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Whither the Work Wife?

The end of office life as we know it has put strain on a unique workplace relationship

When will my work wife return from the war?

Okay, that’s a little melodramatic. My work wife, who also happens to be my boss — MEL’s Deputy Editor, Alana Levinson — isn’t out fighting a war somewhere. But in the month since coronavirus has scattered us, and the rest of our colleagues, away from the office to work at home, I have pined for her as would the lonely betrothed of a sailor voyaging distant seas. I am fortunate to be quarantined with my girlfriend, Maddie, because together we have made isolation almost bearable for each another. And yet the culture of the American workplace has made the domestic-professional relationship an indispensable one. Who am I without it?

If you don’t already know, a work wife (or “work husband,” or “work spouse,” whatever your preference; Alana and I both identify with the “wife” label) is someone with whom you have more in common than just an employer and a health-care plan. You remember their birthday. You are photographed together at every company party. You coordinate lunch and coffee runs — sometimes you have to remind them to take a break at all, they’re so deep into a project — and confess to shameful snacking binges. You talk them through hard days, whether it’s down to career stress or personal struggle.

In short, you’ve created an emotional partnership on top of the capitalist one (and it’s not limited to happy hour drinks). Compelled to earn a wage to justify our existence, we find space in that hierarchy for this nurturing bond. Humans are like that. 

Suddenly, though, this intimacy, which used to be a matter of both convenience and necessity — if you don’t find a work spouse to help you through the ordeal of having a job, you may not last long in that position — has to manifest in virtual space. And it turns out a few extra Slack messages and texts aren’t quite enough, same as a kissy-face emoji from a long-distance romantic interest fails to satisfy. So much of the work wife deal is in the quotidian routines of the cubicle farm, and the small, spontaneous interjections. The simple act of swinging past their desk and asking what’s up has no true digital equivalent, as the choice to bridge the physical distance for a chat, however close you already sit, is what makes this a special and supportive gesture. When you get lost in your screen, it’s a work wife or work husband who shows up and pulls you out for a moment, reminding you where you are, that you have a friend to count on.   

In this uncharted territory, work marriages across the country are at grave risk. Those who’ve been laid off or fired have also lost something of those loving connections. Essential workers can still see their shift spouses, but crisis conditions limit opportunity for contact, which will never be as pleasingly ordinary or casual in any event. The white-collar folks now commuting from bed to couch for the daily grind are lucky if they see a work wife or work husband on the occasional Zoom call. This uncertainty may have you trying to redefine the attraction. Will lockdown horniness level it up to a full-blown crush? Are you actually not as simpatico as the office environment led you to believe? How do you relate outside the bounds of a 9-to-5 schedule and Friday morning bagels? That’s up to the two of you — and that’s a scary thought.

The key, as ever, is communication. With patience and effort, we can navigate a new normal for work couples. Just because we first focused on the practical challenges of coordinating business exclusively online doesn’t mean that the little nuances of this camaraderie are unimportant by comparison. I’m inclined to think that such friendships rise above the status of a simple coping mechanism within the corporate apparatus: They’re also the spark for the labor and achievement that the system demands. Until we invent a future free of work, we need exceptional allies to get it done. There is no alternative.

That’s why, as well as keeping in touch with Alana while we endure this separation, I’ve suggested we renew our vows as work wives the minute we’re reunited. The whole MEL staff will witness the ceremony, and afterward, the two of us can honeymoon with double-doubles at In-N-Out, where we’ll brainstorm shitposts and gossip about people we know in media.

I miss you dearly, queen. Stay safe on your side of town. Someday we’ll be laughing at memes in the same room again.