Friday, March 10, 2023
From the Atlantic:
It started out as a fairly typical office friendship: You ate lunch together and joked around during breaks. Maybe you bonded over a shared affinity for escape rooms (or board games or birding or some other slightly weird hobby). Over time, you became fluent in the nuances of each other’s workplace beefs. By now, you vent to each other so regularly that the routine frustrations of professional life have spawned a carousel of inside jokes that leavens the day-to-day. You chat about your lives outside work too. But a lot of times, you don’t have to talk at all; if you need to be rescued from a conversation with an overbearing co-worker, a pointed glance will do. You aren’t Jim and Pam, because there isn’t anything romantic between you, but you can kind of see why people might suspect there is.
The term made a little more sense in its original form. The phrase office wife seems to have been coined in the second half of the 19th century, when the former U.K. Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone used it to describe the oneness of mind and uncalculating commitment shared by a minister and his (male) secretary. In later decades, the expression became a means of referring to secretaries more generally—that is, to typically female assistants who handled their boss’s tedious affairs at work as his wife did at home. At times, it gestured toward the potential for romance, as in Faith Baldwin’s 1929 novel The Office Wife, in which a wife, a husband, and a secretary are entangled in a web of infidelity. But eventually, this trope fell out of favor; secretaries distanced themselves from the role of their boss’s caregiver, and the influential feminist scholar Rosabeth Moss Kanter criticized the gendered divisions of labor and power imbalances that work marriages created.
But work spouses didn’t so much disappear as evolve. By the late 1980s, in step with changing attitudes toward marriage, the dynamic had started to morph into something more egalitarian. As David Owen, a former contributing editor at The Atlantic, described in a 1987 essay, the new office marriage did not have to be a hierarchical and questionably romantic relationship between a boss and a secretary; it could be a platonic bond between a male and a female peer. The appeal, to Owen, lay as much in what the other person didn’t know about you as what they did: The two of you could share secrets about your real partners, but because your work wife didn’t know about your habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink, she wouldn’t nag you about it. It was a cross-sex relationship that benefited from professional boundaries, offering some of the emotional intimacy of marriage without the trouble of sharing a household.
Today, your work spouse doesn’t need to be someone of the opposite gender, though McBride and Bergen found that these relationships still tend to occur with someone of the gender you are attracted to. You don’t have to have a real spouse to have a work spouse, though a lot of work spouses do. The office marriage has shed many of the stereotypes that once defined it, but the term itself has strangely persisted.
Read more here.