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What’s a ‘work wife’? Creighton researcher helps define the role

Mar 7, 2023
5 min Read
Chad McBride, PhD, professor of communication studies

It certainly might be surprising to be told that you are a “work husband.”

Chad McBride, PhD, was told the same some 10 years ago by a student who observed his close working relationship with a colleague.

A work husband, or a work wife, according to McBride, whose interest was piqued by his student’s observation, is “a special, platonic friendship with a work colleague characterized by a close emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty, and respect.”

McBride, a professor of communication studies at Creighton University and a past president of the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language and Gender, has researched the topic for the past 10 years, along with Karla Mason Bergen, PhD, an associate professor of communication at Omaha’s College of St. Mary, and Allison Thorson, PhD, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of San Francisco.

The “platonic friendship” definition, culled from research conducted by McBride and Bergen, was used by The Atlantic magazine to provide the framework for a discussion of the “work spouse” phenomenon last month. “The Bizarre Relationship of a ‘Work Wife’ and a ‘Work Husband’" suggests that McBride’s definition had given substance to a relationship that previously had been “slippery” of definition.

We want to understand why people form these relationships.
— Chad McBride, PhD

The Wall Street Journal followed up this month with “What’s Missing from Office Life? It May Be Your Work Spouse,” which cited research conducted by Thorson and McBride.

While Creighton’s medical and health sciences research most often makes the news, McBride’s project demonstrates that the humanities are also busily digging for truth.

Initially, McBride and his co-researchers asked 276 participants to complete an online survey. Next, they performed in-depth interviews with 41 individuals who had a work spouse.

They found that employees who had a work spouse reported higher levels of organizational commitment. This is important because heightened organizational commitment is associated with improved employee performance and lower turnover. 

More recently they asked 439 employees, mostly from the United States but across six continents, to fill out an online survey. Of those, 278 (63.3%) either currently or previously had a work spouse while 161 (36.7%) had never had a work spouse. 

To date, data has been gathered from 1,231 participants analyzing intent to quit, organizational commitment and relational closeness among individuals who have never had a work spouse, have a close work friend, a work spouse or both a close work friend and a work spouse.

“We want to understand why people form these relationships, how communication in this workplace relationship is unique, sustained and constrained; how these relationships are integrated into or kept separate from non-workplace relationships and if there are personal or organizational benefit or costs connected with having a work spouse,” McBride says.