reassess and set firmer boundaries, or possibly reevaluate the relationship altogether.


A work spouse can significantly enhance your well-being at work by providing emotional support, lightening your day, and fostering professional growth. However, like all relationships, it requires effort, respect, and boundaries to ensure it remains a positive force in your life.


By maintaining professionalism, setting clear boundaries, and ensuring open communication, you can cultivate a work spouse relationship that not only supports your mental health but also contributes positively to your overall work environment.




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Vidula V Sawant (M.A., M.Phil., CRR No. A80980) is Mitsu’s senior clinical psychologist. She has 5+ years of experience and a passion for understanding the complexities of our minds and behaviours.

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