The label “work wife” has traditionally been applied to male-female platonic relationships in the office. (Think Bailey and Webber from old episodes of Grey's Anatomy.) But over the past few years, it’s taken on a fresh meaning, detailing the special tie two women form in the workplace. And it’s a friendship that’s giving the traditional BFF bond a run for its money.
Why Is The Work Wife A Thing?
Michelle Friedman, executive coach and organizational psychologist at Advancing Women’s Careers, says the work wife relationship occurs in part because "for younger people — before they have really involved personal lives and marriages and families — work comprises a big part of their identity.” (Think about the way you introduce yourself to someone new at a party: After you say your name, you probably mention what you do for a living.) And because you're with your coworkers 40-plus hours per week — and inevitably socialize with them beyond the conference room — “it would make sense that two women would have a very special connection if they’re spending a lot of time together in the office,” Friedman says.
Katie G., a 27-year-old digital manager in Toronto, has a sleepover with her work wife, Leila, almost every Thursday. “We’ll head home after work, go for a run or do a workout, make a healthy dinner, do our nails, and then usually fall asleep to an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians or Orange Is the New Black,” she told us. On weekends, Katie says they swap out their fitness routine for “too many vodka sodas” and fast food. When they’re not together, they’re texting or commenting on each other’s Instagrams. “Going more than a couple hours without communication starts to feel weird,” Katie confessed.
“Going more than a couple hours without communication starts to feel weird.”
It’s true that the work wife occupies a privileged position in your life. Lisa Brateman, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist in NYC, chalks it up to all the face time the two of you log together. It’s hard for people who work full-time to have time to see their non-office friends as much as they see their coworkers, Brateman says. “The day in, day out details of [your life] are like a book, compared to just relaying one story to your friends when you see them once or twice a month.” That makes for a special intimacy you sometimes can’t get in a traditional friendship. According to Brateman, women are also more likely to share details of their personal affairs at work. So, your work wife gets the full picture of your life. “In some ways, they are closer to their work partners than they are their actual, real friends. They have that inside window,” Brateman notes.
There are some real benefits to having a work wife — aside from the fun you two undoubtedly have together. Friedman says work wives can help with the stressors and challenges you face in the workplace. “Having somebody you feel sort of safe and close to to process that stuff can be very positive,” she says.
Beyond the career-related benefits, the work-wife relationship provides an emotional outlet some women can’t get elsewhere — even with friends they’ve had their whole lives, or with their spouse or partner.
Tory H., a 31-year-old content producer in New York, says that while she has more history with her “real” BFFs, they don’t really know what she’s like at work, whereas Annie, her work wife, does. “Because Annie and I got to know each other as professionals before we became friends, I think our relationship was built on a sense of mutual respect,” Tory says. “We’ve never drunkenly danced on tables together, but that’s not really how I gauge friendship at this point. It’s more just a feeling of: ‘You’re awesome.’ ‘No, you’re awesome.’ High five.”
Stephanie H., who’s 27 and works for a small nonprofit in Chicago, echoes that sentiment. She says her work wife Kate, “in some ways understands parts of me better than my husband does, because she sees a side of me he often doesn’t.”
"It’s more just a feeling of: ‘You’re awesome.’ ‘No, you’re awesome.’ High five.”
It’s hard to imagine how a relationship so beautiful and important could possibly have a downside. But there are a couple of things to keep in mind with an in-office friendship like the work wife.
Friedman says it’s important to remember that though you are part of a company, you are also your own personal brand, and everyone is known for something at work. “Much of your brand is due to accomplishments you’ve had and skills and strengths you bring to the table,” but part of that brand is also who you hang out with. So, if your work wife is someone who’s special to you, but isn’t a strong performer or is someone who alienates other people in the office, it can reflect poorly on you, too. “It’s not so different than middle school, where you’re hanging out with the kid who’s not so popular and [it affects] what people think of you,” Friedman says. “Unfortunately it can be juvenile like that.”
"If you concentrate too much of that emotional work in the workplace with one other person, then you’re not getting a chance to distribute it and build a broader network.”
Brateman also suggests examining the nature of your friendship. “If one person has a higher position, is it really an equal friendship?” she asks. “If they have different positions, it’s not always so.” That competition can make for troubled times between you and your work wife. “The other person may feel jealous, especially if you were peers, and if an opportunity came to you that didn’t come to that person,” Friedman adds.
In these cases, Brateman suggests selective transparency. First and foremost, be up front about any possible changes. “Say, ‘Are you interested in this job? Because this is something I really want to go for,’” Brateman advises. Talk openly with your work wife about your feelings so it’s not a surprise to her later on. “Don’t let that person be the last one to know.”
Some women can feel territorial about their position at a company, too. Chloe F., who’s 23 and works at a software company in Austin, says she and her work wife, Tori, didn’t like each other when they first met. “We’re on a team of all guys, so I don’t know if I was defensive about another girl joining, but we didn’t hit it off right away.” Eventually, they began to bond over the similarities in their personal style and love for Kanye. They’ve been friends ever since.
Friedman calls this phenomenon “marooning” or “stranding,” when women find themselves alone on a large team of men. Then they see a woman passing in the distance, almost like a mirage. If the woman can get past that territorial feeling, a really special relationship can occur. “They can use each other to sort of process situations that maybe felt uncomfortable,” Friedman says. But if you don’t, you’ll end up with a sea of men and separate islands of women.
In most cases, there will come a day when you or your work wife leaves the company. In fact, when readers shared stories about their work wives, several women responded saying they were still in emotional turmoil because their work wife “left them.” So, what happens to the work wife when she becomes, well, an ex?
“It’s inevitable that one person will feel abandoned,” Brateman says. “They can be happy for the other person because it’s what they want, but like in any relationship, there’s a loss and a mourning period.” So, feeling sad is totally normal. “It feels like people have moved on, and you’re kind of still stuck where you are.”
Brateman says this loss can feel particularly deep. “Some people feel it’s almost like a betrayal, like we were in this together and now you’re just in it for yourself.” Some friendships can be lost in the process.
But Friedman advises that if your work wife is truly a friend, and your relationship was not simply born of proximity and convenience, it will last. “It won’t be as easy as it was when you were sitting in the cube next to them,” she says. “It will actually take a little more effort and planning as opposed to just seeing them because they’re there.”
And, if your work wife really is the kind of person you want to keep around forever, there’s just one thing left to do: Introduce her to your friends.