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By Kristen Bahler
November 28, 2016

It’s the first person you grab when you need to vent about your day — or hit up a happy hour. It’s the only coworker who knows your lunch order by heart, and who always tells you when there’s kale salad in your teeth. It’s your best friend in the office, frankly, and the bond you’ve built makes even the most grueling workday a little more pleasant.

A “work marriage,” as the relationship called, can be a deeply meaningful connection. But is it good for your career — and your actual marriage?

Dr. Dion Metzger, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist who specializes in relationships (and co-author of the new book The Modern Trophy Wife: How to Achieve Your Life Goals While Thriving at Home), shares her rules of engagement. (The following interview has been edited and condensed from a longer conversation.)

What is a work marriage — and why do these relationships occur?

A work marriage is when a colleague, usually of the opposite sex, becomes an integral part of your support system. It’s someone who helps you make decisions at work, and who lightens the mood when you’re down. Someone you can form an alliance with.

It’s a valuable relationship: Your real spouse will never understand your life at the office as well as your coworkers. A work spouse can probably provide better work-related advice, because they can relate to what you’re going through.

How do you make sure it’s a productive relationship?

You’re probably closer with a work husband or wife than your platonic friends — you see them every day for five days a week, after all, so you’re spending a lot of time together.

For this reason, I would limit the time outside of work that you spend together. If you’re going out for cocktails, you should probably go in a group. Too many lunch or drink dates can send the wrong signals — to both your work spouse and to others at the company.

It’s also important that you keep a marker on how much time you spend socializing at the office. If it takes double the time to get a project done because you’re spending hours enjoying each other’s company, that’s not efficient.

How do you pump the brakes if the relationship goes in a direction you’re not comfortable with?

If one person starts to develop feelings that aren’t reciprocated, things can get messy pretty quickly.

Be prepared to talk about it. Say, “I feel like things are getting a little too intense. I liked the way our relationship was before.” You have to talk about what you are, and aren’t, comfortable with. If you need to, start distancing yourself by declining invitations. Again, make sure you’re sticking to work-sponsored activities if you’re spending time outside the office.

If I have a partner at home, should I tell him or her about my ‘work spouse’?

It’s definitely a good idea to be open about it — hiding the relationship seems suspicious. You can say something like, “John is a coworker who is really supportive, and we work well together.” It’s that simple.

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