For Valentine’s Day last month, some people bought two sets of Hallmark greetings and chocolates: one for their sweetheart, and one for their boss or co-worker. There’s no infidelity going on, they claim, they just have a “work spouse”—a common phrase that has popped up over the past few years to describe a co-worker with whom his/her colleague has bonded over long office hours, coffee runs, and mutual professional support. It is someone who takes care of your schedule, your phone messages, your nine to five needs. But of course, “work spouse” is a purely tongue-in-cheek reference, nothing to take seriously as the relationship is strictly platonic. Unfortunately, humor is disarming, and it can easily corrode proper boundaries.
Humor is what led Bridget, a happily married public relations assistant, to allow her boss to publish a blog post comparing her as his “work wife” to his “real wife.” She laughed it off and let him. Her boss, Colin Sokowski, is also married with young children. I suppose the best way to erase a foul line is to make it a punch line.
Sokowski explains, “So what makes her my work wife? First, let’s define our terms. A work wife, or work husband for that matter, is someone who provides a completely harmless, entirely platonic relationship that helps keep you sane 40+ hours a week, while also providing for your many workplace needs,” which in Sokowski’s case, are CHEEZ-its and quarters for the pop machine.
Remember When Harry Met Sally? I bet they’d have something to say about this kind of relationship. Unlike Harry and Sally’s theory, however, I think it’s perfectly possible and reasonable for a male and female to work together on a regular basis without cultivating a romantic or inappropriate relationship. But not without the proper boundaries in place. And when you start even lightheartedly referring to your co-worker with a word loaded with connotations of commitment, romance, and intimacy, you have just blurred the boundaries, leaving nothing to keep you from walking straight into a minefield.
Sokowski’s language filled with absolutes like “completely” and “entirely” betrays his defensiveness. Even he knows that if you’re going to try to make an analogy between the deepest, most intimate of all human relationships and a strictly platonic professional partnership—you’re going to have to use a lot of disclaimers.
This analogy between a marriage relationship and a professional relationship undermines the exclusivity of the marriage covenant. Jesus said that a husband and wife “are no longer two but one,” (Matt. 19:5-6a) making marriage the most unique relationship two humans can have. It is a sacred relationship, held together by a covenant, and therefore it is a relationship that deserves protection! How can we protect our marriage, then?
In Malachi 2;15-16, God expresses his hatred of divorce, the breaking of the marriage covenant and the separation of the two that have become one, and then says (twice for emphasis), “So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.” Proverbs 4:23 also teaches this concept, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” It seems, then, that upholding the marriage covenant depends on guarding our hearts.
Whether you are in the workplace, neighborhood, church, or ministry, relational boundaries with people of the opposite sex need to be set in place to honor and protect your marriage. Boundaries are God’s limits placed on our lives for our benefit and protection, like guardrails on the side of the road or caution tape around toxic waste. They exist to keep good things in their proper place, and to keep us from straying out of bounds into dangerous situations. Boundaries equip us with concrete, practical ways to guard our hearts.
It seems to me that “guarding your heart” has two functions. First, it means to keep watch over yourself, to observe your behavior, thoughts, and feelings so you will know when you are being tempted to cross the line. If you find yourself lingering around the coffee pot at work hoping to bump into your attractive co-worker, or scouting out an old flame on Facebook, you know you’re not putting yourself in a good situation. If you’re hiding anything from your spouse, even something that seems like no big deal such as an email correspondence, be honest and get it out into the open. The best way to guard your heart is to know it through and through; learn to identify your weak spots and red flags so that you can’t deceive yourself into thinking no boundary is at risk.
Second, guarding your heart means protecting yourself. Go on the offense and choose your boundaries with your spouse before they even become an issue. Sit down and have a discussion with your husband or wife, and talk about what standards with people of the opposite sex will honor and protect your marriage. For example, the two of you may decide that you don’t want each other to be alone with a person of the opposite sex behind closed doors. Or maybe you decide to avoid confiding personal details, especially about your marriage, with members of the opposite sex, or to only dance with each other at weddings or social events. Whatever boundaries you choose, commit to them together out of respect for each other and for your marriage.
Your marriage is the most unique, earthly relationship you have. It bears the mystery of two becoming one, the commitment of loving each other more than you love yourself, and the reflection of God’s love in your relationship, and is designed to be exclusive and lifelong.
Having a “work spouse,” making a joke about your marriage vows, or hiding a text message from your spouse may not seem like a big deal at the time, but once you breach one line you are suddenly on a slippery slope. The boundaries are not there to confine or frustrate you; they are set in place for your benefit, to protect the most unique, earthly relationship you have with your spouse. Whatever appeals to you on the other side of that boundary line does not even compare to what you have in your marriage: the mystery of two becoming one, the commitment of loving each other more than you love yourself, and the reflection of God’s love in your care for each other.