When her husband started getting work-related phone calls on weekends from a female colleague, Tanya* didn't know what to think. "He wasn't cheating on me, but this woman would ask to meet my hubby at cafes in town to discuss work, and usually on Saturday afternoons, which I found odd," shares the 38-year-old marketing executive and mum of two.
"When I found out that they lunched together on weekdays too, without their other co-workers, I hit the roof. My husband called me paranoid and we didn't talk for days. Even though he insisted that he and Melissa* were just colleagues, a part of me felt uneasy, and our relationship is suffering now because of her.
"Every time he asks me to do something for him, I'll say 'Ask your office wife to do it'. I hate being angry with him, but their closeness makes me feel uncomfortable and insecure," adds Tanya.
Does your hubby have an "office wife"?
Many of us have someone in the office that we're close to, someone who makes us look forward to being at work all day. We may share office or personal gossip with this person, have lunch with her, and even consider her a good friend to the point where we socialise or travel with her.
Now, imagine if that colleague was of the opposite sex.
Ad agency creative director Mark* has an office wife, Donna*. The two are inseparable but Mark says that his "real" wife understands their relationship.
"She trusts me and knows that Donna and I just colleagues," says the 40-year-old. "In our industry, it's not uncommon to work late into the night with your team, and to attend events, take overseas trips, or go for drinks with them.
"Donna is my deputy, so we have no choice but to do these things together. We have a tight bond; we share our personal problems with each other, and I must admit that she makes my job more fun, but we both know there's a line that must never be crossed. I would never do anything to jeopardise my career or my marriage."
Donna, who is 32 and single, claims her relationship with Mark is strictly professional. "I respect him and his wife, whom I've never met but heard a lot about," she explains. "Yes, we're super-close, we share the same sense of humour and have common interests, but at the end of the day, we just work together."
It's normal to have someone at work that you feel close to. Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre For Psychological Wellness, Gleneagles Medical Centre, says that many people find it comforting to have someone they can trust - much like their spouse - in the office.
"That person is your lunch companion and listens when you want to complain about the boss. In a nutshell, he or she is there when you need them and you don't have to fear being judged or rejected.
Dr Lim says knowing that your office spouse will watch your back also makes you feel safer at work and when you're away from work. However, he cautions that calling this person a 'spouse' already implies the crossing of psychological boundaries. "This may ultimately lead to problems," he adds.
A marriage nearly broken
Indeed, problems may arise if your hubby and his office wife develop romantic feelings for each other and decide to take their friendship to the next level.
James*, a 37-year-old manager, says his five-year marriage was almost ruined when he began spending more time with his office wife, Jenny*. "We went from being lunch and cubicle mates to having dinner together, and pretty soon we were watching movies together on weekends," he shares.
"My wife knew about Jenny and was upset about our closeness, but the truth is, Jenny made me happier than my wife did. I was tempted to make a move on her. She flirted with me all the time and I enjoyed the attention."
Several major arguments with his wife, and seeing how his four-year-old son was affected by these arguments, made James re-think his relationship with Jenny. Other colleagues were also starting to gossip about the pair, and James was worried that it would destroy his career. In the end, he asked for a transfer to another department and worked on improving his relationship with his wife.
The office affair
Steven*, on the other hand, was not so lucky. His office wife Clara* initiated an affair with him. Steven says that Clara showered him with a lot of attention - something he wasn't getting from his wife of six years.
"I wasn't unhappy with my wife, but having an affair with Clara was exciting," the 42-year-old sales manager shares. "Often, we'd sneak out of the office in the afternoon to watch movies or have a quickie in a hotel room. We had sex on work trips. We'd pass each other cute notes and even send sexy texts to each other. The affair ended after three months, when Clara begged me to leave my wife for her."
When Steven refused, Clara not only threatened to tell his wife about the affair, but also to tell their supervisor that he had sexually harassed her. In the end, Steven resigned from his job and also came clean with his wife, who left him and took their daughter with her.
Read also: She thought hubby was having an affair
Make their "office marriage" work for you
Just because your husband is close to a woman at work, it doesn't mean that he'll cheat on you with her. But, Dr Lim says that if your marriage is already strained and vulnerable, or if your husband is yearning for a romantic relationship without the responsibility, the situation can get tricky.
"In either case, he may look at his office wife and see a convenient avenue to stray. And if she is emotionally involved with him, she may not stop the affair from happening."
If your husband has an office wife yet insists that their relationship is professional, then he should have no problem talking about it with you. "He should feel comfortable letting you know about the existence of this relationship and the full extent of it," says Dr Lim. "He shouldn't have anything to hide when you question him."
If you still feel insecure despite your husband's openness, the last thing you should do is accuse him of cheating, threaten him, or act aggressively towards him, as this will only make him defensive, says Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre.
"Instead, tell him how the relationship is affecting you and that you need help understanding it better," says Daniel. "Ask for his reassurance. Find out why he likes spending time with her. Does she give him emotional support? Do they share common interests?"
At the same time, you and Hubby should do all you can to maintain your closeness and improve your communication with each other. A strong foundation is crucial to prevent an extramarital affair of any kind.
"Whatever role this office wife plays, you need to assess your marriage and see if anything is missing," Daniel adds. "Is there anything you're not giving your husband that she is? Is there some aspect of your marriage that can be improved? Is your husband looking for something he's not getting at home?
"If you can work through these questions honestly with each other, your marriage will be stronger, but you'll also minimise any opportunity for something to happen with between him and his office wife," he adds.
Should you ask to meet her?
Mark's wife says she has no desire to meet Donna because she trusts her husband. "Why would I want to suss her out or observe how they act when they're together? That's unnecessary because I know there's nothing going on between them," says the 38-year-old accountant.
Daniel believes there's nothing wrong with wanting to meet your husband's office wife. But before you do, you should ask yourself why, and if you're ready to witness their close bond.
"Don't ask to meet her just to confront her," he advises. "One way you can feel better about their relationship and get to know her better is to organise a gathering for his co-workers. Then you can observe how she acts towards your husband and vice versa.
"If you don't feel comfortable with her behaviour then you can bring it up. But it's a good idea to get to know her better anyway - if you want to - because then you can approach her later if the need arises."
When should you worry?
If you see these signs, it's time to have a talk with Hubby.
• He refuses to talk about his office wife or his relationship with her, and refuses to let you meet her.
• They start spending time together during non-office hours, and you know that they're not working, for example, they go shopping or watch a movie on weekends - typical "couple" activities.
• He starts comparing you to her and says things like, "You don't understand me the way she does."
• You discover he's been confiding in her about personal matters, even marital ones.
• You discover that they're exchanging expensive and/or personal gifts, or that they have pet names for each other, like "dear", "babe", "darling" and so on.
• Dr Lim Boon Leng, psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre For Psychological Wellness, Gleneagles Medical Centre
• Daniel Koh, psychologist at Insights Mind Centre
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