The ups and downs of ‘work families’

The ups and downs of ‘work families’

When she first began working at Lewiston-based emergency shelter New Beginnings five years ago, Rosie Moreau quickly came to appreciate her colleagues and the passion they shared for helping young people.

Yet it took Moreau, who works at New Beginnings Emergency Shelter as a case manager and youth worker, a while to make work friends. She didn’t accept their Facebook friend requests for a couple years.

“We joke about that now,” said Moreau, 28, from Lewiston. “It was just a result of my somewhat rigid professional boundaries.”

It is not unusual for women to have a whole group of “work friends,” including a “work husband” or even a “work daughter.” A work friend, says Susannah Ford, a licensed clinical social worker for Creative Change Counseling in South Portland, is “a workmate with whom you develop a social relationship” and with whom you share information about your personal life, including topics outside of the workplace.

According to Ford, though each situation is unique, “the level of intimacy with a work friend varies from a light, intimate nature where you share factual information about your personal life – but rarely share your feelings – all the way to a high level of intimacy,” where you confide in the person and “discuss major joys and concerns.”

Ford says people tend to pursue certain professions “based on certain personality traits.” When co-workers share similar traits, “it’s not unusual” that they enjoy each other’s company, in or out of the office.

“Transitioning from a work friend to a personal friend seems to work best when it happens gradually, allowing time to build a certain level of trust before sharing too much of your personal life,” Ford said.

Amy Blake, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Yarmouth, provides a similar opinion about the terms “work friend” and “work spouse.” She defines these kinds of relationships as one with an “emotionally intimate connection.”

With regard to a work spouse, or work husband, “because it’s not a sexual connection, there’s a sense that people have that somehow it’s OK,” Blake said. “But if they’re in a marriage or committed relationship, a lot of the time, that can create some problems.”

Some women with so-called “work husbands” are “in denial,” said Blake, claiming the relationship is platonic “because it’s not sexual.” But, she said, “there is an emotional intimacy that can be very threatening, and in some cases very damaging to the marriage or committed relationship.”

Her advice for women is to end the relationship with their co-worker if they begin to think about that person while at home with their partner.

“If it gets to the level of longing, obsession, and desire, then people do really need to back off and take a break from one another,” Blake said.

Moreau, a wife and mother, said many factors come into play when exploring work friendships, including the kind of personality or job a person has. Moreau met several close friends at work through the years, she said, most of whom are no longer co-workers.

The workplace “creates a platform for several people who share common interests, passion and personalities,” Moreau said.

Though she has not experienced a failed work relationship, she doesn’t deny that pursuing this kind of bond can sometimes “get messy.”

“If you have an argument or other relationship issues, then you essentially bring your personal life to work,” Moreau said.

This is also true when the connection between two co-workers is solely work-related, said Ford.

“It becomes tiring after a while and seems to extend the stressors of the job into one’s personal life,” she said.

But it is highly unlikely a relationship will last after a job change “if the conversations and emotional bonds are always about work issues.”

While some relationships in the workplace build more gradually, other times there’s an instant connection.

“People bond when they are working together, especially if there is emotion tied to the work they are doing. Coworkers often share feelings of pride, frustration, confidence, joy, anger,” Ford said. “Sharing emotional moments creates more opportunity to bond.”

Ford said she never thinks it is appropriate, however, for two people who work together to be in a physically intimate relationship, especially if one partner is the boss.

“The imbalance of power puts them at risk,” Ford said. “The greatest risk associated with developing intimate relationships in the workplace is when a married person develops a high level of intimacy with a co-worker.”

These situations can lead to emotional and sometimes, sexual affairs, Ford said.

A red flag goes up “as soon as a married co-worker starts complaining about their partner to a co-worker of the same sex,” she said.

According to Blake, more women in recent years are experiencing these kinds of relationships because a majority of their time is spent at work.

“Connecting with someone outside of your (primary) relationship is usually an indicator there is something amiss,” Blake said.

Her advice for women with “work husbands” is to have an honest conversation with their spouse or partner, and explore ways to connect more deeply with them.

“Are you doing or saying anything that you wouldn’t do or say in front of your spouse with this person?” Blake asks women.

Blake said women are “playing with fire” when they pursue an emotional connection with a co-worker. Her sense, however, is that these relationships don’t normally last, because they are more “a relationship of convenience” than anything.

“When one person gets removed from that situation it’s not that convenient anymore,” Blake said.

But that is not the case for Moreau. Despite pursuing separate careers years later, she has managed to maintain “legitimate friendships” with her former colleagues. Three of her friends she met through work were bridesmaids in her wedding last year.

Sustaining a “work friendship” is the same as having any friendship in a sense that “it takes effort” and requires you to “make time” for them, Moreau said.

“Friends are friends, whether they are met through work or not,” she said. “Some (friends) I do not see outside of work at all – or very rarely. However, I still feel that if I needed anything, they would be there (for me).”

Rosie Moreau, a case manager for New Beginnings Emergency Shelter in Lewiston, third from left, and a few of her work friends during Moreau’s bachelorette party in 2014. Courtesy photo

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