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The office wife and cubicle hubby: Till downsizing do us part

emily flake The Globe and Mail

Nita Ossi and her co-worker Steve are inseparable.

Every morning, the two carpool to their office, west of Prince George, B.C. They knock at each other's doors throughout the work day to seek advice or to share the latest company news. At lunch, they sit together in the break room. And, although their relationship is strictly platonic, their colleagues often joke that they act like a married couple.

Ms. Ossi, a human resources co-ordinator for a mining company, says she would be at a loss at work without her work spouse.

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"We lean on each other for everything," she says. "I don't know what I'd do without him."

It's an eventuality she may one day have to face.

Many workers, spending the bulk of their waking hours with their colleagues, develop intimate, but non-romantic, work relationships like Ms. Ossi and Steve's. They may have their own families to return to at the end of the workday, but their work spouses can feel like their closest confidantes.

But in an age of job instability and constant career changes, many people fortunate enough to have an office wife or cubicle hubby may also be forced to endure a breakup. Over the past couple of years of downsizing and restructuring, many office spouses have been forced apart, leaving both parties with a sense of loss that can feel like a real split.

Jessica Dzierlatka of New Haven, Conn., says she lost her work spouse Connie early last year when their company reassigned Connie to another department at a separate building.

"It was hard," Ms. Dzierlatka says. "Once they took Connie out of there … I was left by myself."

Three months later, Ms. Dzierlatka was laid off from her sales job at the company, which specializes in high-end windows and doors. Connie, meanwhile, remained at the company.

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To keep in touch, the two exchange phone calls and e-mails or chat on Facebook. Connie still fills Ms. Dzierlatka in on all the company gossip and they never seem to run out of things to talk about.

But there are some topics they tend to avoid.

"We don't actually talk about my work situation," Ms. Dzierlatka says. "She'll ask me every now and then if I've found work or if I'm looking but I always worry she's going to report back to the boss."

Her reluctance to talk about her continuing job hunt indicates the limits of their relationship.

"Although we were work spouses … she wasn't my best friend."

Career services expert Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio (who is not Ms. Dzierlatka's Connie) of the New York-based career information company Vault agrees that work spouse breakups can be difficult.

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"I think it's sad. You spend so much time with someone and you're such good friends. You really enjoy being with them and all of a sudden you're not friends and you can't hang out any more," she says.

Ms. Thanasoulis-Cerrachio was forced to break up with her own work husband about three years ago when they went their separate ways after finishing a lengthy project together.

"We spoke not too long ago, and he was like, 'Connie! I miss the old times,' " she says.

But even though they still call each other on occasion, she says their current relationship isn't nearly as close, and both recognize they may never go back to the way things were.

According to a survey Vault released last month, nearly 32 per cent of the 1,050 employees polled from various U.S. industries said they have a work spouse with whom they hang out all the time at the office.

Several survey participants also said they have suffered work spouse breakups.

"We were quite good friends and also bickered like husband and wife until he was laid off at the end of last year," one respondent said. "We still talk, but only occasionally ... definitely not as much as before."

Another wrote: "Had office spouse. Both moved on to other jobs. Miss her more than I miss the old job!"

Ms. Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says since people don't often stay in their jobs as long as older generations once did, work spouse relationships these days tend to be briefer affairs.

"Baby boomers probably worked for three to five companies in their lifetime, but Generation X and Generation Y are going to work for 20 companies," she says. "So they might have more work girlfriends and work boyfriends [instead of]work husbands and work wives."

That doesn't mean those relationships are any less intense, however.

At a time when companies are laying off staff, work spouses can form closer ties than ever as they bond over their dread of potential job loss, says Kim Hughes, a relationship expert at the online dating service company Lavalife.

But like romantic relationships, Ms. Hughes says it's possible to let go of a work spouse gently if the relationship is based on friendship first, and work second. In such cases, a breakup can be easier on both parties if they meet for occasional lunch dates and cocktails to stay in touch.

Ms. Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says the old adage that time heals all wounds holds true for heartbroken work spouses. Once a job is terminated, work spouse relationships tend to fizzle out on their own, as each party moves on with his or her career.

"Nature is going to take its course and people are going to get involved with other things and start working with other people," she says.

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