Maybe it's a proximity thing: You're both in the same department or you sit near each other at work. You have the same boss, the same complaints, the same lousy insurance, the same pay cuts. You start talking about work and move on to home repair, childcare or families.
Next thing you know, you are having lunch together and pretty soon ... you have an office spouse.
They used to be called "a close friend at work," said Jacqueline Olds, an associate in psychiatry at McLean Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "The expression 'work spouse' is so useful," because immediately people know what it means. "Some people have them and some people don't."
When Captivate Network, a subsidiary of Gannett Co. Inc., surveyed 600 white-collar workers about their office interactions, they found that for all the time work spouses spent together, most people's interaction with their work wife/husband was confined to the office (55 percent). There was that 24 percent of the respondents who called their office spouses in the evening and on weekends, presumably still fuming about work.
A work spouse does not have to be of the opposite sex: 67 percent of married women reported they have had a same-sex office spouse , while 34 percent of married men said their office spouse was a dude, kind of "Brokeback Mountain" with office furniture.
This brings us to shopping -- as so many things do. Sixty-seven percent of the respondents said their work spouse influenced their purchasing decisions, with 60 percent saying their work spouse was more influential in jewelry purchases than their legal spouse -- which, if you think about it, makes sense. Men who have work spouses often ask them about buying gifts for their wives. And women who have same-sex work spouses are going to trust a woman's opinion about a necklace or earrings.
Surprisingly, only 78 percent of the respondents said their work spouses influenced their choice of restaurants (we suppose the other 22 percent bring bag lunches), while 56 percent said their work spouse influenced a technology purchase ("Do you like your iPhone? Because Mark says he really likes his BlackBerry.")
There are those very few work spouse relationships that go over the line. Executives engage in inappropriate behavior (12 percent of married executives had a physical affair with their work spouse) more than nonexecutives (8 percent).
Another potential problem with a work spouse is that other people in the department can feel left out, because, as Olds said, co-workers can detect a close relationship from a mile away and that can splinter workplace cohesiveness.
Olds said most employees report that they go to work to see their friends -- and, of course, earn a paycheck.
And as much as people long to never have to get up, get dressed and commute, Olds said, "For people who work alone at home, work loses its savor because they can't connect with people there."
In her own experience, Olds' office spouse, Richard Schwartz, is also her actual spouse. The two have offices across the hall from each other at home in Cambridge, Mass., so there is no downside to them being work spouses.
"If I make him lunch, no one gets jealous," she said.