I work for a small, family-owned business that, for many years, was run by a father and his son. They had a loving and close relationship, but would occasionally get into terrifically loud, heated shouting matches in the office. This made everyone else fidgety and awkward, and whenever it happened, my colleagues and I would half-joke that our parents were fighting. While the rest of us who work at the company are not related, my coworkers really do feel like family members, people I’ve come to love because of our relationship – and disagree with hotly sometimes, just like I do with my husband.
My workplace has a pretty open culture, and many of us have worked there for a long time, so what we know about each other goes beyond mere politeness or professional duty. I know what my colleagues are like on too little sleep and too little food, whether they brush their teeth before or after breakfast, and I can pick out their lunch orders without asking. I know their wardrobes, their dating history, their birth stories, and their feelings about their in-laws. These relationships are slightly different than friendships, perhaps because in both work and a marriage, you are building something together (either a work product, a life/kids/home). In many ways I share the emotional intimacy of a marriage with all 12 of my coworkers, if only for 40 hours a week.
I generally try to avoid conflict at work, but sometimes it’s inevitable. When I do have conflicts with coworkers, it is often with the emotional weight and complication exerted by a decade of shared history, just like I feel in my marriage. The conflict typically boils over from the particular issue causing friction into something different, bigger, and with a long history.
For me, this is largely expressed with a deep sensitivity to criticism. I can feel my color rise when a colleague (fairly) questions my judgment; it feels the same when my husband disagrees with me about something that I think of as my expertise. And sometimes I overstep what should be obvious boundaries for others, such as the time I teased my colleague about sexually harassing a new hire on her first day, or when I obnoxiously told another colleague that I knew her well enough to predict how she would behave in a conflict she was in with a friend. “You don’t know the person I want to be!” she shouted in response.
She’s right; like I sometimes do with my husband, I was trying to pin her into something permanently knowable rather than accepting she was a human who could change and be unexpected. I was trying to assert my own certainty about her – not exactly a recipe for a happy relationship. I was trying to make her different rather than accepting her as she is.
If work relationships have elements of marriages, however, they are ones that are arranged. You start a job knowing a little bit about your future colleagues, but basically unaware of what you are really getting into. There is no real workplace equivalent of dating, just to make sure it’s a good fit, before you accept an employment offer. Once you are committed you have to push forward, and invest energy and emotion, without any guarantee of the outcome. For as long as you are there it is your job is to make the union work, or risk the terrible loneliness that comes from feeling isolated within a relationship. (And it goes without saying that when work marriages are unhappy, it can be toxic for both “spouses” and everyone else around them.)
Happy work marriages aren’t just enjoyable social experiences; they also deepen the experience of the actual work you are both there being paid to perform. I’m lucky to have so many colleagues who I sincerely respect and care about, and I see the impact it has. Enjoying each others company motivates me to actively talk to everyone and to share information – something that I think almost always leads to better workplace engagement and satisfaction. When I do get to work directly with someone I really care about and respect, I think I try harder and generally produce better work, like being a member of a sports team with really gifted teammates.
It’s rare to build the sort of emotional intimacy that I have at work. In most cases, conversations that touch on personal lives will fall safely into the trifecta of weather, children, and weekend plans. Even with my colleagues, who I adore and know very well, there are elements of their personalities and their lives that will always remain apart and unknown to me. And actually, that’s true of my marriage too, if at a much smaller scale.
We assume and expect, usually correctly, that we won’t ever fully know our co-workers the way we know our romantic partners. But there are things that we keep private in any relationship, including the one we have with our spouses. We don’t say everything that’s on our mind – for example, uncharitable feelings about the other person or frustration every time they do something wrong (“wrong”). The act of keeping things private contradicts many modern representations of intimacy, but not every feeling, annoyance, or reaction needs to be shared – and actually I think that can be a good thing. While we tend to focus on the need to talk about things as a way to support and strengthen relationships, sometimes what goes unsaid can also be significant.
A happy marriage has enough room for both its component parts (the two people in it, who know each other deeply but perhaps never completely) and the greater whole (“the relationship”) that they form. A happy work marriage does, too.
Image: Kerala (India) mural painting